Joe Chirico: 1995–2004
In 1988, Peter Aschkenasy sold the business and the building at 374 Fulton Street to Joe Chirico, a charismatic Italian restaurateur. A native of southern Italy, Joe moved to Brooklyn as a child and was washing dishes by age 16. He opened a string of restaurants, culminating in the Carroll Gardens stalwart Marco Polo, which brought "authentic, traditional Italian fare to Court Street." The sale of Gage & Tollner to Chirico was allegedly brokered by Howard Golden, then Brooklyn Borough President.
Chirico is credited with modernizing the kitchen and infrastructure of the building, as well as giving the interior a needed facelift, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "The famous gaslights, the mahogany tables, the cherrywood trims, the mirrored walls and the Lincrusta-Walton wall coverings have all been restored at a cost of $500,000," reported the Daily News.
Critic Ruth Reichl visited in 1996. She reported:
"It's busier than I ever remember," crowed Wade Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair, who has been a service captain at Gage & Tollner for over 25 years, had stopped by our table to see if we needed anything. "Look at this crowd!" he exulted.
It was quite a crowd; every table at the gorgeous old restaurant was taken.
In addition to staff like Wade Sinclair, Chirico kept the waiters' uniforms, with their military-like insignia, and a few menu items for which Gage & Tollner was best known, like Crabmeat Virginia, Clam Bellies, and Lobster Newburg. But the restaurant continued to struggle. Chirico blamed the location: "at the center of everything and near nothing," one Park Slope customer said. Further, the Fulton Mall was closed to regular traffic, and Chirico felt his customers wanted to be dropped of at the restaurant's front door.
In 2003, the New York Times reported a 2001 incident in which the actor Steven Segal was taken to a "back room" of Gage & Tollner by associates of the Gambino crime family, where they attempted "an old-fashioned mob shakedown." The unfortunate event was the last time that Gage & Tollner would make headlines before it closed on Valentine's Day, 2004. Joseph Jemal, a prominent New York real-estate developer with ties to Downtown Brooklyn, made an offer to buy the building and Chirico accepted, with plans to open Gage & Tollner in a different location.
A few weeks after Gage & Tollner closed, maître d' Wade Sinclair sent a handwritten note from Brooklyn to his old bosses, Mr. and Mrs. Dewey, now in their 80s and retired in Virginia. "2/14 was the last day 'Gage' was open... Joe said he hung in there as long as he could. I hear there's going to be a Friday's restaurant there. Joe said he will open a new Gage in the future. I don't believe it. I had lunch with [longtime server] Jimmy Davis today at the senior citizen club...I miss the Xmas parties we had at 'Gage.' Jimmy and I were taking about it..."