Edna & Peter: 1988-1995
In 1988, the Dewey family sold Gage & Tollner to Peter Aschkenasy, an established New York City restaurateur and political power broker. In 1966, Aschkenasy fell in love with the restaurant business when he was the deputy parks commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay and helped create the Fountain Café in Central Park. He was especially drawn to restaurants of historic importance; in addition to Gage & Tollner, he has been a partner or part-owner of Gallagher's Steak House (founded 1927), the Rainbow Room (1934), and the opulent German restaurant Luchow's (1882).
Aschkenasy tapped Edna Lewis to be Gage & Tollner's new chef. There's not room here to tell the story of this fascinating woman, whose contributions to American cookery can hardly be overstated; the article "Edna Lewis and the Black Roots of American Cooking" by Francis Lam is a good place to start.
Under her direction, Gage & Tollner completely changed its menu for the first time more than 100 years. Gone were the 25 preparations for oysters and the four variations on Welsh rabbit; in their place were Charleston she-crab soup, spoon bread, and rhubarb pie. Some classics remained on the menu; the Daily News reported that Peter Aschkenasy himself went to the old Fulton Fish Market every morning, pre-dawn, to get G&T's signature "clam bellies," while Edna hit the Union Square market for produce.
"Everyone who enters the time capsule setting of Gage & Tollner falls in love with the place and roots for its survival. Fortunately, the new team caring for it makes that a good possibility," wrote Bryan Miller in the New York Times. Unfortunately, the possibility wasn't good enough. The glowing reviews of Gage & Tollner's reboot couldn't help but note that Brooklyn's Downtown was "down-at-the-heels" and "dispiritingly tacky."
When Peter Aschkenasy reopened Luchow's in 1979, Crain's reported that he "thought 14th St. and Union Square were coming back; he was premature." Luchow's moved uptown in 1982. At Gage & Tollner on Brooklyn's Fulton Street, Aschkenasy was premature again.