Breakfast at Balthazar

At first, going to the SoHo restaurant provided a convenient way to stave off the demands of the day. After 9/11, it became something much deeper. Reggie Nadelson can no longer remember life without breakfast at Balthazar.

Most mornings I eat breakfast at Balthazar. I eat with an ad hoc group: writers, artists, teachers—some friends, some acquaintances. Occasionally I eat alone or chat with Jimmy, who works the front desk, or with one of the waiters.

The day begins, you hurry to get out of the house and into the light, to banish the nightmares, the sounds of the garbage truck grinding into your dreams, the deluge of news, the demanding e-mails. I can’t remember a time now when breakfast at Balthazar wasn’t a part of life. "It is," Steven Zwerling says, "about mortality."

Steven is king of the morning. Erudite, funny, mournful, this is a man who is a repository of New York legend and myth—somebody who played street ball with Jackie Robinson as a young boy. Of breakfast, he says, "It’s the most biological of meals. The fast is broken, of course, but it also comes upon us when we are half-emerged from sleep and all its demons. We drag ourselves over to Balthazar and distract each other with stories, occasional frustrations, even rage at the world. And laughter."

Early on weekday mornings SoHo still has the feel of a neighborhood, a small town in the middle of New York City, a tiny principality of 19th-century cast-iron warehouses where people know each other. The tourists are not out yet, the chain stores are shut. Balthazar is located in what was an old leather factory on Spring Street between Broadway and Crosby. Just after 7:30, when the restaurant opens, a few locals stagger in. Soon the hard-core regulars—Steven and Rona, who are married, and Seth—are in place at tables 81 and 82 at the bar. Dick comes in for a quiet boiled egg. David, always drop-dead elegant, has a dirty joke to make us laugh. A couple of Wall Street guys pass by, inevitably dragging a suitcase, shouldering a laptop, just off a plane or on their way to one. The occasional famous face is noted (Was that K. D. Lang? Denzel Washington? Sydney Pollack? Jon Stewart?) and then ignored because this early everyone has the right to privacy and a caffeine fix.

At the end of the bar near the kitchen, Luis, with the face of a slightly wicked ma-gician, pulls espresso. Ann arranges flowers, which lie in bright heaps on the counter. Erin checks glasses and booze for later. And Vinnie emerges from the mysterious maze of subbasements where he oversees deliveries.

Making Balthazar work as brilliantly as it does—it’s open 18 hours a day—takes a kind of military precision. But in the morning, with the sun coming through the windows and shining on freshly made sticky buns and orange brioches, the restaurant is at its most tranquil. The old French mirrors, the zinc surface of the long bar, the wood, the white-and-black tile floors give a sense of dépaysement, a feeling you’re in a different country; this is not France, but who cares? It’s better, a country of the mind, a restaurant that reminds me of my childhood dreams of New York. If a stage manager appeared (maybe he’s already here in the shape of Steven Zwerling), it would be a New York version of Our Town. Breakfast at Balthazar, at the core, is about the fulfillment of that terrible longing for community.

In a way it was borne out of 9/11, when the whole city, especially downtown Manhattan, leaned in toward one another for comfort. A large black cloud hung over the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center had been. I could see it from my place in SoHo. The smell never went away. Balthazar, like many other local restaurants, opened within a few days of the attack; people filtered in at all hours. I remember arriving and someone—Kate, I think—handing me a glass of Champagne and saying, "Welcome back. We’re really glad to see you." It was around that time I started going regularly for breakfast.

"Top of the morning to you," James would say as you came through the door. James Weichert was the breakfast manager. He sometimes wore a Hawaiian shirt and always an impish smile. He made the day come alive. "Top of the morning."

Breakfast here was still a downtown secret. Only a few tables at the bar were used, and all you could get was pastry, tartines, and café au lait in bowls. Newspapers were sprayed over a long counter near the door and, in those now long-vanished decadent days, a faint ghost of cigarette smoke lingered from the night before. For a while I sat by myself or sometimes with Mike, an old friend who’s a professor of anthropology at New York University. We yakked or read the papers, the Times for me (okay, the Post), Le Monde for Mike.

"You should meet some of the other regulars," James said one day and introduced us to Steve and Rona. Soon we were all sitting together, laughing in spite of the bad times, or maybe because of them.

Mostly what I remember about those first years is the un-controllable laughter. People at other tables eyed us with envy. We ate oat scones and boiled eggs served English-style with soldiers—strips of buttered toast. Balthazar’s owner and presiding genius, Keith McNally, would occasionally come through the door, stop, and ask if everything was okay. It was always okay.

We became a gang, referring to ourselves (ironically, of course; this is Manhattan after all) as the Balthazaristas. Irregulars began appearing. Friends knew where to find us. Outsiders inquired carefully if they could come to breakfast. Bliss it was in those early days to be at Balthazar at breakfast time.

One couple got pregnant. One hotshot Wall Street lawyer showed up in bike shorts. Birthdays were celebrated with a candle in an apple galette. Over the months and then years, we kept talking, no subject forbidden—new jobs, family feuds, old loves, vacations, the Yankees, cancer. And always the universal New York subject: food. Meals we had eaten or planned to eat, where you could get the best pizza, Indian, Thai. Once in a while we would gather on Friday nights for bouillabaisse. The breakfast menu grew; eggs Florentine was added along with omelets and French toast and waffles. One year around Passover we (jokingly) asked why there was no matzo. They brought matzo. We ate croissants.

The staff have always been at the heart of this affair. Our waitress, Massiel, an extraordinary woman, came to know our cranky tastes—that Rona requires her espresso in a regular coffee cup with a side of steamed milk, that Steve needs two blueberry jams with his oatmeal scone, that my multigrain toast has to be almost burned. We became engrossed in the progress of Massiel’s children and James’s sailboat. We got to know Riad Nasr, the charming co-chef (with Lee Hanson); I would run into Riad at Bicycle Habitat, around the corner from Balthazar on Lafayette Street, where we both get our bikes repaired. I felt connected. Now there are different waiters, different stories to hear.

From time to time, friends from abroad showed up, among them Nigella Lawson, the wonderful English food writer and my favorite gourmet. Visiting New York to work on her show for the Food Channel, Nigella would come in early, lured by large portions of fruit focaccia. Jonathan Miller, the British opera director, would hold our whole table of intellectual thrill-seekers in thrall with his talk of opera and neurology and religion. One morning he said our breakfasts reminded him of New York’s great bohemian days, the fifties and sixties when he was on Broadway with Beyond the Fringe.

He was describing the New York I grew up in, long before Starbucks, when every neighborhood had a diner or a café or a bar where little communities gathered. Even though I was raised in Greenwich Village, I was too young to hang out with artists at the Cedar Tavern or poets at the White Horse. As a little girl, though, I had black-and-white ice cream sodas at the drugstore in my building on University Place and Tenth Street. My mother met her friends at the Chock Full o’ Nuts on University and Waverly for cream cheese sandwiches on date-nut bread and coffee. Family dinners could be at the Steak Joint on Greenwich Avenue or Longchamps on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, referred to by us kids as the Pink Restaurant; the maître d’ there, Mr. Naigish, served us Shirley Temples.

The restaurant as community exists everywhere, I guess, not just in New York. I once went to a coffee shop in Delta Junction in Alaska where the whole town held prayer breakfasts. In Sag Harbor, New York—before it turned into a bastion of chic—locals, retired guys who had been fishermen or factory workers, met at dawn for coffee and gossip at the Paradise diner. I would order iced coffee, which marked me as an outsider. "Iced Coffee," they called out at me after a while. I think it was a kind of acceptance, though I’m not really sure.

Balthazar will be ten years old in the spring, but I can’t remember it not being there. It’s moved beyond fashion to become an institution in a city where restaurants are about everything: food, wine, style, money, business, comfort, sex, love, friendship. I eat dinner at Balthazar a lot (oh, the roast chicken!), but for me breakfast is the heart of it. For years I could barely stand to miss a morning.

And then, like everything, it changed. Not the place, us. The food is as good as ever. The restaurant is just as lovely, the staff as consistently cheery and professional. Massiel has gone on to work dinners. James has become a captain at Pastis, another McNally restaurant. Steve and Rona spend more time at their place on Majorca. Mike’s in Singapore a lot.

I still eat at Balthazar, but in good weather I now sometimes ride my bike up to Pastis and sit on the terrace. When Morandi, McNally’s new place on Charles and Waverly, opens in December, maybe I’ll drink my coffee there once in a while.

Like all love affairs domesticated, breakfast at Balthazar became a habit, and we fell prey to the little disturbances of man. What to do about someone who suddenly came regularly and was not really liked? Should we pay our own checks instead of picking it up in turns? Was the table too crowded? Were we laughing less?

Still, for me at least, even subject to individual needs, ambitions, arrangements, there is that tug of community; I thought it might last forever.

"It’s just breakfast," Rona once said. Nobody believed her.

Reggie Nadelson wrote about Beef in the october latin issue.

Breakfast to Stay or to Go at Balthazar

At the Restaurant
If you’re off the wagon and going for broke, the best breakfast is the Full English. This consists of lovely organic eggs, bacon and sausage, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, and fried bread. For brunch there’s the gorgeous, rich French version of bacon and eggs—eggs Meurette, which includes bacon, mushrooms, onions, red wine, country bread, salt and pepper, and a bunch of frisée lettuce.

Next Door
At Balthazar bakery, next to the restaurant, there’s breakfast to go—coffee and juice; croissants, pain au chocolat; homemade doughnuts, cookies, and pastries; and quiche. There’s extraordinary bread—try the cranberry-pecan. Lunch is available here, too, for takeout or delivery: goat cheese–and–caramelized onion tart, cold sandwiches like the classic jambon gruyère (ham and cheese), and grilled panini. There are salads; I love the spinach–and–grilled chicken with sesame-ginger dressing. Or pick up a cake or some tarts for dessert. The lemon soufflé tart is the best in the city, and the madeleines are now legend.