The Brooklyn restaurant of today is best associated with young people waiting in line to be served farm-to-table cuisine atop wooden tables — no tablecloths — in narrow spaces decorated with exposed brick. Because of Manhattan’s sky-high rent (though certain areas of Brooklyn aren’t too far behind), more space and lower prices in the borough attract talented chefs looking to experiment with less financial risk.
Newcomers to the area may think of Brooklyn’s food boom as a recent phenomenon, born of hipper-than-thou tastes and east-sweeping gentrification. But the borough boasts a proud and longstanding restaurant tradition, out of which today’s sit-down restaurant culture was born. Eateries such as Gage and Tollner and Schrafft’s in Downtown Brooklyn, Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay, Richard Yee’s in Homecrest, the Dubrow’s Cafeterias on Eastern Parkway and Kings Highway, and Gargiulo’s of Coney Island were institutions — in their day, as recognizable as Ebbets Field or the Navy Yard.
But even storied institutions disappear, remaining only as fading memories. Indeed, much like Ebbets Field and the Navy Yard today, these landmarks often bear just a trace of their former glory: a silhouette of an old sign, a façade now half-crumbled and ignored.
Junior’s Restaurant, now synonymous with cheesecake, is the latest casualty — sold off to developers who plan to build a luxury apartment tower on the site. While owner Alan Rosen insists that the company will return to 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, on the ground floor of the new tower, the original Junior’s will still be gone. Meanwhile, locals fear a future in which the only trace of the Brooklyn landmark is on the boxes purchased by tourists at its two locations in Midtown — or worse, by gamblers at the MGM Grand location at Foxwoods in Connecticut. Perhaps there will be a small commemorative plaque on DeKalb Avenue, as there is at the housing complex where Ebbets Field once stood.
Still, Junior’s, with its multiple locations and popular brand, is an exception. Most of Brooklyn’s restaurants of legend just disappeared. As the borough changed outside, they clung to what had worked in years past, surviving as much on the currency of their names as on what they offered to customers. Reputation, though, can’t sustain a business forever. Gage and Tollner ostensibly closed after Fulton Street was converted into a pedestrian mall, but in its twilight years, it was a shadow of its former self. Lundy’s, Schrafft’s, Richard Yee’s, and Dubrow’s Cafeteria never adapted to the shifting pace of city life. Patrons and their needs changed. The competition became fiercer, the market more saturated. When the original owners passed away and the original chefs and waiters trickled out, the restaurants languished, then closed.
Gargiulo’s still stands today. But it is not what it once was, and the time will come, perhaps not long from now, when it too will close it doors. How long can patrons be expected to fund a business based on nostalgia?
The birth of the New York restaurant scene coincides with the birth of the United States. In 1762, the Sons of Liberty gathered in what we’d now call Lower Manhattan at Fraunces Tavern, where proprietor Samuel Fraunces worked covertly to help the colonists’ cause, even when the British occupied the city. As legend has it, the tavern was also host to George Washington in the final days of the Revolutionary War in 1783.
But dining out as we know it — for a leisurely, sit-down meal at a full-service institution — was not popularized until 1827, when Delmonico’s, the first notable à la carte French eatery in New York, opened its doors at 23 William Street, in what is now the Financial District. In fact, as former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes explained in his book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, the word “restaurant” did not even enter common parlance until the mid-1800s, when going to the theater and dining out became a package deal. Eating was not previously associated with recreation. Time spent eating was time spent not making money.
But this French-inspired eatery helped change all that: “Delmonico’s brought a whiff of Paris into the crude, bustling streets of a city long on ambition but short on amenities,” Grimes wrote. By the 1830s, Delmonico’s was so successful that it expanded its restaurant into the building next door to accommodate all of its customers. The institution was able to imbue eating with a sense of foreign romance, a certain transporting je ne sais quoi that only diners could access. And everybody wanted in.
GAGE AND TOLLNER
By 1879, Charles M. Gage too wanted in on New York’s burgeoning restaurant business. But instead of looking to already successful areas in Manhattan, he set his eyes across the river in Brooklyn, soon to be connected to Manhattan Island by the rising Brooklyn Bridge.
Gage wanted his restaurant, at 302 Fulton Street, to be the finest dining establishment in all of New York. In 1880, he joined forces with Eugene Tollner, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the newly named Gage and Tollner at 372-374 Fulton Street (down the block from the original location) offered Brooklyn’s most lavish dining experience — the Delmonico’s of Brooklyn.
Patrons went to Gage and Tollner for the theatrics. At the same time every night, a waitstaff serving 150 gathered, torches in hand. On cue, incandescent light bulbs switched off and 36 magnificent gas lamps lit with flame. Milford Prewitt, a former writer and editor for Nation’s Restaurant News, described the restaurant as one of the most “romantic dining environments in the city, contributing to its ranking as one of the top restaurants for marriage proposals.” Or, as L.J. Davis wrote in an essay in the nostalgic anthology Brooklyn: A State of Mind, “You go to Gage’s (as many regulars call it) for the experience, the way you go to heaven for the climate and to hell for the company.”
The restaurant was nothing if not fancy. Photos of the space reveal a cavernous interior with mahogany paneling and tables, grandiose polished brass chandeliers, an embossed golden wall, and arched mirrors. The design was “inspired by Pullman dining cars of the Gilded age, right down to the gentle curve where walls meet ceiling,” wrote Ellen Williams and Steve Radlauer in The Historic Shops and Restaurants of New York: A Guide to Century-Old Establishments in the City. The space was so magnificent that its Victorian exterior was landmarked by New York City in 1974, its interior in 1975. (Though you wouldn’t know that from poking your head inside.)
The menu included such decadent offerings as fried oyster atop mushroom-fennel ragout, four kinds of Welsh rarebit (a dish involving hot cheese sauce poured over bread), Lobster Newburg, and filet mignon. The wine list was equally impressive, with more than 75 red wines, 40 whites, and 20 wines by the glass.
At its peak, Gage and Tollner’s lavish atmosphere attracted the rich and the notable. People like infamous Gilded Age entrepreneur James “Diamond Jim” Brady, opera star Lillian Russell, original Funny Girl Fanny Brice, and actress Mae West dined there. Other noteworthy patrons included preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick A. Schroeder, one of the last mayors of independent Brooklyn. To dine at Gage’s alongside these elite was an aspiration for striving Brooklynites, seeking a taste of Manhattan’s glitz and glamour on the near side of the East River.
But by the middle of the twentieth century, Gage’s was better known as a time capsule for the Gay Nineties than as a culinary experience in its own right. It was a landmark, a place to take pictures and remember what it might have been like to dine there in its heyday.
In 1988, a century after Gage’s first meal service, Manhattan restaurateur Peter Aschkenasy purchased the property and attempted to revamp it by bringing in famed chef Edna Lewis. Lewis’ cookbooks, such as The Taste of Country Cooking, helped make a name for Southern cuisine — and her addition of Charleston she-crab soup to Gage’s menu became an instant hit. But in 1995, the restaurant was flipped yet again, this time to Joseph Chirico, owner of Marco Polo Ristorante (later of mob fame). Marvin James, the chef tapped by Chirico to revive the restaurant once more, sought to make the space more accessible: “I know it has a long history as a destination restaurant, but I want to make the food become familiar, so that anyone shopping at Macy’s or even paying a fine at the courthouse can come right on in,” he told Prewitt.
Long-time patrons were displeased — but they were happier with Gage’s alive than dead. “I made my peace … I mused that some places transcend surgery. Even if the new Gage and Tollner looks a little bit like Eleanor Roosevelt in Speedos, I know my old classic is in there somewhere,” Jessica B. Harris wrote in the Village Voice in 1996. Following a city rezoning project in 2004, a real estate boom forced residents near Fulton Street Mall, Gage’s included, out of the area. What was once a place to see and be seen in Brooklyn — the first of its kind — had become just another decaying storefront along Fulton Street.
In its place opened a TGI Fridays, followed by an Arby’s — the former jewel of Brooklyn dining stuck serving Reel Big Fillets under a white sign emblazoned with a giant red cowboy hat. Today, a discount jewelry store occupies the space, with gaudy bubblegum-pink walls and imitation silver and gold hanging from racks adjacent to where ornate sconces and chandeliers once lived. (Chirico told the New York Post that he was “sick to his stomach” over the changes when he walked by.)
Could Gage’s get no rest in its afterlife? Though the landmarked physical structure still stands, the neighborhood has changed. Once-tony Fulton Street is now the Fulton Mall, a bustling shopping strip dotted with chain stores.
With all the pageantry and grandeur of Gage and Tollner but without the pretension, Lundy Brother’s Restaurant found a home for nearly 100 years on the waterfront in Sheepshead Bay. Diners at the restaurant got the royal treatment, their food carried overhead by wait staff from the kitchen, which was nearly a block away.
According to Prewitt, Lundy’s served over 1 million guests a year. The restaurant could seat 2,800 patrons at capacity; it was said to be the largest in the world. Lundy’s was the perfect spot for large groups, a special-occasion restaurant for when entire families needed to gather.
Customers came back time and again not only for the ambiance but also for the seafood caught across the street and run into the kitchen. They praised the huckleberry pie and the Shore Dinners, three alternative multicourse combo meals. In a 1998 conversation on NPR’s All Things Considered, interviewee Jeanne Cretella reminisced about meals at the restaurant, sounding as if she were almost salivating: “The biscuits are something that people remember so distinctly. We can walk through the dining room and spot someone who is back for the first time just by watching the way they pick up the biscuit, put it into their mouth, close their eyes.”
Well-to-do Manhattanites once spent their summers on Sheepshead Bay, and luxurious hotels like the Hamilton House (a former Henry James haunt) sprang up in droves. But the neighborhood declined steadily following the closure of the Brighton Beach Race Course in 1908, the Sheepshead Bay Race Track soon after in 1913, and the rise of the automobile throughout the 1920s and ’30s — so by the time Lundy’s opened its doors in 1934, much of the area’s affluence had disappeared. But the tradition of dining by the sea in South Brooklyn had not. In fact, the restaurant’s opening was part of an effort to revitalize the area, as local Robert Cornfield explained in Lundy’s: Reminiscences and Recipes from Brooklyn’s Legendary Restaurant. According to Cornfield, some patrons considered Lundy’s “the best reason to live in Brooklyn”; its story, he wrote, was one of “Brooklyn pride and character.”
Despite its size, Lundy’s was a place patrons felt was “their” restaurant: waiters and parking attendants remembered their names, and everybody knew somebody who knew the owner, Irving Lundy. A fascinating character in his own right, the restaurateur was often called the “Howard Hughes of Brooklyn”: born to a wealthy family of rumrunners, he built his successful restaurant empire before earning a reputation as a paranoid recluse as he entered old age.
For many first- and second-generation Americans, Cornfield wrote, Lundy’s fare “was distinctively American cuisine, and that distinctive American tone was what they sought when they moved to the newly developed ‘suburbs’ of eastern and southern Brooklyn.” First-generation immigrants lived in tenements — maybe on the Lower East Side or in Brownsville — while the second generation moved to the new suburbia in eastern or southern Brooklyn with the dream of moving out to Long Island one day.
Many local residents didn’t eat out at all; some recent immigrants couldn’t read menus and, even if they could, the dishes were far too expensive. But when they needed a place that sent a special message — for a date night, a Sunday family meal, or a graduation — Lundy’s was the go-to spot, “not what you had at home, not what you were used to, and another sign of the variety and possibility of American life,” Cornfield wrote. “You would get dressed up. It was the Radio City Music Hall of restaurants.”
Though a mass exodus of the middle class from the borough in the middle of the twentieth century put a strain on local industry, Lundy refused to shut down or even to alter the restaurant. Cornfield wrote, “The patrons were still there, but costs rose when the prices did not. He would not think of closing — where else would his loyal staff find other employment? He was their support, and he felt that his commitment to the community would not allow him to shut down, and then again, what would happen to the bay without Lundy’s?”
Lundy’s in its earliest incarnation died along with Irving Lundy, and the vast building closed until the mid-1990s, when Tam Restaurant Group, a husband-and-wife team specializing in restoring historic properties, intervened and reopened the beloved restaurant. It struggled under the new ownership and closed its doors in 2007. Amid rumors that Outback Steakhouse was interested in buying the space, by 2008, a gourmet market-cum-restaurant called Cherry Hill opened, only to be flooded out by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Now, part of the enormous building is home to a Turkish restaurant, perhaps a better fit for the Sheepshead Bay of today. But the rest is empty, a reminder of a time when the waterfront restaurant with the stucco exterior and generous portions offered a taste of glamour to the community it served.
Casual, cheaper restaurants once held their own in Brooklyn’s food ecosystem as well. Schrafft’s, for example, first opened in Syracuse, New York, and the chain grew rapidly across the tri-state area, with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Schrafft’s began with traveling candy salesman Frank G. Shattuck, who wanted casual, affordable, and high-quality fare on the road, instead of the greasy food so often available. So he opened Schrafft’s, a restaurant featuring popular items such as hot fudge and butterscotch sundaes, egg-salad sandwiches, and egg creams, all served amid wood paneling and chandeliers.
In 1915, Shattuck opened his first Brooklyn location at 912 Flatbush Avenue, across the street from Erasmus Hall High School. Joan Kanel Slomanson, author of When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s: Memories, Pictures, and Recipes from a Very Special Restaurant Empire, noted that the location was “a major social focus of a historic neighborhood” and a symbol of genteel elegance in the outer boroughs. Not to mention, there were several Schrafft’s candy factories in Brooklyn churning out their famous Wafer Thin Mints.
Unlike Gage and Tollner or Lundy’s, Schrafft’s had a more populist ambiance. The luncheonette gave busy New Yorkers a place to sit down with friends over a meal. It was cross between an upscale tearoom and a relaxed soda fountain, where women could dine economically and comfortably without their husbands.
While Manhattan locations were satirized in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” for their matronly clientele, the Brooklyn location was a favorite spot for mother-daughter pairs looking for lunch, women of modest means gathering for an affordable night out, or simply those who wanted to read the paper over eggs and a cup of coffee.
But as women’s roles began to change in the 1960s, and both men and women had less time for leisurely breakfasts, lunches, and desserts in the fast-paced city, Schrafft’s faltered. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink also cited “declining sales, the burgeoning health food movement, increased costs of ingredients, outdated machinery in the factory, and the seasonal nature of the candy business” to blame for decreasing sales in the 1970s and the chain’s eventual demise in the mid-1980s.
Andy Warhol blamed the restaurant’s attempts to adapt, rather than changing cultural tides, for its demise: “Schrafft’s restaurants were the beauties of their day, and then they tried to keep up with the times and they modified and modified until they lost all their charm,” he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. “But if they could just have kept their same look and style, and held on through the lean years when they weren’t in style, today they’d be the best thing around.”
But nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills.
A similar fate befell Dubrow’s Cafeteria, a revered counter-service cafeteria and Jewish dairy restaurant that served luncheonette dishes such as steamed bread pudding alongside sandwiches, salads, and fish after its opening in 1929. At its peak, the chain had multiple locations in Brooklyn, as well as one in Manhattan and one in Miami Beach.
The location at Kings Highway and 16th Street functioned as a sort of community center. John F. Kennedy campaigned there and Sandy Koufax staged press conferences. Community board votes and town halls took place outside of Dubrow’s, the Art Deco neon signage a landmark for citizen gatherings. Dubrow’s acted as an extension of its patrons’ living rooms, a place where they could congregate and chat for hours without the expectation of spending too much money.
But over the decades, appetites for a truly no-frills cafeteria like Dubrow’s waned. Writing in 1985 in New York Joanne Gruber mourned its demise, calling it a “horse and buggy in a world of automobiles.” Patrons wanted something flashier.
At the time, Chinese restaurant Richard Yee’s was delivering just that. The Yee family emigrated from China’s Guangdong province and arrived in the United States, settling in Brooklyn’s second Chinatown off the Q train at Avenue U. Harley Spiller, writing in the anthology Gastropolis: Food and New York City, described how, after working for a number of years as the chef and then the manager of Manhattan Chinese eatery Ding Ho, Joe Yee opened his own eponymous restaurant at 650 Flatbush Avenue. And when Joe’s son Richard came of age, he began taking over the day-to-day operations, soon changing the name on the restaurant to his own — though he still used Joe’s picture on its promotional matchbooks. By 1967, Richard was successful enough to move the restaurant to a bigger space on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay.
Joe Yee prided himself on the personal touch of the restaurant, providing taste tests or bringing raw steaks tableside to point out the meat’s marbling before preparing it to eat. Occasionally, Spiller wrote, Yee served some Italian food to ensure that even his least adventurous customers left happy. Meanwhile, dishes such as the “’56 model” were given American-inspired names to ease patrons into the first bite.
In a 1956 New York Post article, Martin Burden raved about visiting Yee’s: “Part Cantonese, part Mandarin, and part Yee … Wave away the menu and let Joe take care of you.” According to Burden, the “’56 model” featured “winter melon ding ($3.35) on a big platter heaped with cellophane noodles, chicken, chicken liver, lobster, shrimp, roast pork, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and winter melon.” Once customers bit in, they loved Yee’s food, especially the crabmeat balls. Some would even request extras to take home and freeze for later.
Spiller explained that the excesses at Yee’s were typical of postwar life in New York; the prosperity of the postwar years helped balance out the horrors and rationing of wartime. Dishes were over the top. Simple wonton soup became “Hong shu wor wonton,” including multiple meats, lobster, and shrimp along with several different kinds of vegetables — the more expensive ingredients piled in, the better. If patrons were leaving home to eat, they expected dining out to be a full-service experience, occupying the whole night with entertainment.
By the late 1960s, Richard Yee’s had customers waiting for one of its 170 seats to free up. In keeping with the style of upscale Chinese restaurants in that era, the Richard Yee’s experience was extremely theatrical. It also included a range of distinctly non-Chinese elements, including flaming cocktails, tiki-hut décor, and a “Polynesian Room.” The bar-lounge in the restaurant remained open into the night, providing a home to those returning from horse races, or those who simply wanted a swanky drink.
Beyond the food and atmosphere, Yee’s was a place that disseminated Chinese culture in measured doses to those with little access. And, while Yee catered to his predominantly non-Chinese customers, he also enabled those in the growing Chinese community to share in his good fortune. According to Spiller, he even sponsored several immigrant families.
But as more Chinese restaurants opened throughout the city, the restaurant lost its reputation as a place for a special night out. When it finally closed its doors for good in 2007, it was the oldest Chinese restaurant in the borough.
While other local institutions have closed, the doors to Gargiulo’s Restaurant, a Coney Island staple that has been serving Southern Italian red-sauce fare since the start of the twentieth century, remain open.
Coney Island, long a place of whimsy and escapism for visitors, has experienced several periods of rise, decline, and revitalization in its history. The area was built up in the late 1800s by developers looking to make Coney Island a luxury beachfront destination. With its shoreside location and easy access to transportation, it was a perfect location for exclusive hoteliers seeking to appeal to the elite of Civil-war society. But as Williams and Radlauer wrote, by the 1890s, office clerks, shop girls, and factory workers flocked to the area on 25-cent steamships, and with this new clientele, Coney Island became “a gaudy, glitzy, raucous pleasure precinct known throughout the world” by 1900.
Around this time, permanent residents also began populating Coney Island for the first time. Among these residents was the Gargiulo family, recent émigrés from Sorrento, Italy, who opened a restaurant on Coney in 1907.
Gargiulo’s, located at West 15th Street and Mermaid Avenue since 1928, still offers what some once considered the best home-style Neapolitan cooking in the entire city. The large menu features Southern Italian classics: baked clams, fried calamari, pastas and risottos offered in full or half portions, and entrees like shrimp scampi and veal scalloppine, as noted by Kris Ensminger in a New York Times brief in 2006. In fact, Gargiulo’s was among the restaurants leading the charge in making these dishes expected favorites among New Yorkers seeking Italian food. And when it comes to presentation, waiters dish up arugula salads with two nested spoons, preserving the food traditions of resorts in Sorrento — and stitching them into the fabric of New York Italian food culture.
“I remember seeing things for the first time there, like live lobsters presented tableside for inspection and approval of the guest before invariably becoming fra diavolo,” Mario Carbone told the Times in 2012. Carbone, along with his business partners Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick, owns and runs the restaurant empire that now gussies up these Italian classics at contemporary hotspots like Torrisi, Parm, and namesake restaurant Carbone. Growing up, Gargiulo’s was part of his family’s rotation of special-occasion restaurants. It also served as a community gathering place, where families and friends could gather, eat, and chat — even play tombola for a shot at a free meal.
Though the cuisine at Gargiulo’s was classic Italian, the varied clientele was part of the restaurant’s charm. Mimi Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for the Times, noted in a 1998 article Fred Trump, father of Donald, along with local politicians and businessmen talking shop over weekday lunch. Some claim that Al Capone, who grew up on Garfield Place in Park Slope, took his first job as a busboy at Gargiulo’s.
“Nathan’s is Coney Island. So is Gargiulo’s. It is not a small thing to become the banquet hall that Italian American families flock to even when their nonnas can cook Sunday gravy at home,” Michael Lomonaco, Bensonhurst native and executive chef at Porter House New York, told the Times in the same 2012 article. “It had better be really good if it was going to beat Grandma’s cooking.”
In the 1930s, Coney Island was battered by the Great Depression. Gargiulo’s barely held on. In the ’40s and ’50s, the area’s beaches declined in popularity and several of amusement parks closed. Some blame the rise of air conditioners, which offered relief on the hottest days of summer, and automobiles, which enabled patrons to drive out to the more scenic and less crowded beaches of Long Island. Towering public housing projects went up, pushed through by Robert Moses, who saw economically depressed and farflung Coney as an ideal location for concentrating the city’s poorest. In 1965, in the midst of this economic turmoil, the Gargiulo family sold their restaurant.
By 1984, Marian Burros, writing in the New York Times, offered a scathing review of the Gargiulo’s, “The happy boisterous atmosphere combined with old-fashioned Italian service and hearty Neapolitan fare, so lovingly prepared, were New York treasures. But now only the contagious atmosphere and old-fashioned waiters remain. The food at Gargiulo’s is no longer worth the trip.”
That was 30 years ago. Somehow, the restaurant has endured. It’s gone through several incarnations, and it closed temporarily after Hurricane Sandy, but it’s still there, for now.
All of these restaurants are remembered fondly, symbols of the “good old days.” But nostalgia and myopia go hand in hand. An influx of Chinese immigrants, who brought their culture and their food to the borough, made a place like Richard Yee’s one of many, its offering of the “exotic” experience obsolete. The loss of the restaurant may be something to mourn; the addition of new community, though, is something to celebrate. The mass entry of women into the workplace may have torpedoed the business model of Schrafft’s, but we certainly wouldn’t go back.
Restaurants like Gage and Tollner and Lundy’s are remembered for their grandeur, but only by those to whom the restaurant intended to appeal. For decades, both restaurants employed exclusively black waiters, serving a wealthy or striving white clientele. At Schrafft’s, where only white women were employed; black patrons were often ignored. Accounts describe wait staff — including many young women fresh from Ireland — refusing to serve any non-white patrons who tried to dine there. And in the Schrafft’s kitchen, Shattuck aspired to what he called “wholesome American cooking.” In a letter to the Syracuse Journal in 1939, he wrote that the vision for Schrafft’s is “food at its finest … prepared in spic-and-span kitchens … in home portions … from American recipes.” In short: no “ethnic” dishes on the menus.
To make note of this is not to diminish the significance of these restaurants. But it’s important to recognize how, in looking backwards, we often gloss over unpleasant details.
Is there a way to preserve something of the institutions we love, while accepting a changing culture and a changing borough?
Artist Richard Serra once said of his gargantuan sheet metal structures that to remove the work is to destroy the work. Perhaps the same can be said for a restaurant removed from what once made it beloved — its role as a gathering place, its regulars, a kitchen that can turn out good food. Gargiulo’s may still feed revelers on Coney Island, but we can’t preserve what it meant to its patrons in its glory days. Gage and Tollner officially closed ten years ago, but the place really disappeared decades ago, when the words “Gage and Tollner” ceased to mean anything at all.