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Balthazar and Keith McNally Re-Invents Downtown

Balthazar at 80 Spring Street (a.k.a. 524 Broadway)

Keith McNally, the British restauranteur, opened Balthazar in 1997 when SoHo still had a slight patina of grunge left on it. This was especially true for the area east of Broadway, where Balthazar has been packing in crowds night after night for over two decades at 80 Spring Street (a.k.a. 524 Broadway).

Back in the mid-1990’s, Richard Robinson, CEO of SoHo Broadway’s Scholastic Corporation, approached McNally about opening a restaurant. They became partners in 1996 and, voila, Balthazar opened the following year to much fanfare. The décor, that New York Magazine called “an evocation of a Paris brasserie that outglows anything within Brie-tossing distance of the Seine,” features a long zinc bar, faded mirrors, red leather banquettes, and tiles that were worn and broken even when they were new. Now a restaurant fad, the bistro aesthetic was unusual in the late 90’s and drew in everyone who was anyone in the New York scene. Now mellowed out at age 21, the restaurant’s atmosphere as much as anything else, still draws crowds from morning until late at night.

Balthazar has been packing in crowds night after night for over two decades

Now a true SoHo icon, Balthazar was once a SoHo iconoclast. McNally, who has a reputation for opening restaurants in slightly outre areas such as Odeon in Tribeca and Pastis in the Meatpacking district before they were hip, has been credited by The New York Times with “inventing downtown.” When Balthazar first opened, it got mixed reviews from resident neighbors. Some said that it was truly the end of SoHo as we knew it, that the restaurant was a symbol of everything the locals had feared was coming, celebrities, the glitterati, tourists who would ruin their quiet community. Others felt that Balthazar anchored the neighborhood, gave it a center in an otherwise already-diffuse community, especially in the days and months after 9/11.

Keith McNally (image via eater.com)

The Propp family, McNally’s landlord, has owned 524 Broadway since 1929. In her book At Balthazar: The New York Brasserie at the Center of the World, Reggie Nadelson tells the story of Morris Propp, “a Jewish immigrant who built the first great business that sold electric Christmas tree lights. 524 Broadway was home to merchants dealing in silk, lace, silver, and jewelry and, eventually, to Propp’s lighting business. He was successful and eventually bought the whole building.”

The building, now owned by Morris Propp’s grandson, runs the length of Spring Street from Broadway to Cosby Street and is also home to the Aritzia Store. Built in 1903 by architect Arthur H. Bowditch, this granite, limestone, brick, and terra cotta building was originally built for stores and lofts, which have now been replaced by offices, including a WeWork space.

Yukie Ohta is the founder of SoHo Memory Project
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