Not many restaurants make it to 25 years, and even fewer are as perpetually packed as Balthazar has been from day one. Since its opening on April 21, 1997, New Yorkers have clamored for one of Balthazar’s tables — preferably in one of its highly covetable red booths.
Witnessing it all from the very beginning has been assistant general manager and head maître d’ Zouheir Louhaichy. Louhaichy first started out as a server at Balthazar and was soon promoted to maître d’ — a role he held for six years, before spending nine years as a manager at another Keith McNally restaurant, Pastis. When the original Pastis closed in 2013, he returned to Balthazar and has been there ever since — nine years and counting.
In this special edition of The One Who Keeps the Book, Louhaichy divulges all the intel you need to get into Balthazar, which is still as busy as ever, and maybe even busier than it was pre-pandemic. He also shares some of his fondest memories … with plenty of celebrity cameos, too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Resy: What’s the secret to Balthazar’s appeal? Why have people always clamored to dine there?
Louhaichy: Well, first of all, it’s always been in the news. A lot of people see it and hear about it, they and there’s always been this curiosity about it, between the photos and the magazines, TV, or movies.
And then when people finally come to the restaurant, generally speaking, I would say it’s the service. At least from what people tell me, they expect a place like that to have an attitude when you come in; you know, sometimes around the city you go into these restaurants where you just feel like a little fish in a big pond, and it’s you’re not paid attention to. But at Balthazar everybody feels really welcome.
It’s also the room, the way it was built as well. Those super high ceilings transport you; they make you think you’re in a brasserie in Paris.
How hard was it to get in those early days or in those early years?
Prime time is always tough because that’s when everybody wants to eat, obviously. If you want to dine then, you need to book ahead and so on.
What’s prime time at Balthazar?
I’d say it depends on the night. From 7 to 8:30 p.m. during the week, and if it’s the weekend, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
Have you ever had to turn away a celebrity or notable guest simply because the restaurant was just fully booked?
I try to accommodate as much as we can, you know, but there was definitely one story where we had a reservation for Sylvester Stallone a few years back, and his assistant called us to cancel his reservation. And I just remember it was in the middle of prime time and every single table was booked and he walked in, expecting to be seated.
I thought maybe they forgot they had cancelled his reservation, so we checked again, and it was cancelled, and I had nothing — not a single table for him. There was this awkward moment where I felt kind of bad for him because I wanted to seat them somewhere, but there was just nothing. He just went out; his limousine was outside and he stayed there and, and people started coming up, saying, “Oh my God, you turned down Sylvester Stallone.” It was just the timing, you know?
We never found out what happened, or why the assistant cancelled the reservation. But it was just unfortunate.
Has he been back to the restaurant since?
I think so.
Who are some of Balthazar’s regulars who have been there from the very beginning?
Anna Wintour definitely would be number one on the list; she’s been coming since day one. But it’s really a mixture. And in a way that’s kind of what makes Balthazar; it’s not just one particular type of person or group.
Some of the noteworthy celebrities that I remember being excited about are Gregory Peck and Joe DiMaggio. Meryl Streep, on and off. Michael Jordan a couple times when he was at the height of his career. Beyonce a few times. Calvin Klein, you know, many times. And Salman Rushdie, he’s been coming here for years. Francis Ford Coppola.
For the younger generation, there’s Timothée Chalamet, and Ansel Elgort. His father, Arthur Elgort, is one of my favorite regulars; he’s a famous photographer and he has a studio down the street.
Let’s talk more about the logistics of getting in. How many seats are there at Balthazar?
If you count the dining room and the café area, closer to the bar but not the bar, it’s about 180, give or take. And then outside, in the villages we have 44 seats. But if we count the sidewalk seats on Spring Street and Crosby and the villages, it’s a total of 90 outside.
How many covers do you do on a typical day?
On weekends, the numbers are high. You get anywhere around 900 covers and up for brunch, and then you get in the high 500s for dinner, so you’re closing in on 1,500 or 1,600 covers between the two. That’s just like a Saturday or Sunday.
It changes a little bit on a Monday when you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’re looking at mid 400s for lunch and then another couple hundred for breakfast.
When do reservations drop on Resy?
Officially, it’s midnight, 30 days out.
And how quickly do seats get booked out?
For weekends during prime time, pretty quickly. It really depends on the days. The reservations department does have a lot available for Resy but not every single table. There are a couple of tables that we keep that they book when you call the phone, so it’s a combination.
How big is your reservations department?
When we reopened, we only had two people but now I think it’s up to a half a dozen people rotating and handling requests, and then obviously there’s Resy; there’s a lot [of inventory] on Resy.
Are there any seats or tables that you hold specifically for walk-ins?
We don’t hold tables of seats for walk-ins per se, but there is the café area. If someone is coming in and the dining room is really booked up, we do tend to see a lot of walk-ins there or outside on the sidewalk could be a nice option for walk-ins on nice days. We generally don’t book those tables closest to the bar, but we do take walk-ins in the main dining room too, if there are cancellations or something opens up.
What would be the best time to stop in if you try to walk-in?
Early, for the first seating, is good. The closer you get to prime time, the more there might be a wait. But during the first sitting early on, and also on the later side, maybe 9:30 and later is best.
What’s the typical wait time for a walk-in?
It really changes. I mean, it could be no wait, depending on the time. We try not to do exaggerated waits like two or three hours. That’s kind of like ridiculously too long. Generally speaking, at its max, I would say an hour to an hour-and-a-half. That’s on a very busy weekend night, in the middle of prime time. But we try to keep it under an hour. And sometimes we can seat people right away.
If people have to wait can they grab a drink at the bar?
The bar is very exciting — it’s a big bar — and we generally wish for them to wait in in the bar area and they can have a drink.
Is there a day when Balthazar is the least busy?
I would have to say Monday or Tuesday on the very first seating or later, but even on those days during prime time you go in and people are like, “Oh my God, are you ever not busy?”
Working at Balthazar there are no nights, no shift you show up for, where it’s going to be slow; that just that just doesn’t exist.
What was it like when Balthazar reopened in 2021 after closing for a year?
We didn’t know what to expect, you know, after closing for a year, and also people were concerned about dining and so on. When we were about to reopen, we really were surprised at how excited people were, and how people were clamoring to come in. It was nonstop from the get-go. The demand was off the charts. People missed what they loved, and when they realized that they didn’t have that option for an entire year, it made them miss it that much more. When we finally reopened, it just meant that much more to them, and we were actually busier than ever.
How long is your Notify list on average?
I checked with the reservation department. They said it can reach the hundreds for certain shifts, particularly for prime time and it can go much higher for weekend brunches and prime time dinners. It’s in the several hundreds or maybe even the low thousands for certain times at brunches.
What’s your best advice for getting a table at Balthazar today?
As far as making reservations, it’s really about planning ahead. And that that goes for everything. If you’re flexible to eat at other times other than 7:30 or eight o’clock, you know, you can still snag a reservation and it’s still a great time. But that’s the thing — a lot of people all want to eat around same time. If you’re flexible enough, I think you could definitely find something.
And walking in early, or just past prime time; a lot of people get tables fairly quickly if they just avoid the busiest part. Flexibility is definitely key. If you’re flexible to sit anywhere, that adds to your possibilities.
Are there any standout memories that you have from your many years at Balthazar?
There are a lot of crazy stories.
We had [Jerry] Seinfeld’s coat missing once, and we couldn’t find it. It turned out that somebody else had taken his coat by accident and the coat that was left, we didn’t know who it belonged to. It took a couple of days, and then finally the person called up and said “I think I took the wrong coat,” and we said, “Yes, we have your coat here.” Turns out that a cellphone rang in his closet and he had no idea what was going on. So when he brought the coat in, we said, “Did you realize that you had Seinfeld’s coat?” And he was like, “Oh my God, I wish I knew!” It became an anecdote. I was even joking about it with Seinfeld’s wife, Jessica, several months back, and she just laughed. Although it wasn’t a laughing matter at the time.
There’s all kinds of stuff. The weird requests. Like a lot of times people ask you to do stuff at the table — like someone wants flowers, or this and that. But now that people can make their own reservations on Resy, they can go crazy writing in their requests.
Any recent examples of some outlandish or exceptional requests?
Recently there was a customer who wanted to sit outside but he basically told me he didn’t want anyone to sit in the entire section. And I said, “I’m sorry, we can’t do that.” I can understand trying to accommodate that by giving you the table next to you, but to expect the entire section not to be seated by anyone — we just couldn’t do that.
Often we get requests related to proposals or surprises.
How many proposals do you think you’ve seen over the years at Balthazar?
Oh, tons. Honestly, maybe at least a couple, two or three, a month. A lot of people sometimes come in and they’re like, “Oh, this is where we got engaged. This is where we got married, and they come back on their anniversaries. And then sometimes they bring their kids and they say, “These are Balthazar kids.” It’s really lovely when they do that.
What’s the best seat in the house?
Well, the most requested tables, as probably everyone knows now because they always come up in stories online, are the middle booths. But then you get all these people requesting the same table because they read about it. But there are a lot of lovely corners that are really nice for two people; the corners go a long way and they are strategically located and you have a nice view of the dining room.
You could never guarantee a specific table, yes?
Well, no, we cannot guarantee a specific table just because chances are if that table isn’t available, you have an unhappy customer before they even sit down. We try to accommodate the best we can; if we cannot do that particular table, we try to do something similar.
What kind of music do you like to play to set the mood at the restaurant?
Keith has a couple of playlists. We have a Sonos system now, and the playlist depends on the shifts. We might have classical music in the day, in the mornings, then there’s an all-day playlist that has a mixture of some French songs and some international songs and so on. And then from 8:30 on he has a late-night list that is just slightly more upbeat, slightly more exciting; the volume goes up a little bit more. And people seem to appreciate it.
Does Keith personally curate the playlists for all his restaurants?
Yes, he’s personally involved in the music choices for all of them.
It’s Friday night at 7 p.m. Can you set the scene?
Some tables from the first seating are leaving. And then the seven o’clock reservations are coming in. Some seven-thirties are coming in a little early. It’s busy, but it may not look like it’s crazy busy because the busier period is just about around the corner at 7:30 or eight o’clock.
What should guests definitely order at Balthazar? Do you have any favorite dishes?
I definitely recommend a lot of our signature dishes, which have been on the menu since day one and may have been slightly tweaked since then. We do change the menu seasonally so there are certain dishes that constantly change, so it’s a combination of both.
Some of my personal favorites here and there are the steak tartare. I always get a lot of feedback on that. People say it’s some of the best tartare they ever had; even French people, when they come and have dinner, they say “Oh my God, it’s better than France.” The steak au poivre. The bouillabaisse, which we have once a week; on nice winter nights, there’s nothing better than a bouillabaisse. The chicken paillard, if you want something light with a chicken breast. I love the Niçoise salad as well. And with the seafood options, I like the ceviche that they have once in a while. On the newer ones, there’s this black sea bass that I that I find myself attracted to.
Sometimes people are afraid of places that sound super busy, you know? Because they think, ‘Oh, I’ll never get in’ or ‘They’re not even going to care about me.’ But nothing could be further from the truth.
What’s the secret to Balthazar’s longevity?
It’s the combination of everything: It’s basically the consistency that is very, very, very key; the hiring the right staff; training and making sure that everybody is on the same wavelength in terms of you know, the Keith McNally service and ambience and, and so on. So all of that makes a big difference, and it’s very key.
For me, on a personal level, it’s never a dull moment working any shift. You go in any shift and it’s always different than the last shift and, and there’s always something exciting. It’s making all these contacts that I’ve made throughout the years. You know, I have I have so many amazing friends that I met through the restaurant, a lot of regulars and major contacts that are always happy to see you, and just to know you and they consider you like part of their family basically because they’ve been coming to you after all these years. So I think that would be number one for me: all the people that I that I got to meet and get to know all these years working and taking care of them getting to know them.
And that’s what keeps you there?
It’s working with Keith and working at a place that is always kind of a happy place for a lot of people; it’s a big destination for a lot of people working in an environment that is never boring. Having worked in restaurants before, you can be busy maybe two nights out of the week. Working at Balthazar there are no nights, no shift you show up for, where it’s going to be slow; that just that just doesn’t exist. So it’s always exciting. It’s always busy. It’s just fascinating. And it goes a long way; you are never bored. You’re always meeting new people, and always making new regulars.
What do you see for Balthazar’s future?
Well, I see more of the same, honestly. Just judging from what’s happening now, it’s so incredibly busy. It only keeps getting busier and busier. And it’s insane.
Anything you’d want to say directly to diners?
I think if they’ve never been, they owe it to themselves to definitely come and give it a try. Because sometimes people are afraid of places that sound super busy, you know? Because they think, “Oh, I’ll never get in” or “They’re not even going to care about me.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Come and give it a try. You’ll see why people are fascinated by this place and why they keep coming back year after year after year.
Balthazar is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to midnight on weekends.