There are some things even jaded New Yorkers will wait in line for in the rain during a pandemic — and one of them apparently is Balthazar.
The sceney soho brasserie founded in 1997 by famed restaurateur Keith McNally began serving oysters and champagne again last week for the first time since the pandemic hit last March.
And despite the rain and stubbornly high COVID-19 infection rates, its opening night on Wednesday attracted a line of people out the door.
Mingled among the guests were Big Apple power brokers like Lucy Sykes Rellie, former fashion director of Marie Claire, publicist Oberon Sinclair, known for making kale famous, and artist couple Hugo Guinness and Elliott Puckette.
And many of them expressed hope that the return of Balthazar — a favorite for power lunches, birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries and movie premiers — might herald a return of NYC, which has been crushed by the pandemic.
“It’s so hopeful for New York and for all the people it employs. There is a waitlist to get in,” said Sykes Rellie, who dined that night with this reporter. “It’s not the roaring twenties yet, but this is the light before the disco ball.”
Balthazar, a classic French brasserie reinterpreted for New York and made to look old, was the epitome of Gotham cool when it opened in Soho in 1997. It’s decor — cozy red leather banquettes offset by dramatical large, antiqued gilded mirrors — remains the same.
The menu has been tweaked around the edges, but still boasts the same scene-stealing raw bar towers and French comfort food like onion soup, moules frites, steak frites and profiteroles for dessert. The lamb and rabbit dishes have been replaced, however, by boeuf aux carottes and Long Island duck breast a l’orange, along with lobster vol au vent puff pastry, asparagus risotto and Tarte Tropezienne.
On opening night, McNally posted a photo of himself at the restaurant’s bar and kept posting over the weekend. It was wild that first night with an energy that was palpable as old friends toured the room fist bumping masked hellos.
“Reopening Balthazar was quite emotional for me,” London-born McNally told Side Dish of the 80 Spring Street restaurant, which has cooked for celebrities like Taylor Swift, Jerry Seinfeld, Cate Blanchett and Goldie Hawn.
“Like the city, I’d been in a very dark place. I’d had a stroke four years ago that left me half paralyzed. A year later, my wife left me. Last April, I got COVID so bad I almost died. In May, I was forced to close two of my restaurants: Augustine and Lucky Strike. In the blink of an eye, I’d lost my health, my wife, and three quarters of my money,” McNally said.
“Balthazar’s reopening was like Lazarus emerging from his grave,” he said.
While many city restaurants reopened last June when new outdoor dining vestibules first took off, Balthazar’s remained dark. McNally didn’t make plans to reopen until Gov. Cuomo raised the indoor dining capacity to 50 percent earlier this month for the first time since the pandemic started.
After rehiring his staff and adjusting the menu, McNally posted his reopening plans on Instagram and his follows flocked, especially the regulars who can call the restaurant’s special phone number to book their tables.
“Balthazar is too large an organization to survive with anything less than 50 percent capacity,” McNally said. The restaurant now offers 110 seats inside and also boasts a new outdoor seating section with 72 seats.
It’s a potential ray of sunshine in an otherwise depressing picture for the city’s once thriving dining scene. More than 5,000 restaurants have shuttered permanently and at least half of the city’s pre-pandemic restaurant workforce of 325,000 people are still out of work, said Andrew Rigie, head of the NYC’s Hospitality Alliance. Prominent closures include the East Village’s Gem Spa and Eddie Huang’s Baohaus and 21 Club.
Many of the people who dined at Balthazar on Wednesday say they are were comfortable eating indoors because they had been vaccinated.
“I’ve been vaccinated, so I felt OK,” said Sinclair in a post-dinner interview. “Balthazar has brought back the magic,” said the publicist, who learned about the reopening from McNally’s Instagram.
This reporter also returned with her daughter on Saturday afternoon to a full house. McNally was at a nearby table at the front of the house, having brunch with a female friend as staff and diners approached hesitantly to have a word.
It was as if McNally was the Godfather of New York City’s reopening.
One of the diners who popped by McNally’s table was French chef Eric Ripert of three-Michein starred Le Bernardin, which also just reopened. Ripert was dining with his wife, the Douglas Elliman real estate broker Sandra Ripert, and their 17-year-old son.
“You know New York is back when Balthazar has reopened,” Ripert said. “It means a lot to New Yorkers and the industry.”
Ripert later posted a shot of himself at Balthazar, which garnered more than 32,000 likes — his most ever, he told Side Dish.