Oysters and chops for 106 years

When Gage & Tollner opened its steak and seafood restaurant in Brooklyn in 1879, you took the Fulton Street Ferry from Manhattan to get there. The Brooklyn Bridge was opened four years later in '83. The Statue of Liberty came three years after that.

By 1931, when the Empire State Building was finished, second and third generations of Gage & Tollner regulars were tucking in their starched white dinner napkins for Maine lobster with melted butter, seafood chowders, and clams, steamers, or oysters on the half-shell.

It was no doubt one of the New York seafood restaurants and oyster houses that so impressed Charles Dickens on his visits to the United States. It was unpretentious, but the kind of place where all the notables dined. Leon Gaskill, headwaiter for 61 years, told of serving Lillian Russell, David Warfield, and Henry Ward Beecher.

Now celebrating its l06th year, the restaurant has changed surprisingly little over the years. In continuous operation at the same location, it is the only New York restaurant to receive landmark status both inside and out.

Handsome as the building is with its white-pillared portico and Victorian, gaslight-era atmosphere, it's the food that should be declared a historic landmark.

``The menu has changed very little,'' says Ed Dewey, whose father, Seth Bradford Dewey, bought the restaurant in 1919. He and his wife, Trudy, live in an apartment above the restaurant and spend most of their time there.

Mr. Dewey shares his late father's dedication to preserving the ambiance established by Charles M. Gage and Eugene Tollner. The staff, too, embodies the continuity of generations. Gold insignia on the waiters' jackets indicate that many have worked in the restaurant more than 10 years. A gold eagle stands for 25 years of service, a gold star for 5 years, and a gold bar for 1 year.

``There are certain things that have been fundamental all these years, and we still adhere to them,'' Ed Dewey says. ``We insist on freshness and top quality. All the seafood, meats, vegetables -- everything is cooked to order. Nothing is prepared ahead.

``We have no attempt at haute cuisine,'' he adds. ``We don't have chefs, only good cooks.''

The menu lists dishes you may have heard or read about from the days when an Oyster Celery Cream Broil was as common as Pasta Primavera.

There's Crabmeat Virginia, a platter of fresh crabmeat dotted with lemon-butter and baked until golden; Clams Casino and Oysters Rockefeller on beds of hot rock salt; Crabmeat Dewey; Lobster Thermidor and Lobster Maryland; Scallops Baltimore; and Soft Clams Chicago.

Twenty-five oyster dishes are listed on the menu. Scallops are served l8 different ways. There are 41 ``presentations'' of soft shell clams, not counting those on the half shell or in soups, bisques, and chowders.

A well-known specialty is the restaurant's Roast Soft Clam Bellies, or Soft Clam Belly Broil, a favorite Ed Dewey's father originated.

Another famous dish is Georgia Salad, a G&T version of cole slaw with finely chopped cabbage and a special dressing.

Gage & Tollner's is a steakhouse as well as a seafood restaurant; at one time it was called an oyster and chop house. You are shown your steak before it's broiled. French fries come with meats but regulars know better and order another specialty, Hash Brown Potatoes in Hot Cream.

The long, handsome dining room contains the the restaurant's original mahogany tables, cherry woodwork, and oak and marble bar. Between the tall pier mirrors hung on walls of burgundy velvet tapestry are coat hooks and prongs long enough to hold the top hats of the '90s. Brass chandeliers down the length of the room are equipped for both electricity and soft, flickering gaslights.

A must for the first-time diner at Gage & Tollner's is the Manhattan Style Fish Chowder. It is made from a basic fish stock with finely chopped vegetables and a small amount of tomatoes. The mild blend of spices is distinctive, but difficult to identify. I couldn't get the recipe.

The restaurant has never served the New England version of fish or clam chowder, which is made with milk and cream and flavored slightly with bits of salt pork and onion.

The restaurant serves delicious, old-fashioned desserts like Crumb Apple Pie, Lemon Mousse, Wade's Birthday Cake, and a famous crunchy, chewy pecan pie. Fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and other fruits are served in season.

``It was such a good menu to begin with,'' says Ed Dewey, ``it hasn't been necessary to change it much all these years.''

``But we make a few seasonal additions from time to time,'' Mrs. Dewey adds. ``And we've changed the size of some portions and made the menu a little shorter.

``I added a winter apple soup and a pumpkin soup last year,'' she explains. ``Right now we have a new cream of broccoli soup, and we'll probably have a fresh tomato soup in summer.''

Although the Deweys are hesitant to name any celebrities, Beverly Sills, Woody Allen, Shirley MacLaine, and others have appeared from time to time.

During the day judges, lawyers, and business people from nearby offices frequent the restaurant. At dinner customers range from neighborhood residents and well-established families to young people from the newly renovated brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and Cobble Hill.

The Deweys have added private function rooms upstairs, retaining the original mantels and window shutters. They've also planned special events throughout the year, including piano music on certain days, Saturday afternoon tea dances, summer picnics, and a harvest dinner for junior farmers of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

``When it comes to prices, we consider that Gage & Tollner has always been a moderately priced restaurant, and that's what it is today,'' Mr. Dewey says. ``The average check from the all-day menu is about $18.

``We respect our customers and do whatever we can to make them happy, whether they're new or regulars who have been coming every week for years.''

Gage & Tollner, 372 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Lunch: Monday-Friday. Dinner: Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. Reservations (212) 875-5181.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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