‘Cool enough, but not too hip’: The definitive oral history of Balthazar

Since it opened in 1997, Balthazar has captured the New York imagination. At the time, the 180-seat restaurant by Keith McNally, which has been designed to look like a brasserie in France, was so popular that that for years it was close to impossible to get a seat there.

While Balthazar was always popular among the Soho celebrity crowd, over the last decade it’s also become hub for the advertising and media industry to meet and hob nob over $20 egg white omelettes. The story of how this came to be, told by the people who know:

Robert Sawyer, brand strategist and advertising author: I knew [McNally] when he was at One Fifth Avenue. I lived around the block. At the time, in the early 1980s, there were almost no restaurants in Tribeca.

Thomas Mikolasko, restaurant investor: When we opened Monzu nearby, when we needed to take a break, we’d run to Balthazar. I was there four nights a week for like seven years.

Sawyer: [McNally] created this bistro/brasserie idea. And it’s good because once they got to know you, they know I want my poached eggs with the avocado toast without the salsa.

Dany Lennon, recruiter: The food is goddamn good. Most of the meetings take place for breakfast.

Sawyer: Back in the first few years, the scene was that you had boxers and actors and singers. And socialites. And people were mixing.

Mikolasko: The first few years, you couldn’t get a reservation there. There was that special number you could call.

Sawyer: The media people were always, Midtown. They all went to Michael’s.

Serrano: The thing is, everyone thinks media people or agency people are in Midtown. I remember when I moved to New York and rented an apartment uptown. But it was a huge mistake because all the creative people lived downtown or in Brooklyn.

Sawyer: People have their restaurant they believe in. People like Graydon Carter made Da Silvano. Anna Wintour brought the fashion crowd to Balthazar. But a lot of people came to Balthazar in the business because I took them there.

Mikolasko: The special number didn’t mean anything anymore after about the early 2000s. But then someone told me the number I had was just the reservation line.

A few years after its founding, it became easier to enter through the doors of 80 Spring St. Accordingly at the same time, more agencies started staffing up downtown. The growth of boutiques like BBH and Wieden + Kennedy, more people moving to Brooklyn, and overall the dearth of casual coffee places meant Balthazar became the place.

Sawyer: Once it got a little less crazy, the old agency guys started coming in. The offices began to come downtown. Photographers had some studios around Soho and agencies. Peter Arnell of Arnell Group was probably the first one there.

Lennon: It was the place to be seen. You couldn’t get a booking easily. Food was good. It was decent.

Mikolasko: What appeals to people, is the anonymity. It’s a big dining room. It’s a big bar. The food was never phenomenal but it was so good for what it was.

Rei Inamoto, founder, Inamoto & Co.: I think Paul Lavoie of Taxi took me there. It must have been the early 2000s.

Carla Serrano, chief strategy officer, Publicis Groupe: In the 2000s, when I was interviewing for a job, it was always Balthazar. It was always breakfast.

Mikolasko: They were doing 500-600 covers a night for dinner. There were media people, ad types there. It was not a banker hangout.

Rick Webb, co-founder, Barbarian Group, COO, Timehop:  I hated going there. I hated breakfast. I hated media bigwigs. I hated the wining and dining. But I did it when I had to, some giant media or brand exec I had no choice but to go dine with and bend the knee.

Inamoto: For whatever reason, it’s been older white people with whom I’ve had breakfast or lunch there. It’s pretty white in there, I have to say. Sorry.

Serrano: As a young recruitee you’d go early and I had come from Toronto and all my meetings were at 8:30 and you’d see Yoko Ono having her breakfast and being like am I in the right place.

Inamoto: In the late ‘90s, it was the place for agency folks to meet up. It was the combination of cool enough but not too hip or hipster; upscale enough but not too much; you could do breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Serrano: One time, the founders of Poke in London, we met there and I interviewed with them because they were recruiting to start to Poke in New York. It was like, over a big seafood platter. I thought I did well, I didn’t do well. Ten years later, I’m in Cannes and I see them and I’m the CSO at Publicis Groupe. I reminded them they had totally rejected me.

Twenty years after its founding, much has changed. It still draws the celebrity crowd, but tourists are far more commonplace. The last time Balthazar was in the news was when a giant mirror crashed onto a French diplomat in 2015 during the breakfast hour.

Sawyer: It changed a lot. They got rid of bathroom attendants. They got rid of the paper towels. I blame Henry Blodget [Business Insider CEO.] He wrote something about how bathroom attendants made him uncomfortable.

Inamoto: But as it became so popular with the industry people, I couldn’t meet people without running into people I knew — which was tricky because of the nature of some meetings. It’s too busy and too crowded with all the tourists.

Lennon: I would never favor it because everyone else is there. The exposure. It is the last place I would go to conduct business.

Serrano: There is a professional element to it. It’s not cheap. There is a level of this is a serious conversation. It’s a little different now.

Webb: Ironically, now, I spend most weeks having dinner there on Tuesdays, late, at the bar. It’s much better at night, going alone. Still a ridiculous scene, but far more tolerable.

Lennon: I personally don’t see it as a hub anymore. Agencies tend to lean towards shiny new coin. Everyone gravitates towards that. So now it’s someplace else.

Sawyer: It’s different now. Digital advertising people, they don’t take lunch. So it’s all breakfast.

Inamoto: I can’t remember the last time I went to Balthazar. Ace Hotel and The Breslin started replacing Balthazar five years ago.

Serrano: I think it’s that Soho House has captured the spirit a little bit in a new modern way. Pre-Soho House, Balthazar was one of those places. Hang out for a long time and drink coffee

Sawyer: Everything is right at Balthazar. Nothing is original. Nothing is magnificent. Everything is right. It’s what first class used to be on airplanes. It’s fundamental.


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