A friend or colleague is heading to New York, so you write them a list of the things they should do, see and most crucially, eat. Balthazar restaurant is always going to make that list. The 16-year-old New York institution located just off the corner of Broadway and Spring – the junction that famously boasts the most beautiful women in the world thanks to a heady combination of an Equinox gym and model agencies in close proximity – cannot be missed.
It’s not the newest or the most hyped but the restaurant established by Keith McNally has managed to siphon the magic of New York into a Parisian style bistro. And when you’re sitting on a studded red banquette, tapping your heels on the tiled floor and ordering your steak frites, there’s no mistaking this loud, buzzy New York scene for anywhere else in the world. Until now.
Last week McNally opened Balthazar in the old Theatre Museum in London’s Covent Garden. It’s a partnership with fellow restaurateur and fashion business entrepreneur Richard Caring. For London-born McNally, it’s a homecoming.
Seating 150, London Balthazar is slightly larger than its teenaged sister but retains the cracked and tarnished antique mirrors, warm lighting and a bar that could swallow you up. There is also the Balthazar Boulangerie next door, which provides all the locally baked bread and pastries for the restaurant.
Londoners are excited about this new addition to our scene, yet some of us also feel a little guilty. Is McNally just rolling out a formula here? Should we really desire to experience something just because it’s been so successful in another country? What about supporting our indies? Or the big British restaurants who already do it so well, such as The Wolseley or The Ivy?
Perhaps just like in fashion and design, there’s room for all. After visiting last week I know I’ll be going back. It’s fun, from the jostling queue at the door (McNally likes to hold back tables to guarantee walk-ins every evening) to the intricate white-tablecloth flip that the waiters are able to do mid-meal without requiring you to catch two bottles of wine and a chocolate soufflé in mid air. Although I did try.
For now, Londoners are voting with their feet and wallets. Tables were full, service was attentively “American”, the room was electric and by all reports the Bethnal Green boy has done good. He was there, quietly surveying the scene and attempting to be invisible – at least to the front of house.
Emily Smith is a contributor for Monocle.