The brouhaha surrounding the arrival of Balthazar, New York’s perennial SoHo hit, has a large swathe of cosmopolitan London agog. It heralds the return to these shores of Keith McNally, the London boy who, along with his brother Brian, has made more than good in Manhattan over the past 20 years. Along with Danny Meyer, Keith rules downtown New York City dining: buzz and quality, PR and content, all mixed in just the right quantities to spell success. And success in New York means big bucks for the investors and brilliant restaurants for the customers. So that’s good. Isn’t it?
In London, we have our own success stories. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King run the best dining rooms that neither have nor wish for Michelin stardom – The Wolseley, The Delauney, Brasserie Zedel, and Cafe Colbert – restaurants of élan and elegance where our savoir faire duo are invariably to be found wandering the floor, quietly stopping by tables to chat, making sure regulars are happy and newcomers are made to feel welcome. Frankly, I’m always happy in all of them and can highly recommend a small beef tartare followed by an omelette aux fines herbes with chips and a glass or two of house white.
“I’ll go in a couple of weeks. Keith McNally is the restaurateurs’ restaurateur”
And in New York I’ve been equally happy in Balthazar. I’ve spent many effervescent hours there with plates of oysters, steak frites and carafes of the house Gaillac, under the quite outstanding Parisian pastiche that McNally created after Odeon (his first success in Tribeca) and then Pastis, another French fake that has New Yorkers screaming for more. Along the way there’s been Pravda, Nell’s, Cafe Luxembourg, the Minetta Tavern, Schillers – and that’s beyond the original creations where brother Brian made lobbies like the Hotel Royalton’s “44” into unheard-of success stories. I tried to get a table for the “soft” opening of Balthazar in London but it’s family and friends only right now, making sure everything is just so before the formal opening. I was curious to see what’s on offer, because I have a nagging doubt about the entire operation.
So at lunch in the Delauney, as Chris Corbin happened by, I asked him if he’d been yet. “No,” he smiled, “that would be unfair”, explaining that he liked to give a place time to find its feet. “I’ll go in a couple of weeks. Keith McNally is the restaurateurs’ restaurateur” – an extraordinarily generous compliment to pay an invader who’s about to swipe a good many of his customers. And particularly since it’s an open secret that the venue for Balthazar, the former Covent Garden Theatre Museum, was at one moment in the hands of Jeremy and Chris, and then suddenly wasn’t. But Chris, and Jeremy, are gentlemen to a fault, and would never demean their trade by doing anything so crass as to criticise a rival.
But it’s too late now, the Balthazar brand is coming to town
Which is where Richard Caring comes into the picture. He made his fortune in the rag trade before buying, from Jeremy and Chris, The Ivy, J. Sheekey and Le Caprice, a trio of gold-standard properties at the core of a mushrooming but disparate portfolio which has encompassed Soho House, Annabel’s nightclub, Bill’s – originally a veg box organic store in Lewes (then Brighton) – and Côte, the excellent mid market chain where steak frites can be had for under a tenner before 7pm. Caring made no secret of what he was about, transforming The Ivy with a club, and opening up new branches in foreign locations. It’s all about the brand. So in New York he got together with Keith McNally to see what they could come up with, and Balthazar London was born.
Separately from this, Caring’s own company opened up Le Caprice in New York, on Central Park East, underneath the swanky Pierre Hotel. To the chagrin of all concerned, it flopped. I had the misfortune to go, just before it closed. Le Caprice in London – made famous by, among others, Princess Diana, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser – is a small, secluded institution that’s been going for over 30 years, an idiosyncratic mix of black and white photos, tiny tables, salmon fishcakes and Jesus Adorno who oversees the proceedings. In New York, it had the pictures, the fishcakes, and, er, well, that was about all I could see. The Times called it “not very good” and others said worse. It appeared, on the outside, to be a very awkward fit not only into the corridor location, but also New York City, the town that had the temerity to tell Gordon Ramsay where to go.
One flop doesn’t bring the whole house down, but hospitality is not just about the brand. Possibly it’s about understanding the clientele, the location, the times, the evolution of what’s acceptable at table and what’s not. Keith McNally’s “rival” in New York is Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern are permanently the most popular places in New York. Meyer has no plans to expand to London (although his burger offshoot, Shake Shack, run as a separate enterprise, knows no boundaries: it’s doing terrific business in Kuwait and it too is coming to Covent Garden soon), and I suspect that Keith McNally originally had no plans to expand across the pond either. He said as much when he appeared on the Martha Stewart show not that long ago. But it’s too late now, the Balthazar brand is coming to town.
So it seemed reasonable to ask Chris Corbin what plans he and Jeremy had to expand into New York.
“Oh we could,” he said quietly. “The question is whether we should.” Then he smiled and moved on to the next table, to make sure they were enjoying lunch.
Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2
Derek Guthrie is a TV producer, travel editor and writer