Since the day balthazar opened its carefully antiqued doors three years ago, Francophiles have cooed knowingly over the details Keith McNally captured in his Parisian-style brasserie – the brass railings aux Deux Magots, the cloudy mirrors, the late-night oysters. One could only complain, perhaps, that both Balthazar and its more informal follow-up, Pastis, lacked true bohemian spirit, populated as they are by well-fed celebrities rather than starving artists.
As if in answer to McNally’s prayers, that’s no longer entirely true: Elizabeth Bisbing and Elinore Schnurr, both artists, if not starving ones, have recently been setting up their oil paints and tabletop canvases in the corners of both boîtes. They paint restaurant-goers as they flip through their Wall Street Journals (longing, no doubt, for an International Herald Tribune) or power-breakfast over a brioche.
So far, no one has bought their portraits, and one woman even asked the manager at Balthazar to tell Bisbing not to paint her. “But the manager was quite lovely about it,” says Bisbing, “assuring me that if anyone else in my line of vision didn’t want to be painted, he’d request that they move.” Pastis was slightly less supportive of the arts: “I’d been painting in the afternoon,” says Schnurr, “and at six o’clock, the candles got lit, the dark suits started showing up, and the waiter definitely encouraged me to leave.”
The painters relish the early-morning light that floods both spaces, but the restaurants do have their drawbacks. “At Balthazar, everyone wears so much black you can end up with just a dark blob on your canvas,” says Bisbing. For Schnurr, the brass railings others find so charming are annoying: “People pile coats on them and block the vista.”
Bisbing’s favorite painting is one she did of three models who spent hours at Pastis. “They ate nothing but water and bread,” she says. “And they rated the appearance of every woman who walked in.” Bisbing couldn’t help but wonder if they were props paid to enhance the atmosphere. As for the artists, who show their work through the Website artadvocate.com, McNally did not, in fact, import them from Montmartre; they came of their own accord, drawn by the stage-set environs. That said, McNally is happy to have them paint his patrons. “I like the idea that there’s someone painting in the restaurant,” he says. “I also like it when people are playing chess. Or kissing. Just so long as they’re not on the phone.”