Gage and Tollner, one of New York City's only interior and exterior landmarked restaurant spaces, may soon be returning to life as an eatery. Since the historic Downtown Brooklyn steakhouse at 372 Fulton St. closed in 2004, it has been a T.G.I. Friday's and an Arby's, but for the last four years, it's been a discount clothing and jewelry store — with much of its charm covered up by walls and clothing racks. It's a set-up that preservationists have balked at.
But the Jemal family, the newest landlord of the building, is ready to see the space showcased in its former glory again, says William Jemal. Downtown Brooklyn's construction boom means the space may finally be able to support a restaurant again, he says, and they want to see the history come back alive. "Fulton has become really really hot again," he says. "Now is the perfect time to get in a top restaurant or restaurateur."
The steakhouse first opened in 1879, and with a grandiose dining room filled with chandeliers, engraved walls, and a mahogany bar, Gage and Tollner became the first restaurant interior to be landmarked in 1975. It boasted regulars like Mae West and Jimmy Durante. For years, famed Southern chef Edna Lewis ran the kitchen. But after the city turned Fulton Street into a pedestrian mall in 1976, the space struggled to keep a restaurant, according to the Wall Street Journal. The area felt unsafe, and people preferred to be dropped off by car rather than walk.
By the time the Jemal family purchased it in 2004 for $2.8 million, it had been through three landlords. The 2012 Journal piece quoted a broker who said the rent could be $30,000-per-month, a rate that meant bigger companies like T.G.I. Friday's and Arby's ended up there. (An Arby's sign, which had to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is still on the outside of the building.) William Jemal declined to talk about the current asking rent prices, but the family is confident that the changes in Downtown Brooklyn mean the space can support fine dining once again, he says.
Jemal has been pitching to restaurants in the last month, "upscale, classic" places in the same line as Minetta Tavern or Peter Luger's, he says. "The current tenant has taken away from the history of the building," Jemal says. "We’re looking for a restaurateur or somebody who appreciates the fixtures, the wall, the floor, the existing bars, and has a vision to create something what the old Gage and Tollner was like." With all the new development happening in Downtown Brooklyn, both for residential and office, the street may finally be able to support such a place, he says, pointing to projects like City Point.
Attracting people has required some creative thinking. With all the most charming aspects of the dining room covered with jewelry, coats, and prom dresses, it can be difficult to recognize the potential. Jemal brings a virtual reality headset with him to showings, which shows renderings of the dining room as it once was. He points out the bar, currently used to display iPhone cases and a cash register, that could be transformed for restaurant use.
The family is also willing to talk to fast-casual restaurants in the vein of Sweetgreen, Jemal says, as long as they're ready to work with the history of the space. The Jemals are originally from Midwood, Brooklyn, and part of the purchase had to do with their appreciation for the borough's history, he says. They've only had "nibbles" of interest since they started pursuing businesses in the last month, Jemal says. But ultimately, they're committed to returning it to form. "We’re very passionate about Brooklyn and is culture," Jemal says. "We’re always looking to serve the community as best we possibly can."