Apart from closing for repairs several years ago and a few days after 9/11, Balthazar has been open every day for the last 23 years. And then—COVID hit.
Six other restaurants of mine have shut their doors due to the pandemic, but none affected me as much as Balthazar’s closing. The idea of a large, bustling restaurant such as Balthazar struggling for life is like watching an experienced swimmer drowning. I can’t stomach it and prefer to remember my restaurant as it was when it opened 23 years ago.
Locals at the Balthazar bar.
Photograph by Alex Lau.
I first saw the Balthazar space one early Sunday morning in 1995. It was a run-down leather warehouse called Aadar Leather. At the time, I was building a vodka bar two blocks away and had passed this worn-out storefront every day for nine months without noticing it. That changed when I spotted a handwritten “For Rent” sign on its shabby door.
Aadar Leather was a 12,000-square-foot space on two floors that, from what I could see through its unwashed windows, was packed with strips of leather. The store was so down-at-heel that it gave the impression of needing its half million leather strips to patch together its declining business. I was struck by the corner location and storefront that seemed to stretch all the way to Harlem. I immediately saw its vast potential as a restaurant, and I jotted down the phone number into my small Filofax.
The next day I called the landlord, and a month later I signed a 15-year lease. As with all of my restaurants, my eagerness for the space died the second I signed the lease. Overnight its location, one block from SoHo, felt like another borough, and the number of squealing rats on Crosby Street seemed to increase drastically the day after I signed for the space. Overall it now felt like a god-awful location.
The owner at the entrance to his opus.
Courtesy of Keith McNally.
A seafood spread at a benefit honoring Donna Karan and Andy Cohen in 2009.
Left, by Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images; right, by Ron Haviv/VII/Redux.
I had come up with the notion for Balthazar three years earlier while living in Paris. Like most of the few good ideas I’ve had, this one came about accidentally. I was searching for antique curtains in Clignancourt’s flea market when I stumbled across a photograph of a huge Edwardian bar. Behind the bar were shelves stacked 20 feet high with a magnificent display of liquor bottles. These bottles were flanked on either side by two towering statues of seminaked women in a classically Greek style. I was so impressed that I said to hell with the antique curtains and bought this battered photo instead.
I carried the sepia-tinged image with me for the next three years, thinking that if I found a space with a sky-high ceiling, I’d build such a bar. Stepping into the tannery, I found that ceiling.
Construction of Balthazar began in January 1996. The $2 million required to build the restaurant was provided by my new investor, Dick Robinson, the CEO of Scholastic Press. Once I took possession of the space, my first decision was to block out two huge windows on the building’s side street. For most restaurateurs, dining room windows are sacrosanct, but when you like breaking rules as much as I do, you tend not to give a toss about convention. Anyway, I believe that restaurants, like plays and films, work best when they create their own world. Being exposed to the outside world while dining is like hearing the doorbell during sex.
Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise exit the SoHo restaurant in 2008; Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and director David Fincher at the after-party for the premiere of The Game in 1997; Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne at a book party in 1997.
From left, by Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic, by Mary Hilliard, by Kelly Jordan/ZUMA Wire.
Isabella Rossellini speaks with Madonna at a 1997 party.
By Richard Corkery/NY Daily New Archive/Getty Images.
My codesigner, Ian McPheely, and I stared at my photo of the colossal Parisian bar, wondering where the bar should go—assuming, that is, we could build it. It took us two weeks to work out its location, but once we did, the rest of the floor plan fell quickly into place.
Bars, and the customers they attract, give tremendous life to a restaurant, and where they are positioned is vital to their success. Ideally, a bar should have a strong identity separate from the dining room but be seen—or sensed—from all corners.
Ian also acted as general contractor. We never used architects’ plans when building Balthazar. As ideas came, we simply scribbled crude drawings on whichever bits of paper were within reach. Whatever I might have saved on an architect’s fees, I spent more on fixing my endless mistakes. But the formidable seminaked female statues were another matter. Google had yet to be invented. Neither Ian nor I had any idea where we could find such vast statues, known as caryatids, or whether they could be found at all.
Ian eventually suggested the two six-foot statues be carved by a classically trained sculptor friend of his, Brandt Junceau, whose only question was a discomforting one: Did I know a woman with a voluptuous body and firm breasts like those in the photo who was willing to model for him? (Classically trained sculptors have all the fun.) What I did next I would never risk in these ardently prudish times, but I asked two waitresses from my vodka bar, Pravda, if they would like to model topless for the sculptor. Without batting an eyelid, they both agreed. The faces, bodies, and breasts of the statues are a mix of the two waitresses. Which parts are from which woman only the classically trained sculptor knows.
Keith McNally with chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson the week of the restaurant’s opening in April 1997.
By Courtney Winston.
While building Balthazar, I would occasionally have lunch at a restaurant called Jerry’s on Prince Street. In the ’90s, Jerry’s was terrifically popular with New York’s art crowd. One time, eating alone, I was approached by Jerry himself and given his unsolicited wisdom on Balthazar’s chances of success: “You’re gonna do 200 covers at lunch, but you’ll struggle at dinner, because no one goes there at night,” he prophesied.
Only someone brazen enough to call a restaurant after himself would presume to say such a thing. I’ve often been wrong about the success of other people’s restaurants, but I’ve never had the gall to offer my opinion to the owner’s face. In hindsight, however, I would much rather someone say this to my face, like Jerry did to me, than say it, as most restaurateurs do—myself included—behind the owner’s back.
Being exposed to the outside world while dining is like hearing the doorbell during sex.
The only thing the chefs and I disagreed on was whether to put a hamburger on the menu.
Nine months into construction, I still didn’t have a chef. In 1997, restaurateurs found their chefs through word of mouth. Three months before opening, a good friend of mine, Pippa Cohen, told me of a reportedly brilliant chef: Riad Nasr.
When I first met Nasr, he was working at the prestigious four-star restaurant Daniel. I thought Nasr seemed suspicious of me, but I always feel that with people I admire. And I admired Nasr from the get-go. Like good craftsmen, the chefs I respect most are those uninterested in the celebrity aspect of the job. That was how Riad came across. Before the meeting ended, he suggested doing a “tasting” for me the following week.
This is a photo that inspired the bar at Balthazar, carried around in McNally’s back pocket for years.
Courtesy of Ian McPheely, Paisley Design.
Nasr’s food was incredible, and I immediately offered him the job. He agreed but a week later sheepishly told me he “came with” another sous-chef from Daniel, his working partner, Lee Hanson. I was shocked, as this now meant I had to pay two salaries. Hanson’s food was as good as Nasr’s. I agreed to take him on but half wondered if, in the next few weeks, there might be a third, fourth, and fifth working partner of Nasr’s I’d also have to hire.
When I build a restaurant, I have a strong idea of what I want in terms of the design and food. As I’m neither a carpenter nor a chef, my job is to convey my ideas to the builders and chefs who are skilled enough to put it all together. And, hopefully, take it to another level.
A few years earlier I’d directed two feature films and was struck by how similar the roles of restaurateur and (Herr) director were, and how dependent I was in both cases on people whose specific jobs were infinitely superior to mine. I felt guilty about this until I had a stroke four years ago. Being half paralyzed, I could finally recognize what a crucial role I played in the making of my restaurants and films. Just a pity it took a stroke to make me realize this.
The only thing the chefs and I disagreed on was whether to put a hamburger on Balthazar’s menu. Coming from a formal uptown restaurant, Nasr and Hanson were reluctant. For Balthazar to succeed it had to appeal to people like me, who would be repelled by uptown starchiness. By stressing the casual, downtown character of Balthazar, I convinced the two chefs to put hamburgers on the menu. Unintentionally, hamburgers quickly became our best-selling dish.
Early Floor Plan by Richard H. Lewis. Notice the seating plan is reversed.
Courtesy of Ian McPheely, Paisley Design.
Early sketches of section west and the raw bar.
Courtesy of Ian McPheely, Paisley Design.
The night before we opened, I took a final look at Balthazar and sank into a depression. The dining room looked fucking terrible and hadn’t come out the way I imagined it. It had been the same with the films I’d directed. I’ve always found it impossible to re-create something without making such serious compromises that the outcome falls far short of my original idea.
Balthazar opened on April 21, 1997. The response was staggering. Its 180 seats were full for breakfast, lunch, and dinner right from the start. Balthazar was a restaurant hurricane that caused a sensation in New York’s cultural life.
In the first two months, Balthazar was mentioned in three different television sitcoms, and New York magazine published a map of the supposedly preferred tables of famous New Yorkers, half of whom had never been there.
The public and press response was exhilarating for the floor staff but a nightmare for the kitchen. Hanson and Nasr were often angry at me, and argued that the absurdly high number of meals they had to cook was detrimental to the food’s quality. They were right, of course, but when you’re surfing the crest of a terrific wave, it’s hard to think about the sharks lurking beneath.
Balthazar’s signature pain de seigle and a classically trained sculptor based the marble works on two Balthazar waitresses.
By Michael Grimm.
Balthazar’s menu for the raw bar.
By Francesco Lagnese.
Toward the end of a 900-cover brunch, I’d see Nasr standing by the kitchen door scowling, arms folded, counting how many people were still waiting to be seated. But he and our original crew of cooks did a remarkable job in those faraway, heady days. I’m forever thankful that Nasr coaxed me into hiring Hanson as, without him, Balthazar would never have survived the maelstrom.
Nasr and Hanson remained at Balthazar for more than 15 years and, apart from 9/11, the restaurant’s finances increased every year. An eternal pessimist, I believed Balthazar’s success would not continue without them. For this reason—and because I enjoyed working with them—I offered the pair working partnerships in my next two new restaurants, Pastis and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. In 2009, I brought them in as full partners in Minetta Tavern.
Over the years, I’ve noticed one unvarying trait in my customers. If offered a free drink once every 20 visits, they love the restaurant. But if offered a free drink 19 visits in a row but not on their 20th visit, they’re pissed off and resent the restaurant. I’ve since realized this holds true outside of restaurants.
Karl Lagerfeld at a party in his honor in 2012; Victoria Beckham and Jay-Z celebrates the opening of one of his stores in 2009.
From left, by Justin Bishop, by Raymond Hall/GC Images, by David Prutting/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.
Productive partnerships between strong individuals often end contentiously, and my relationship with Nasr and Hanson was no exception. As always, the relationship broke up over money. They were both earning considerable salaries and profits from four of my restaurants, but when they asked for equity in Balthazar, I finally said no. Feeling aggrieved, they quit. Four years later the two of them opened the phenomenally successful Frenchette. Sadly, since they left Balthazar, the three of us haven’t spoken. Which is a pity, as I’m very fond of Nasr, and I miss him terribly. He’s also the godfather of my son George.
Fortunately, Balthazar continued to be as busy as ever. But nothing lasts forever, and Balthazar, like all restaurants, will ultimately go out of favor and close.
A month after the opening, I was walking through SoHo, feeling quite proud of Balthazar’s success, when I overheard two women talking disparagingly about its food. Crushed, I uncharacteristically introduced myself and startled the two women by offering them a free dinner if they would agree to give Balthazar a second chance. They returned a week later and ordered a full meal, including wine and dessert. After they had wiped their plates clean, I unctuously approached their table, preparing to luxuriate in their compliments, when the shorter of the two piped up: “Thank you for dinner, Mr. McNally, but to be honest, we don’t like the food any more than the last time. If anything, less so.”
My stroke paralyzed my right side. The pandemic paralyzed Balthazar. Donald Trump paralyzed the will of half the American people. Each of these dreadful incidents convinced me not to succumb to adversity, but to remember Dylan Thomas’s lines, “…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Rage, rage.
A vaccine for COVID appears to be on the horizon. Trump has lost the election. And Balthazar finally reopens in January. The rage is over. For now, the light shines again. For now.
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