Prior to the pandemic, Rebecca Banks oversaw the beverage programs at Keith McNally’s five restaurants. Then, three of them closed during the lockdown, two permanently. When we spoke in January, she was a free agent. Now, with dining restrictions beginning to ease in NYC, Balthazar is reopening on March 24, and Banks is back, focusing her attention on Balthazar, where she has worked since 2005. Following up on our January conversation, we spoke again just before the reopening.
January 26, 2021
Balthazar closed down on March 13, then I came back to help the team pivot with take-out cocktails and wine, and that lasted about two weeks. Minetta [Tavern] and Morandi opened up again for takeout, delivery and outdoor seating. To open Balthazar, it takes so much just to turn the lights on in that building. It wouldn’t have been financially feasible.
Augustine and Lucky Strike are completely closed, never to be open again. Which is sad. Lucky Strike just celebrated its 30th anniversary last October. They tried to do take-out and delivery and cocktails to go. Everyone was doing that. But there was no playbook—everyone was trying everything and anything. A lot people got burned out or got sick.
In January and February last year, nobody was wearing masks, but sales were going down. The last week we were open, it was still busy by some standards, but not by our standards. People were on edge. Should I be out? Should I not be out? The sales reflected that—vodka, in particular. Pure vodka: Tito’s, Grey Goose, Chopin. And a lot of cocktails: Negronis, Manhattans, Martinis, Bourbon. A lot of spirits were being sold.
We had a lot people coming to the bar, wanting to have a quick bite and a drink. There were still a lot of tourists at that time. But people weren’t lingering as long. We were shutting down earlier at night because there wasn’t anyone staying late. It was a lot of wine by the glass, and some of our $75 top-selling St-Emilion, and a lot of it was cocktails.
We stopped buying anything in January—we always do, as December’s wonderful, then comes January and it’s ‘Okay, cut your purchases, sales will be down.’ Everything comes to a screeching halt. This year, in particular, we all saw the writing on the wall. We could tell. We didn’t buy anything in January or February. We were even starting to pare down the menu and the higher-end cocktails. The wine list was shrinking; we just started offering less.
It was us adjusting and the customer adjusting to their comfort level and their spending level and not being out as long. I saw it happen gradually. We were in these budget meetings in January; we had had a pretty good fourth quarter and were discussing what we were going to do in the new year. We started hearing the news; there’s hand sanitizer on the table; then the numbers started going down. What do we do? Take out? The meetings became weekly, then daily, then, when Broadway went dead, that was it. It was slow and steady, death. You could see it coming and still nobody was prepared.
Keith [McNally] is not going to let Balthazar close, but it will look different. Everybody’s roles within the restaurant will look a lot different. I know a lot of beverage directors have gotten laid off. The GM can order wine and have the kegs picked up, but that’s a Band-Aid to me. How long can that last?
The way things were going the last ten years, it was not sustainable—with food costs, wine costs, tariffs and wages increasing, at some point there’s a breaking point. I have to believe this is only going to steer us in a more positive direction, with restaurants being run as the businesses they are. So, I’m very optimistic…but a little burned out.
March 22, 2021
We’ve all had a year to put things in perspective and step away from our regular lives. Now, we’re coming back to the day to day with new eyes. I’m a little overwhelmed but a lot more energized. This week, all the chefs came back and all the porters came back and the bakery staff came back, it was a little overwhelming, you’re happy to see everyone but also, I’ve been physically alone for so long.
We’ll have a lot of locals come back, maybe they are older customers, but a lot of people are used to going out for the new way of dining. Our wine list is not QR-code-friendly: It’s hard to look at in a small format on a phone. Same with the food. Our menus are big, with lots to look at…and there are pictures. Right now, we are finalizing all the menus and have had to completely overhaul our website. It’s designed to look better on your phone—not the entire wine list that you would have to move the screen around to see; you can just scroll up and down. We will still have paper menus and wine lists (in plastic sleeves), but given our experience at Minetta and Morandi, almost nobody wants a real menu.
The wine list pretty much stayed the same, pared down a bit more. When you use the QR code to access the list, you’ll see by-the-glass wines first, then half bottles, then a page of bottle selections from our list—a curated selection of 10 whites and 10 reds and 2 roses—wines up to $150, easy to drink. Looking at a list on the phone is just tiring, so I’m keeping it simple. The bottle selections will change every day. It gives me the opportunity to move things that wouldn’t move because they are buried somewhere in the Languedoc.
For reopening, there’s an out an outdoor dining area on Spring Street, in the parking on the street, and it looks like Balthazar: It’s red, it’s got the awning, we have plants, and it’s branded. It’s gorgeous. We have 100 seats outside. And we have 50 percent capacity indoors, which would be 75 seats.
We’re only opening for dinner on the 24th, and for lunch on the 31st. And brunch this weekend [the 27th]. Brunch is notoriously busy and fast paced. People are having fun and drinking. It’s usually a lot of pressure on the kitchen and a lot of pressure on the staff. Dinner is a little calmer, a little more predictable. That’s going to be the test: Brunch.
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