Breakfast at Balthazar
When I was a kid growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, we sometimes ate out at Longchamps on Twelfth Street and Fifth Avenue, a couple of blocks from where we lived. I loved eating out. I loved restaurants. Longchamps was pink, it had natty Art Deco furniture, and it was French. There was French onion soup au gratin and a maître d’ in a tux. His name was Mr. Naigish.
There were years when we had Thanksgiving at Longchamps. This gave my father quite a bit of pleasure. He invited the family. He paid. My pop, who wore bow ties and drank martinis, sometimes ordered wine as well. I’m sure it both impressed and pissed off his brothers—my uncles were rye-drinking kind of men, rye in the old sense, not rye made by hipsters in little hats—who had to trek in from Flatbush, from ancestral Brooklyn.
What’s more, Mr. Naigish addressed my parents by name. This was my first inkling that to be a regular, to be known at a neighborhood restaurant, even regarded as friends, made you special. Over at the Steak Joint on Greenwich Avenue, Dan Stampler called my parents Sally and Sam. This was the thing I was crazy about, this feeling you were an insider in a singular little society.
I was a fat, smart, nosy little girl, and God knows I liked the food, but I loved the people: the uptown crowd in suits and minks, slumming in the Village; local families out for spaghetti and meatballs; the artists, writers, and musicians arguing at coffee shops over immense slabs of pie and coffee. Even more interesting were the people who worked at restaurants, out front or behind the scenes: the singing waiters at Asti’s on Twelfth Street; the occasional real Frenchman at Charles French Restaurant; the one-armed waiter at Frank’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street, his empty shirt sleeve pinned back, who tossed the pies with the brio of a juggler on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Then there were the waitresses at Schrafft’s where my mother took me on special occasions for ham and Swiss on toasted cheese bread served by these plain Irish girls in hairnets and black uniforms. Some of them had been hired just off the boats, my mother said. It sounded like a kind of spooky religious order. I longed to ask about their lives, these women far away from home. Where did they live? Who were they?
At the Coach House—it was located in an actual old coaching house on Waverly Place—black waiters in white gloves served dinner. The idea was that you were dining on all-American food in some theme park little version of another age, perhaps down south. It was unusual, too, in a city where if you went out to eat you generally ate French or Italian or maybe blintzes at Ratner’s. The fried chicken, the corn bread made in special black iron molds, and the black bean soup were all delicious. The owner, Mr. Leon Lianides, was imposing and, unless you were quite famous, a little intimidating. Still, everyone else was very nice, very gracious. I always wondered, though, if after they finished work, when the waiters took off their white gloves, they also retired their smiles for the night.
* * *
Longchamps, the Steak Joint, Charles, the Grand Ticino, the Cookery, the Sea Fare, all gone now. My parents are gone; the restaurants, gone. The bars, too. Bradley’s, the Cedar on University Place, where Jack Kerouac, it was said, pissed in the ashtray. As kids, we went trick-or-treating at the Cedar because instead of candy, you always got cash.
What I took with me from childhood was that sense of a different world where you might be admitted or at least given a glimpse. Anytime a maître d’ hugged me or a waiter called out my name or a bartender offered me one on the house, I felt I was in; I had arrived.
The truth is, I guess, I’ve always been on the lookout for a place where I could embed myself: a local bar, a restaurant, a coffee shop. Maybe it’s simply that lifelong yearning for community, the driving force in the life of a lonely only child.
* * *
“Top of the goddamn morning to you,” said the good-looking young guy at the door as I stumbled into Balthazar around eight most days. James Weichert, the young guy, was always in a loud Hawaiian shirt, an impish grin on his face.
“My shirt was not Hawaiian, it was Comme des Garçons,” James says now.
At first I ate alone in the bar area, read the paper, and chatted to James. I had been assigned a piece about boats for the Financial Times. I hate boats. It turned out that James, though, was an enthusiastic sailor who had just joined the gay and lesbian Knickerbocker Sailing Association in the hope of meeting a nice guy he could settle down with and who also loved boats.
“You should meet some of the other regulars,” he said one morning.
So it was James who introduced me to Steven Zwerling and
Rona Middleberg. Soon, I was eating breakfast with them every day, hurrying to get out of the house.
“Breakfast is about mortality,” Steven Zwerling said. Almost every morning, perhaps to stave off his sense of finite time, he ordered the same thing—two oatmeal scones, two blueberry jams.
Steve, who worked for the Ford Foundation then, was king of the morning, boss of Balthazar breakfasts. Of breakfast, he said, “It’s the most biological of meals. The fast is broken, of course, but also it comes upon many of us who are only half emerged from sleep and all its demands. We drag ourselves over to Balthazar. The coffee that arrives to make everything better . . . We distract each other with stories, occasional frustration, even rage at the rest of the world, a couple of useful insights, a little compassion and understanding. And laughing.”
Erudite, funny, mournful, and very tall, Steve was a repository of New York stories. He had met—or seen—everyone: Jackie Robinson, the Rosenbergs laid out in their caskets at a funeral parlor in Brooklyn, Fidel Castro. When Castro visited Columbia University in 1958, Steven, a student then, rushed out of the crowd to shake Fidel’s hand. Fidel was very tall, too, and handsome.
Steven was married to Rona Middleberg. Rona always sat facing the front door and could thus check out everyone who came in. Small, beautiful, musical, with long brown hair and a soft manner that belied her skepticism and stainless steel business brilliance, she seemed to run half of NYU. Rona liked a pain au chocolat in the morning, though she could be persuaded to share a sticky bun from time to time.
Breakfast—the communal breakfast at Balthazar—really came together in the aftermath of 9/11 when the whole city, especially downtown Manhattan, leaned in toward itself for comfort. For months, the 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. When I’d left town on September 9, the Twin Towers were
there. I came home a week later, and they were gone, evaporated, disappeared, turned to dust. The smell never went away. At Balthazar within a few days of the attack, people hurried in, looking for some kind of solace, or at least coffee. “Have one on us,” one of the managers said to everyone who entered. “We’re glad to see you.” Code for Glad you’re alive.
Those mornings it was never crowded, though you might see an artist slumped over his bowl of café au lait, up unnaturally early, having stumbled in looking for caffeine.
We became a gang. An ad hoc group of people—writers, teachers, a performance artist, a Wall Street lawyer who occasionally appeared in very tight spandex bike shorts—we referred to ourselves (ironically, of course—this was Manhattan, after all) as the “Balthazaristas.” I published a piece called “Breakfast at Balthazar” in the FT Magazine. Friends began calling up, asking delicately if they could come by, as if we were a secret cult, the Skull and Bones of Spring Street.
Most days by eight-thirty we were in place, tables 81 and 82 pushed together, plenty of room in case David Easton showed up. An august interior designer, David was always beautifully dressed, usually wanting a glass of red wine even at eight in the morning, often with a very funny, very dirty joke to make us laugh. He’d drink up and be off to Charlottesville or Aspen.
We had our own share of celebrity spottings: Jon Stewart with his then young family; Mel Brooks, who came and sat with us for a little while and made us laugh so hard we gagged on the sticky buns; Nigella Lawson, who popped in for a hefty slice or two of fruit focaccia. She was a girl who loved to eat. Once she said to me, “Those diets that say you can have one cookie, do you think they mean one bag of cookies?”
* * *
We talked. Argued. Bitched. A bit bored one year, we complained that there was no matzo during Passover, though none of us was the tiniest bit observant. The staff produced matzo. Rona said she made a great matzo brei and was allowed into the kitchen to make it. The rest of us were as envious as if she’d been awarded a backstage pass to a rock concert. We had always been curious about the unseen life at Balthazar.
Over the months and then years, we kept talking, no subject forbidden: new jobs, family feuds, old loves, vacations, the Yankees, cancer. There was much discussion of disease; colonoscopies were a favorite topic. At first we felt this was because we were all, one way or the other, neurotic New York Jews. Then, one day, Maria Aitken, the English actor and director, popped in for a croissant and stayed to tell us the story of her colonoscopy, and how she failed to understand the pain until she heard herself from a distance, moaning like a cow.
Mostly what I remember about those years of breakfast at Balthazar, though, were the jokes, the uncontrollable laughter.
For years I could barely stand to miss a breakfast. And then, like everything, it changed. The breakfast menu grew. Packs of alien financial types began appearing. James left and got his MBA. Steven and Rona spent more time in Florida to be close to Steve’s mother, who died at a hundred and seven. Until she hit a hundred, she often came to breakfast with us.
Suddenly Balthazar was going on twenty. Like all long-running love affairs, breakfast at Balthazar became habit. There were the inevitable irritations: What to do about someone who suddenly started showing up regularly and whom we did not really like? Should we all pay our own checks instead of each picking it up in turn? Was the table too crowded? Were we laughing less?
But those mornings, with the sun coming through the windows, Balthazar was at its most tranquil. The old French mirrors, the pewter surface of the long bar, the wood, the white-and-black tile floors
gave you a sense of dépaysement—I don’t think this has a true translation, this French word for feeling you’re far away in another country. It wasn’t France, but who cared?
Adam Gopnik, the author and New Yorker writer, said, “Balthazar is an elaborate re-creation of an imaginary place, not a fake but a delicate hybrid, a product of this city, of New York as much as Paris.” A country of the mind, Balthazar was a restaurant that reminded me of my childhood dreams of New York.
In the end, breakfast at Balthazar, and Balthazar itself, was, for me, about the fulfillment of that terrible longing for community. I thought it might last forever.
“It’s just breakfast,” Rona said one morning. Nobody believed her.