This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.
Today’s iteration of Gage & Tollner may just be the single greatest gift any divorce proceeding has given to American dining.
The story goes that St. John Frizell, one-third of the restaurant’s trio of co-owners, would regularly visit Downtown Brooklyn’s Supreme Court during a split from his partner. Every time he exited the building, Frizell lamented the lack of options where one could enjoy a much-needed drink after such dealings. And so began a search to rectify the situation for good, along with wife-and-husband team Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider.
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That search ultimately led the trio to 372 Fulton Street and the historic site of Gage & Tollner. Between 1879 and 2004, the space had served as everything from an oyster house and chop shop to a TGI Friday’s and Arby’s chain. The group signed its lease in 2018, but extensive renovations and restorations, and the not insignificant matter of a global pandemic, meant the world would have to wait until April 2021 for one of New York’s most anticipated restaurant reopenings.
“Gage & Tollner survived two world wars and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918,” says Kim. “There was no question that we would make it out of this one.”
While Schneider spearheaded the mammoth restoration work, Frizell heads up the beverage program, and Kim takes charge on food, all three are united in the aim of honoring and preserving Gage & Tollner’s past.
“[We] are not just food, beverage, hospitality nerds but history buffs as well,” Kim says. “We all understood the significance of Gage & Tollner, not just in the context of Brooklyn culinary history but of the world.”
The historical renovations are the first thing guests notice when entering today’s G & T, transported into the magical kingdom of meat, seafood, and Martinis via a precisely restored revolving wooden door. Eyes then fleet from polished brass chandeliers to cherry wood arches — features that surely wouldn’t have survived to this day were it not for the protection of having interior landmark status.
Frizell’s beverage program begins with a generous list of classic cocktails. All seven of the Martini’s deadly sins are represented, from a Dirty Vodka version to the cocktail onion–carrying Gibson. The Perfect Martini is of particular note — the first half of its name alluding to the use of both sweet and dry vermouth. Too often the sweet proportion overwhelms such iterations, but not here. If anything, Gage’s Martinis are too good. Taste one and you’ll want at least one more; meaning you’ll have to make a return visit just to experience the magic Gage’s bartenders cast over other drinks, like the Rob Roy or Sazerac.
If the cocktails don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, the food shows signs of its more modern Brooklyn surroundings. Fried chicken — all dark meat — arrives with kale and kimchi slaw. Classic Clams Casino is reinterpreted as Clams Kimsino, via another addition of kimchi, this time melded with bacon butter.
But at its core, Gage & Tollner remains a classic chop house with a raw bar, serving exemplary seafood platters, salads, and the finest cuts of steak, veal, and pork. It would take at least 10 visits to fully appreciate how and which of these classic dishes have received the kitchen team’s subtly playful additions — and that’s going to cost you, for Gage’s menu is undeniably pricey.
This isn’t a criticism, and there are wonderful, economical options to be found. It’s simply recognition that, while all meaningless pomp and pretense have been stripped away from the genial service at Gage & Tollner, this restaurant will remain a special-occasion visit for most diners. Here’s hoping you have lots to celebrate this year.
The wine list offers numerous alleyways for savings without an ounce of compromise on quality. Gage’s is not a selection weighted down by scores of blue-chip Napa Cabs or library vintages of first-growth Bordeaux. And should you opt for, say, the charming, rustic Portuguese white blend that flies closer to the top of the list, sommelier Étienne Guérin will be the first to tell you what an excellent choice you’ve made. And his word — that sentiment — feels every bit as genuine as the revolving door through which you hope not to leave anytime soon.
At the end of the night, many will be tempted to finish with pastry chef Caroline Schiff’s Baked Alaska, a dish that is fast becoming every bit the Instagram sensation as Gage’s iconic decor. Opt instead for the Chèvre Cheesecake and you’ll encounter a dish that captures the very essence of what makes Gage & Tollner so exceptional.
From the first savory sip of Martini to the last tangy bite of creamy goat cheese dessert, somewhere in the back of your mind you might be tempted to think these are creations you could pull off at home. The drinks and food are familiar; prepared, one assumes, without the gadgetry and molecular ingredients that commonly feature in “fine” dining. But the execution — the manner in which each component is so elegantly elevated — goes so far beyond the capabilities of most restaurant professionals.
That Gage & Tollner would make its triumphant return after the pandemic therefore feels fitting. The Covid months and years brought about a yearning for familiarity and nostalgia. At the same time, we collectively mourned the loss of the sacred “third space.” Gage & Tollner excels by providing both.
“We’ve always wanted our diners to feel welcome, special, and be dazzled by not just the historic room but of the food, wine, beverage, and hospitality that we offer,” Kim says.