Hyperreality Dines Here: Exploring Balthazar and Cherche Midi

Although New York restaurant critics might argue that fancy vegetables and small plates typify contemporary city dining, they say little about the crafted dining rooms where diners enjoy these trends. Keith McNally’s restaurants, the British-born restaurateur currently operates six restaurants in New York City, epitomise this trend. From The Odeon and Balthazar to Minetta Tavern and Cherche Midi, each entry in Mcnally’s empire transports the diner to a new mental space through a well-designed room, nourishing diners just as much on ambiance as on the main course.

Ever since Delmonico’s introduced New Yorkers to the thrill of dining out in the nineteenth century, restaurants have wooed diners with both food and design, forming the basis of the New York diet. If it’s true that New Yorkers define themselves by how and where they dine, as Mitchell Davis argues in his article ‘Eating Out, Eating American’, then the spaces where New Yorkers eat become secondary homes.[1] Thus, New York’s exclusive restaurants — like Delmonico’s and, more recently, the Four Season’s — entice patrons with a tempting menu and a room that reflects their desired identities. These were the highly-crafted, staid restaurants that McNally — along with his brother, Brian McNally, and business partner, Lynn Wagenknecht — were reacting to when they opened The Odeon during the 1980’s in then-desolate Tribeca. While the restaurant gained fame for housing drug-fuelled antics, the design transmitted its identity, “The Odeon was kind of retro, without being kitsch. It was one of the places that really defined the moment.” From the red leather booths to globe lighting, the elements that allowed The Odeon to exist in the nether region between retro and contemporary continues to mark McNally’s restaurants.

Whereas Delmonico’s was a warren of grandiose dining rooms that transported New Yorkers to grand European palaces, McNally’s well-designed spaces mimic other places to help New Yorkers escape city routine. Since these rooms satiate the diner’s European fantasies, these familiar spaces can be thought of as hyperreals. According to Umberto Eco, hyperreality describes a space or object that imitates an original to evoke an emotional response that alters the genuine product’s impact. Las Vegas’ Venice and Disneyworld’s Epcot are common examples, but hyperreality also appears in quotidian settings, such as a wax museum or the holographic poster of Munch’s The Scream in a dentist’s waiting room. The feeling these imitations generate embeds itself within the viewer’s subconscious and reappears whenever the work is re-presented. The emotions needn’t be charged. They simply exist and their presence alters the experience of real and fake.

Balthazar SoHo

Foodies frequently debate over this line between real and fake when discussing authentic pad thai and imitation Thai take away, but a space’s veracity is rarely argued. When disagreements do appear, they usually centre on a specific personality, such as McNally and his litany of hyperreal restaurants. McNally’s detractors argue that he serves up the same dishes across his stage-like restaurants, nullifying any claims to promoting tradition.[2] In order to communicate ‘France’ — or ‘Italy’ or ‘cool New York’ — the meticulous space must transport the diner away from New York’s proverbial rat race. The customer must believe in the hyperreal and accept its artifice.

As the diner walks into Balthazar, they immediately depart the New York dining orbit. The walls, a deep yellowy tan, are adorned with large mirrors, which reign over ego-hungry diners at small, dark wood tables — or over a booth for a VIP. Instead of a white tablecloth — a token of the fancy restaurant — layers of white paper placemats protect wood tables from inevitable stains and spills. Yet, these placemats aren’t flimsy diner table toppers. Heavy and embossed with a diamond pattern, they project an atmosphere of carefree nonchalance that separates Balthazar from other high-end French restaurants. While the city’s orchestrated chaos animates the room, each piece of the physical space can be read apart from New York, the occasional taxi horn-honking serving as the sole reminder of Soho’s continued existence beyond the wooden doors. These revised restaurant tropes hint at Balthazar’s artifice: the restaurant projects a veneer of casual chaos through an exotic French lens to deceive diners as to its expensive exclusivity.

Cherche Midi, the newest addition to the McNally’s roster, boasts a remarkably similar atmosphere, though the colours and layout develop a more structured and sober experience. Outside the restaurant’s door seemingly perpetual construction heaves on the corner of East Houston and Bowery. Yet the mayhem disappears upon entering the cream coloured space. Just-opaque lace curtains are drawn at the proper height to block out the city while permitting a view of the sky. The resulting view could be New York or Paris or London. No music plays. While mirrors decorate the walls at Cherche Midi as they do at Balthazar, these mirrors survey the room from the side, allowing the individual to scan the scene, while avoiding an artifice-shattering glimpse of him or herself. This engineered distance from New York reality permeates Cherche Midi, ensuring that all objects in the space support the French illusion the restaurant builds.

While design might seem secondary in forming the diner’s restaurant experience, examining reviews dispels any notions that the food would reveal a more accurate portrayal of McNally’s locales. From Ruth Reichl’s original 1997 review of Balthazar for The New York Times to Eater’s photo-packed write up of Cherche Midi, critics repeatedly highlight the restaurant’s physical space, suggesting that food supplements the diner’s sustaining fantasy. Reichl’s awe at Balthazar’s appearance surpasses her contempt for the restaurant’s forgettable food, “I didn’t much like [Balthazar’s food] when it opened in April. Oh, of course I liked the look of the place…”. By establishing a tension between eating and experiencing, Reichl insinuates that design and food respectively nourish the diner.

Balthazar

In Amanda Hesser’s revised New York Times review, she reinforces Balthazar’s beguiling combination of cuisine and theatre saying: “a dining institution needs more than just great food” [author’s emphasis]. This crucial ‘more than’ punctuates Hesser’s review, suggesting that design separates a good meal from an experience, which is composed of more than food. By arguing that the restaurant “seemed to be merely a simulacrum” with its “museum-quality distressed tiles” she insinuates that Balthazar becomes a stage for performing France. Thus, while Hesser might ultimately claim to be unable to tell apart “the real faded and the fake faded,” her depiction of Balthazar-as-performance sticks with the reader, even if they want to run and slip into their cocoon-like table. As Balthazar’s reviewers have repeatedly demonstrated, the space’s ability to reinforce the kitchen’s vision permits the restaurant’s continued success.

Cherche Midi capitalises upon the same dynamic between atmosphere and food to serve up a similarly immersive French-inspired space. In his generally positive review for The New York Times, Pete Wells zeroes in on the shared designs of McNally’s restaurants, insinuating that the hyperrealities they construct is not of ‘France’ or ‘Italy’ but of ‘McNally’, “for three decades, Mr. McNally has been rooting around in the same Lego kit: distressed mirrors, chipped subway tiles, bottles backlighted to look like stained glass.” These individual attributes, the tokens of McNally’s restaurants, combine to form a noticeably a McNally type of restaurant. Thus, the large mirrors and paper placemats at Cherche Midi work to create the feeling of being in a McNally restaurant, which authentically portrays not a foreign space, but rather New York dining.

Adam Platt, in his review for New York Magazine, comically highlights Cherche Midi’s manifestation of brand McNally, insinuating that the restaurant copies itself, “[the restaurant] feels like a Vegas version of Keith’s greatest hits.” While the repetition of key dishes — such as steak frites, Balthazar’s most popular menu item — likely emphasises the doppelganger affect, the unrelenting inclusion of token design elements completes the McNally-type restaurant.

Examining the menus at Balthazar and Cherche Midi, reveals a high frequency of repeated dishes, reinforcing the design’s responsibility for crafting the uncanny experience of an ‘other’ space. Both restaurants feature: a beet salad, a foie gras appetizer, steak tartare, ceviche, a pasta dish with mushrooms and pesto, moule frites, salade niciose, steak frites and a burger. Since the different chefs’ variations amount to switching a type of cheese or using a new mushroom, these dishes would be familiar to frequent diners at McNally restaurants. These similarities suggest that eating at Cherche Midi and Balthazar means eating ‘McNally’ food more so than ‘French’ food. Even at Morandi and Minetta Taver, McNally’s Italian restaurant and old New York Tavern restaurant, riffs on pasta-mushrooms-pesto and steak frites appear. Ultimately, these repeated dishes create a hyperreal not of a foreign space, but of a buzzy McNally space, one that performs its exotic atmosphere while existing within the diner’s frame of reference.

Although McNally’s restaurants appear to be hyperrealities of a foreign space — such as a French bistro or brasserie — examining the design of both the dining rooms and the menus suggests otherwise. Rather than strictly transporting the diner to Europe, Cherche Midi and Balthazar — along with McNally’s other restaurants — insert the diner into a McNally hyperreality. There’s the uncanny feeling of having seen those large mirrors, those paper placemats and those red leather booths before. Ultimately, these self-mimicking spaces create what it means to dine in a certain type of New York. McNally’s restaurants have become a type in and of themselves, destinations for diners to indulge their fantasies of eating at Balthazar, of eating at Cherche Midi.

[1] Davis, M., 2013. Eating Out, Eating American. In: A. Hauck-Lawson, and J. Deutsch, eds. Gastropolis: Food and New York City. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 293-307.

[2] When they are made, that is. Rather than make claims to authenticity, McNally’s websites declare that they are “Italian dining,” “continental comfort food” and “seasonal French”. The exception is Balthazar which supposedly serves up “traditional bistro fare”. http://www.balthazarny.com/index.php

Image Credits (from top): Eater, Flickr via Eduardo Pavon, Flickr via Robyn Lee

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