"Soho hadn't really moved across Broadway. There were still factories and vegetable warehouses and hookers, and suddenly all the limos pulled up, and that was that."
That's Reggie Nadelson, author of At Balthazar, talking, of course, about the instant success of Balthazar, Keith McNally's Soho brasserie—where Nadelson was a breakfast regular since the beginning—that opened 20 years ago this month.
In honor of the anniversary and Nadelson's new book, which celebrates the restaurant's lasting appeal, we're going inside to explore what, after all these years and in a city where the restaurants come and go like the seasons, makes Balthazar, one of New York City's most iconic restaurants, the "brasserie at the center of the world."
When Balthazar opened in April of 1997, it drew throngs to Soho before the neighborhood was a destination. "It was a really nasty block," Nadelson recalls.
"People just wanted to be there," Kate Edwards, a former maître d' who started as a cocktail waitress two weeks after opening day, says. "There was just this excitement and happiness to be in this place that was so highly anticipated."
McNally knew just what the city wanted at a time when it was all about excess, when New Yorkers were willing to shell out for a good experience in addition to just good food. He channeled a Parisian brasserie, and at the same time, created his own special world. Which much to everyone's dismay included boarding up the eastern-facing windows of the restaurant, designer Ian McPheely tells Nadelson. "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," Nadelson writes.
New Yorkers instantly felt at home there. "Even though it's a French restaurant, it still feels like New York," says Ken Oringer, who, as a nominee for this year's James Beard Award for Best Restaurateur, knows firsthand what makes a truly great restaurant. "Anywhere else it wouldn't have the same street edge, grittiness and feel that's been there forever. Anywhere else wouldn't quite have that magic."
Onion soup & frites | Photo: Michael Grimm
And that magic is what gives this storied established such staying power.
"It could last 100 years, because it's so rooted in its place," Oringer says.
As longtime NYC resident and executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation Mitchell Davis recalls, "There was an immediate timelessness to the place. The details of the design, the smoky ceiling tiles, the vintage urinals—it was a work of theater, and it worked. It opened well aged and only got better."
To only get better in a city like New York, where even the best of restaurants have trouble keeping up with the insatiable appetite and unforgiving costs of the city, is no small feat. To do so on the scale of Balthazar, which is open every day, most of the time from 7:30 a.m. until midnight, is extraordinary. On a busy day, Balthazar does 1,200 covers over the course of lunch and dinner, and a busy morning means 700 tables at breakfast, chef Shane McBride says. That also means going through some 700 eggs in a single brunch shift and 300 to 450 pounds of potatoes to meet the daily demand for the most popular item on the menu, the steak frites.
And it doesn't stop at the food. "We always have at least 442 pieces of each silverware piece in rotation on one shift," general manager Erin Wendt says. Speaking about the white table paper you may never have even noticed, Wendt explains, "We go through a minimum of 1,104 pieces of table paper a day that we fly in from France three times a year."
This dedication to detail, despite the restaurant's incredible volume, is what keeps people coming back year after year.
"What I've always marveled at is the level of consistency," notes Edwards, who has since started her own hospitality consulting firm and written a book on the subject, much inspired by her time working under McNally. "When you leave and come back, you can't help but notice how things haven't changed."
Whether diners go for the caramelized banana ricotta tart or the eggs Benedict, they know they can expect the same dish they had the first time they walked through those heavy doors.
Escargots in garlic butter | Photo: Michael Grimm
There's something else they can expect, too.
When Edwards left Balthazar for Per Se around 2004, she was immediately struck by the level of formality. At Balthazar, "it felt like family," she says. On Spring Street, she was on a first-name basis with all the regulars, but uptown it was "Mr. and Mrs." That, too, was by design.
According to Edwards, "Keith's line was, 'Just be decent to people.' He wanted us to show people a great time"—especially those not expecting the red-carpet treatment. Whether you are a celebrity or not, McNally wants you to feel special.
"They're a restaurant for everybody," Oringer says.
In Nadelson's time as a regular, she recounts table-hopping and watching even strangers talk to one another. She knew waiters' life stories, and they knew hers.
So more than the sense of fantasy McNally brings diners—the one that welcomes you into an NYC-Paris hybrid as you step through the front vestibule—he makes you feel like you're part of the club once you get inside. That you have always belonged.
"It's one of those places that transports you," Edwards says. "You're in a place unlike any other."