The last time Gage & Tollner was featured in this magazine, it had been open for fifty-two years. That was in 1931. The management at the time estimated that John Anderson, an oyster-fry cook who had recently died, shucked sixty-six million oysters in his forty-nine-year career—he was on staff when the place opened, in 1879. “Old customers are always coming in again after absences of years, and getting emotional at sight of the same ancient mahogany tables, deep with wax, the red Turkey carpet, the dim, mirrored walls,” the story said.
The Edna Lewis-inspired she-crab soup is finished tableside with a splash of sherry.
This nostalgia continued for another seven decades, until 2004, when Gage & Tollner, named for its original owners, finally went out of business. For a few years, the downtown-Brooklyn address was occupied by a TGI Fridays, followed by an Arby’s and a series of discount retailers. But a 1975 landmark designation meant that, though some of those tenants covered up the dim, mirrored walls, they remained intact. In 2019, Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider, the married couple behind the Good Fork, in Red Hook, and Insa, in Gowanus, along with St. John Frizell, of Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, restored them to their former glory, with a fresh plastering of William Morris wallpaper. In 2021, after some COVID-related setbacks, Gage & Tollner 2.0 débuted, and the nostalgia picked up where it left off. What’s a twenty-odd-year wait to go home again?
Compared to cuts of steak that are priced, steeply, by the ounce, the sixty-three-dollar veal chop, with roasted-shallot-porcini verjus, is a steal.
In William Styron’s 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” set in the forties, the narrator, Stingo, dines at Gage & Tollner “beneath gaslight on littleneck clams and crabmeat imperial.” A few weeks ago, I dined at Gage & Tollner on clams and crabmeat, under light that was as romantic as gas, if decidedly electric. Now as then, the restaurant is a chophouse, specializing in oysters and other shellfish on ice, wedge and Caesar salads, and various cuts of beef, with sides including creamed spinach and butter-roasted hash browns, which come in the form of an incredibly precise Hasselbacked rectangle of golden-edged potato. My crab was molded into a crisp, salty disk, airy without skimping on sweet meat, served with a tangle of frisée, a smear of lemon aioli, and a soft-boiled egg.
The list of classic cocktails features seven varieties of Martini, including a Perfect, left, and a Dirty, right.
The original place also offered items like fried chicken and cornmeal fritters, which is part of why, in 1988, the celebrated Black Southern chef Edna Lewis, then seventy-two, was brought in to polish things up. Now Kim, the chef, along with Adam Shepherd, has lovingly re-created those dishes while ushering in a new era by subtly incorporating flavors from her own Korean American heritage: my clams were “Kimsino,” with pats of bacon-kimchi butter bubbling beneath crispy bread crumbs.
That this is food begging for a Martini is borne out by the seven varieties on the comprehensive list of classic mixed drinks. (Frizzell is a historian of cocktails.) A server recommended the Perfect—gin with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, up with a twist—and indeed it was, whetting my appetite for butter-glossed Parker House rolls, for luscious, Edna Lewis-inspired she-crab soup, finished tableside with a splash of sherry, and for broiled meat. The T-bone sirloin and the bone-in rib eye are priced by the ounce; $4.55 looks like a bargain until you multiply it by twenty-four. A juicy sixty-three-dollar veal chop, topped with roasted-shallot-porcini verjus, is a steal by comparison.
It’s genuinely difficult to save room for dessert. One idea is to order nothing but; the pastry chef Caroline Schiff’s menu could sustain its own establishment. Start with a beguilingly creamy (yet dairy-free) scoop of roasted-pineapple sorbet, followed by a slice of coconut layer cake whose daintiness belies the zing of its lime curd and its cashew-pink-peppercorn brittle. Who needs steak when there’s a confection as metaphorically meaty as the Baked Alaska for Two? Torched whorls of Swiss meringue give way to fresh-mint, dark-chocolate, and Amarena-cherry ice creams, layered like archeological strata atop a bedrock of crumbled chocolate cookie, a record of the reimagined past. (Entrées $28-$64.) ♦