Balthazar Brings Brasserie to U.K., Owner Gets Nervous

Keith McNally is the darling of the New York restaurant scene, feted for establishments such as Minetta Tavern and Balthazar, which he created in 1997.

He opened an outpost of Balthazar in London this week with Richard Caring, who owns Caprice Holdings Ltd., which operates restaurants such as Scott’s, the Ivy and J. Sheekey.

If you want to know the interest Balthazar is creating in the food business, here’s what French chef Alain Ducasse had to say when I asked him if he’d open his Benoit in London:

“It’s not impossible, but in London now it’s Balthazar. McNally changed the perception of brasseries in New York. He will change it in London. He’s so detailed, it’s an obsession. He’s a designer of the classic French spirit, a genius, a real restaurateur. He creates a feeling, a mood. It’s incredible.”

For someone beloved of celebrities, McNally, 61, is remarkably un-starry. He’s softly spoken, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Born in Bethnal Green, East London, he moved to New York in 1975, yet retains his British accent.

I interviewed McNally in Balthazar on Feb. 20. Here’s a partial transcript of what he had to say.

Vines: There are high expectations in London. How much pressure do you feel?

McNally: I’m the sort of person who wilts under pressure. You know when they talk about someone you’d want to have in your trench next to you when you’re under pressure? Well, I’m the sort of person you wouldn’t want. I don’t like pressure but I always bring it on myself. I know there are expectations.

I worry that I won’t come up with the goods and that anxiety makes me work harder. I work around the clock to avoid disappointing people. That’s a problem of mine.

Vines: Have you reproduced the successful formula for New York or are you trying something different in London?

McNally: I wish I had a formula, but essentially it is very much like New York. What you can’t transfer is the atmosphere, or ambience or whatever you call it. I can reproduce a look but what I like most about Balthazar in New York, I cannot bring over.

Vines: How do you compare the New York and London restaurant scenes?

McNally: There seems to have been the equivalent explosion in food and restaurants here in the last five, six years that there was in New York 10 to 15 years ago. It’s very vibrant here and there’s a newness, a rawness to it. Already in New York, the edges have been softened a bit, whereas here the edges are sharp.

Vines: How do you get on with Richard Caring?

McNally: I hate to use the word bonded because I don’t think I’ve bonded with anybody in my life -- it’s an Americanism, I suppose -- but I got to know Richard and to like him because we walked across Devon together. I walked from the south coast to the north coast and Richard came on part of that walk with me. It’s a sign of getting on with someone if you’re comfortable not talking with them. We had very good silences.

Vines: In London, when people think of a big brasserie, they think of the Wolseley. Is that a valid comparison?

McNally: It’s important that all big cities have a meeting place, a bustling restaurant or brasserie where you can perhaps see people you like and the food is good and ultimately you feel that you can engage with the people you’re with. I suppose your question is: Is there room for two restaurants of that kind? Balthazar is French and I’m not sure I would call the Wolseley French. I’d say it’s probably a little bit more relaxed here than the Wolseley and maybe a bit younger. I go to the Wolseley a couple of times a week. I really like it.

Vines: Might you open another place in London?

McNally: I was thinking about a pub in Notting Hill but the burden of opening this has taken its toll. I just feel like getting this up and running and I think it will take a long time.

Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5HZ. Information: or +44-20-3301-1155.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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