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How Balthazar Became the Quintessential New York City Restaurant

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The best lines from author Reggie Nadelson’s new book, ‘At Balthazar’

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Daniel Krieger/Eater NY

Balthazar, restaurateur Keith McNally’s French brasserie-style restaurant in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, turns 20 today. When it opened in 1997, it represented a changing tide in what had been an industrial, art-filled downtown Manhattan, and a shift in how and what New Yorkers wanted to eat. The stuffy fine-dining French restaurants were for the olds; everyone under 30 in the late ’90s and early aughts wanted to be at Balthazar, eating French onion soup, steak frites, and profiteroles filled with ice cream and topped, table-side, with hot chocolate sauce.

Though McNally had already opened a brasserie-style spot, the Odeon, before he opened Balthazar, and though he’s opened a few similar spaces since — including Cherche Midi, Schiller’s, and his newest, Augustine — it was Balthazar that reached the greatest swath of America in and outside of New York City in its first decade. It was listed in guidebooks, it was frequented by the famous and not famous, it shook up the neighborhood, it shook up New York. Itself a replica of a French brasserie (but bigger somehow, as if it had been imagined by an American in Paris), Balthazar spawned countless copies from D.C. to LA to Chicago to Dallas.

Author Reggie Nadelson chronicles the life and times of McNally’s greatest restaurant in her new book, At Balthazar: The New York Brasserie at the Center of the World, out now. Here, below, our favorite lines from the book.


The Je Ne Sais Quoi Factor

Chef David Chang: “It was always one of those rare places that couldn’t be anywhere else except New York.”

New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik: “There’s obviously elements of both New York and Paris, but it’s a Parisian style that’s been exploded outward and upward to become something entirely New York. There’s really no place like this in Paris, but it’s nonetheless an entirely Parisian place. That’s the paradox and fantasy of it.”

Nadelson, on how other chefs considered Balthazar: “Mario Batali was another of its fans. I’d even seen Anthony Bourdain quoted as saying he hated brunch as a rule, but he liked it at Balthazar, and Bourdain did not seem the kind of guy who said things just to be kind or to ingratiate himself.’”

Nadelson, recounting SNL’s Lorne Michaels seeing space before it was a restaurant: “Keith’s pal Lorne Michaels told me he had seen the place when it was pretty much still a wreck, just a ramshackle old warehouse with nothing much going for it. When the brown paper came down, when Balthazar opened, he was knocked out. It put him in mind of that George S. Kaufman line, he said. ‘If God had the money, this is how he would do it.’”


The Space

Nadelson, on the shifting atmosphere of Soho, which was slowly becoming a commercial center: “To some, Balthazar was the beginning of the end, the last straw. ‘When Balthazar opened, I just thought, What else can they do to us?’ said cartoonist Art Spiegelman, bemoaning the old days in the time-honored New York way in which change and nostalgia are permanent twins.”

Erin Wendt, Balthazar’s general manager and deputy director of the company, discussing Balthazar’s basement: “‘It’s big. It’s big down here. People are pretty surprised when I tell them this is a whole city block, that it runs underground from Broadway to Crosby Street.”


The Design

Nadelson, on how the design came together: “‘We didn’t know anything,’ Ian McPheely, the designer told me. ‘You’ve heard of a sketch on a napkin? That’s how we did Balthazar. Keith would bring in some little blurry photos of Paris and a sketch. I had never seen a brasserie.’”

“Legend was that the bar at Balthazar had come from a Wyoming auction house. That it was a hundred years old, had perhaps been taken from a saloon where Butch and Sundance (or Newman and Redford) drank... ‘It actually came from an old dive bar in Harlem that was closing down,’ Ian said... ‘It was completely rotted away, and when you picked it up it just fell apart... Keith found somebody in Paris who could cast a twenty-seven foot-long pewter top.’”

Nadelson, on why McNally boarded up one wall of windows in the restaurant: “In Balthazar, Keith wanted a restaurant that was a world to itself, where the real view was of the room and where you were cocooned in a seductive sanctuary, exported for a few hours to a different place where, as Ian McPheely, Balthazar’s designer said, ‘You could be anywhere, except you’re not, you’re at Balthazar.’”


The Service

Nadelson, on transferring the service rules from Odeon, McNally’s first restaurant, to Balthazar: “It was almost startling, that you could go someplace incredibly trendy and popular and be treated in a human sort of way and eat really good food, even while you were watching a scene so cool, so filled with truly famous people — John Belushi, Andy Warhol, Scorsese, Basquiat — it was like being a tourist at the end of the known world.”

Wendt, on how to treat guests: “Never will you have a snooty host. Never. A few who tried were gone in a hurry.”

Julia Mintz, a maitre d’ on greeting guests as they arrive: “‘There’s really only one rule: You never ask the customer if they have a reservation. It’s just against the ethos here, it’s so off-putting.’”

Nadelson on the demand for reservations: “In the beginning, the reservations system had been a problem. Balthazar opened and people got crazy and they called and were told there wasn’t a table for a month and some showed up anyway. It was pandemonium. ‘People lied to get in,’ said Judi Wong, who had helped open Balthazar. ‘People would call my personal number... we caught somebody saying they were the Red Hot Chili Peppers one night.’ … A private number was handed out to friends and to the famous… It was insane, and then the insanity grew because somebody — an assistant at Vogue, the way I remember it — published the number in the Post. The phone system went into overload and crashed. Four thousand reservations were lost.”


The Music

Nadelson, on how McNally relished acting as DJ: “It took him months of research and editing. He made a unique and incredible collection of reel-to-reel tapes that he could use at different times of day to subtly change the mood of the restaurant. It was a kind of art form that he used over and over... the modern equivalent of elevator Muzak.”

“Keith said the ideal music to segue from cocktail hour to dinner was ‘Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B Minor followed by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, followed by Herman’s Hermits’ ‘I’m Into Something Good.’”


The Clientele

An employee on serving Liza Minnelli: “‘I remember when we served Liza Minnelli Grand Marnier in a teapot... She was supposed to be on the wagon, and she didn’t want anyone to know, so we poured it in the teapot and she drank it from a teacup.’”

An employee on serving Donald Trump, before he became president: “‘It was a Saturday night,’ said Zouhier Louhaichy a maitre d’, “and I think he was dating his current wife, they were at a table for two and the people at the next table finished and he wanted their table, as well. I said I was sorry, but it was Saturday night and we just needed it, somebody else had a reservation. He said OK, because what else could he do?”

Nadelson writes of the time Chicago’s best basketball player walked in the door: “The night Michael Jordan came, when he was not just the greatest basketball player but the biggest sports star in the country... guests got on top of banquettes to look at him.”

Celebrities often show up unannounced, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go unnoticed, according to Nadelson: “The night Jack Nicholson was there, he got up from his table to go to the bathroom... Out of the blue, the entire restaurant broke into applause, and Nicholson smiled his devilish smile and turned and bowed.”


McNally

In trying to understand Balthazar’s creator Nadelson goes through McNally’s past: “Keith McNally [an Englishman] got to New York around 1975, just got on a plane and went — an illegal immigrant, he likes to add.”

On McNally’s reputation: “McNally has been a star for a long time, which carried with it all the usual baggage: from some, all you heard was how he allegedly punched a guy in a bar for poaching his staff; from others, that his generosity was profound, that Keith was a nice guy, just shy, just English or inscrutable.”

When asked what inspired him to put as much though into his bathrooms as into his sea bass entree, McNally responded, “That’s an unkind remark. I put far more thought into my bathrooms than into my loup de mer.”


The Food

On how Balthazar made French bistro food cool: “‘It took balls for Keith to put this kind of working-mans’ French food on the menu,’ writer, editor, and author Ruth Reichl told me on a wet day over lunch at Balthazar. ‘What Balthazar did was make that food hip. So people who wouldn’t be caught dead eating frisée aux lardons with their grandparents were suddenly eating it with their friends.’”

Nadelson, on hidden gems: “Emiko Chisholm, [a young baker] had once... piped little roses into the pastry cream for a tart, even though the fruit would hide it. It was hidden art, art like charity, like a present. When I mentioned it to [pastry chef] Mark [Tasker], he just smiled as if to imply that that was the point, that the rose would be a secret gift. It was about doing what you loved even if nobody saw it.”

Chef Eric Ripert, on how it’s his favorite NY restaurant: “The food is very consistent. I’ve been going there for so many years, I know a lot of the staff, and I feel almost like I’m home. I always have a good bottle of Bordeaux, crab legs, shrimps, oysters, and clams, and then the steak tartare, spicy, or steak frites. And I call the bakery to ask them to reserve some canelé for me.”


The Staff

Nadelson on the importance of every staff member: “It was the bussers like José Luis who made the restaurant run, kept it in shape, saw everything, knew it all, didn’t speak much.”

On Erin’s no-nonsense style of management Nadelson writes: “In one of the corridors, as we made our way to Erin’s office, she noticed a waiter whose shirt was rumpled. She looked at him an said, with a mix of consummate tact and maternal irritation: ‘Go iron your shirt. Give a shit.’”


The Future

The author admits having some fear about the restaurant’s future: “Occasionally I had the feeling... that one day Balthazar would be sold, and then it would be just an overpriced joint for tourists.”

General manager Wendt on Balthazar’s longevity: “What Keith made clear was that the people who were just off the boat from Winnetka, those are the people who are going to matter, so while you wanted to make sure Madonna was taken good care of, it’s one thing to be hot for six months, it’s another to be successful for a long time...”

All Balthazar Coverage [ENY]
Balthazar Served 1,003 People Last Friday Brunch, and More Crazy Numbers [ENY]

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