photo by Sylvia Paret

In 2004, when London transplant Keith McNally was already nearly 25 years and eight restaurants into building one of the most formidable dining dynasties in the city, the New York Times called him “the restaurateur who invented downtown.” Even in retrospect, that was hardly an overstatement, and if McNally is a culinary Edison, his light-bulb moment came with the opening of Balthazar, which he installed in the middle of Soho in 1997, transforming a leather tannery into a swanky French brasserie and bakery. The neighborhood came into its own around its new resident, the remaining warehouses giving way to chic fashion houses and posh eateries, forming the sparkling (and spendy) Soho we know now. While Balthazar hardly stands out aesthetically these days, it remains a linchpin of the area’s restaurant circuit, where VIPs, some of them famous, eat pastries and sip coffee over newspapers at their regular tables each morning; tourists attempt to wrangle a brunchtime seat; business types plot their next move; and dinnertime diners dig into classics like steak frites, which manager Erin Wendt calls the “foundation of the kitchen.” And that is Balthazar’s staying power: It is one of those rare spots that bring many walks of New York life together under one roof.