I didn’t start frequenting — and never truly frequented — Keith McNally’s Balthazar until 2007, a full decade after it started luring in A-listers and everyone else with steak frites and lighting so perfect I’ve dubbed it McNally Gold. I remember reading about young entrepreneurs swinging by multiple times a week, treating the Soho supernova as if it were a combination cafeteria and conference room. I remember how chic it felt to order steak tartare for brunch at the long zinc bar. And I remember feeling gently hazed. This is how long I have to wait for a counter seat? This is how much I have to pay for French toast?
That French toast with bacon now costs $23. After tax and tip you’re paying $30.
Balthazar, to this young critic, wasn’t so much a crash course in contemporary Big Apple gastronomy as it was a rite of passage into the quotidian ignominy of urban life on a journalist’s salary. It’s a lesson that still rings true ten years later: In New York, it’s not the once-a-year tasting menu spot that empties the wallet and stings the ego but rather the Aspirational Everyday Institution, be it a chic hotel lobby that provides free Wi-Fi with expensive cocktails, a fast-casual spot that delivers limited-supply lemon barley bowls in a fancy tote, or a beloved brasserie that charges $19 for avocado toast.
Augustine is my current McNally muse, though Balthazar — like an old flame I want to impress for no good reason — still has a special place in my heart. I drop by every now and then just to prove I’m doing alright, only to realize the ex is doing better — financially at least. That’s New York.
So in part tribute, part critique, here’s what I’ve learned at Balthazar about hospitality and humanity over the years:
1. That Balthazar at brunch can be overwhelming. I remember an old buddy from out-of-town tearing up because the crowds were too much. Though really, if you’re going to make it on the mean streets of New York, you’re going to need to hold your own at The Balth even at peak brunch — which can easily cost $120 for two.
2. That if a bartender happens to ask a brunch bro what vodka he’d like with a bloody mary, he will respond with a top-shelf choice — even though it makes little difference in the drink. Classic upsell move.
3. That while a green juice can set you back $12 and virgin cocktails can top $10, Balthazar charges just $5 for a booze-free bloody mary. And it’s great, with a chock full of pepper and horseradish without any Black Tap-style garnishes.
4. That restaurants like Balthazar peddling nostalgia should serve the sugary, suburban staple known as monkey bread. The process of pulling off sections of soft, gooey, crispy cinnamon sections is a reminder of the joys of eating with your hands.
5. That no one seemed to notice recently when two of the bartenders started singing selections from Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with no shame: Nor should there be any shame. It’s a great song don’t @ me.
6. That while Balthazar once had a reputation as a late-night celebrity hangout, breakfast was and still is a mainstay for downtown media elites. “In the morning you can walk in and actually get a table, whereas almost any other time of day you’re fighting a war here to get in,” Vox’s own Lockhart Steele, then at Gawker, told the New York Times Style Section in 2007. The story goes that in 2014, Eater editors interviewed me for my current job at Balthazar during breakfast. It was packed. And it felt pretty cool.
7. That a restaurant can charge people a crazy amount of money for chicken for two and they’ll order it. Balthazar is a trailblazer in this regard: a casual spot that helped transform the concept of a whole chicken from one of the cheapest items on the menu to one of the most expensive and sought-after. The chicken was $48 in the mid-aughts and it now runs $72. I last tried it in 2013 and it was fantastic (though Le Turtle’s is cheaper and better.)
8. That New York diners will book a prime time table a month out — not just for fancy tasting menu or set menu fare — but also for standard bistro fare. I don’t doubt it was true before Balthazar opened in 1997, but for me and a certain class of gourmands who came of culinary age with the advent of Eater in the mid-aughts, Balthazar epitomized a surrealness about reservations. New Yorkers (and now tourists) plan some aspects of their casual eating with the same fastidiousness as planning a trip to a tasting-menu venue or a vacation to Tahiti.
9. That the best way to prevent hate from people who can’t get reservations is by allowing them to order from the full menu at the bar (a lesson that The Polo Bar hasn’t learned yet).
10. That rising prices, an inevitability at any restaurant, sting even more when it comes with changes in quality or comfort. Balthazar’s bouillabaisse, $29 in 2009, is now $46. It smells like a warm sea breeze off the Mediterranean and lately it tastes like a can of Campbell’s Chunky Manhattan Chowder. There is no inkling of Pernod, saffron, or concentrated seafood stock in the broth. It is a bad dish.
11. That the cost of dining at Balthazar feels all the more like an outrageous cover charge now that Manhattan is filled with oodles of more affordable, more food conscious, all-day brasseries — a few of them run by McNally himself.
12. That Soho patrons will show up in $1,000 worth of clothes for $34 worth of pappardelle — a buck less than what the two Michelin-starred Marea charges for some of the city’s best pasta.
13. That Balthazar is a great place for escargot in New York. A pair of metal tongs let you manipulate the shell in one hand without burning your fingers, while you stab the snail using a cocktail fork or toothpick. The gastropod itself is firm and gently chewy: a once living terrestrial bucatini meant to sop up tart garlic lemon butter.
14. That while most bar hooks at any given restaurant are terrible, Balthazar’s somehow manage to be worse, affixed to such a low girder that you can’t even hang a short spring coat on one without it touching the floor.
15. That in a city where chefs are drawing crowds with dishes that lace steak tartare with non-traditional fish sauce and yuzu kosho, a classic version is increasingly hard to find. This is what makes the Balthazar tartare one of the city’s best. For $22 the kitchen sends out a pink puck of raw top round, with a texture that’s alternately as fine as pureed tuna and as coarse as cooked filet mignon. The meat is neutral and cool. It tastes of spicy mustard, bitter parsley and salty capers. Though it’s served with toast, the correct pairing is an order of fries and a martini.
16. That a restaurant would build a permanent two-top so close to the service station (see photo); it’s a wonder they don’t ask the guests to get their own silverware.
17. That bathroom attendants sometimes make the restaurant a better place. Keith McNally reportedly reassigned the W.C. workers in 2013 after Henry Blodget, a true man of the people, complained that he didn’t like people watching him while taking a wiz along with the “extortion by guilt” of handing over a buck to a guy in a tuxedo for handing him a paper towel. What Blodget failed to realize is how important attendants can be in keeping things tidy in large, sprawling restaurants. Case in point: The stall at a Balthazar washroom looked like a urine-soaked frat party disaster during a recent brunch.
18. That one of the most popular brasseries in the city can serve one of the city’s most disappointing steak frites. The kitchen sends out not a strip or ribeye but rather an underseasoned off-cut: a shoulder steak, which would be fine if it weren’t $41. The grill torches parts of the cut, imparting the steak with a scent so noxious that if you smelled it in your home you’d evacuate. The golden fries, however, are superb.
19. That while stasis can go a long way at older venues, sometimes an upgrade here and there isn’t the worst thing. For example: If a restaurant charges $41 for steak frites or $23 for a dry, overcooked burger, maybe diners deserve something better than finely grained salt from a shaker?
20. That banana desserts are the best desserts.
21. That it’s still possible to find hidden values at Balthazar, like the onion soup gratinee that’s a stunning one-dish dinner. A layer of burnished gruyere and parmesan floats above a soggy crouton, a hefty portion of soft onions and beef broth. Just as a cookie shouldn’t disappear before the milk, the gruyere is of sufficient quantities to hang around until there’s almost no soup left. Perhaps it’s as tasty elsewhere, but with a bartender who occasionally sings and a well-dressed polyglot crowd, I’ll order mine here.