Some mornings after a dark night of the soul, there is no more restorative act than having breakfast at Balthazar. Just walking into the bustle and flow of that big SoHo eating room is a mood-changer. The power of owner Keith McNally’s theatrical vision—great gilt-framed mirrors tilted to reflect the human swirl, tables of dark wood well-worn by life’s dramas (think La Bohème’s Café Momus)—makes this not so much an American version of a French brasserie as a glad and glittery place that’s seen it all. Or at least everything since 1997. It’s this obvious stagecraft that makes Balthazar doubly endearing.
And of course those vast bowls of creamy café au lait, the soft-boiled egg in its shell with crispy toast “soldiers” for dunking, and the breads (those croissants and brioches! those tartines of real baguettes) from the restaurant’s own exemplary bakery, next door: each gives one courage to face the day. But there’s more. Onion soup gratinée at 4 p.m., or at midnight, or for weekend brunch. Classics like choucroute and bouillabaisse, steak frites and duck shepherd’s pie, towering Parisian plateaus of shellfish. Here’s a place that can be what you need it to be, almost any time of day.
Despite the family feel of this Upper East Side classic, its sometimes haughty vibe can be off-putting if you’re not a part of the “club”—the moneyed and high-powered regulars that have been frequenting this old-school spot for years. But this air comes with any restaurant that knows its worth, especially one that that can rely on its food to keep people coming back. One regular once pre-ordered 300 veal meatballs, just one of the dishes that excels amid a menu featuring homemade pasta and northern-Italian favorites.
The family’s crown jewel reopened after a long shuttering with a sleek new look and the same delicious, if overpriced, Italian food. You are meant to feel that you are entering a yacht with a porthole just within the front door. Nautical wood paneling lends a yachty aura and the tables and chairs are so small that they seem designed for life below deck, yet the crowd still packs in nightly. The chef does turn out exquisite pastas, veals and salads. Standouts: the artichoke and avocado salad, the veal piccata and homemade raviolis. Prepare yourself for intense people-watching though. The crowd truly verges on Felliniesque with extreme hairdos, face lifts and implants on parade. One recent night the gathering included Charlie Rose, the Gastineau girls, Mica Ertegun, Linda Wachner and various wealthy widowers in the company of much younger Russian ladies.
Both maternity-wear designer Liz Lange and designer Charlotte Moss list this old-world French restaurant among their favorites in New York. Lange swears that “nobody makes a better soufflé” and Moss says that “owner Charles Masson creates the most divine floral arrangements in town.”
To read a whimsical profile about owner Charles Masson in The New Yorker, click here.
Eric Ripert, who has been heading the kitchen at Le Bernardin since the early nineties, may do the occasional stint on TV show Top Chef, but unlike some other super chefs, he doesn’t have numerous outposts or commercial deals, preferring instead to stay in the kitchen of this hallowed restaurant. At lunch, the place can feel a bit corporate, since it draws a more serious business crowd (it’s in Midtown), but at dinner, the grand dining room, with light-wood-paneled walls, feels intimate and special. Expect impeccably prepared French haute cuisine; Ripert is celebrated for his seafood renderings, but he also has a delicate touch with meat dishes. Le Bernardin is one of the few New York spots to have been awarded three Michelin stars.
Osteria del Circo
This sleek Italian restaurant features a Tuscan-inspired menu and diners can sense that it is a family affair. Sirio Maccioni, the legendary owner of Le Cirque and Circo about opening this restaurant in 1996: “Our business plan was simple, Dad’s hospitality, Mom’s Food, run by the sons.” Obviously the concept worked and Circo is still going strong with good food and an even better atmosphere.