On October 10, 1967, a 16-year-old punter from East London named Keith McNally, who would grow up to become one of the greatest restaurateurs to ever ply the trade on the island of Manhattan, stood in a throng at Longchamp racecourse in Paris. It was his first trip to France and he’d brought a wad of cash to put on a horse, a good chunk of it earned as a bellhop at the Park Lane Hilton. A couple of months earlier, McNally had passed by one of the hotel’s banquet rooms and witnessed the Beatles (minus Ringo) having their fateful first meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The most famous persons in the world, McNally recalled when I asked him about this recently, “appeared to be mesmerized by the guru’s honeyed words. But to me they were just meaningless platitudes.”
At Longchamp, the no-nonsense lad watched his sure bet bomb. He limped back to London empty-pocketed, having blown the chance to experience steak frites, onion soup gratiné, or frisée aux lardons—classic brasserie dishes that McNally’s landmark restaurants, including Balthazar, Lucky Strike, Café Luxembourg, Minetta Tavern, and Pastis, which has just reopened in a new Meatpacking District location on Gansevoort Street after a five-year hiatus, have daily served by the hundredweight.
It would not be until the following autumn that McNally, now 17 and cast in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On at London’s Apollo, finally walked into a restaurant for the first time in his life. The McNallys, after all, were working class, the kind of family—three boys, one girl—for whom kitchen-sink drama was a lifestyle. Contemporary photographs of the houses around the McNallys’ Bethnal Green precinct look like they could have been taken in the 1930s—all brick and soot and laundry on the line. You grasp that Swinging London didn’t swing as far as Palm Street, where the McNallys lived. And they fought constantly; McNally has said that the upside was that the endless arguing kept them all from drinking. There was simply no time. Food at home, meanwhile, was “boiled or baked.” It wasn’t about gastronomy; it was about filling your gut.
Battle with a Melon
So, here was McNally, with Bennett, at the storied Bianchi’s in Soho. The silverware, the table linen, the high-end bohemia: it was all baffling. McNally ordered one of the few things he could understand—melon. But there was a hitch. “I’d never eaten cantaloupe melon before,” he said, “and after finishing off its soft interior I began digging my way through its hard exterior.” At this, the saintly woman who ran the place came to his rescue, whispering that it “wasn’t so necessary to eat the outside of the melon.”
Did McNally pick anything else up from Soho in the 60s, that louche domain of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, rock stars, playwrights, transvestites? “Discovering one didn’t eat the outside of a cantaloupe was the only thing that rubbed off onto me,” he said.
It turned out to be a crucial discovery. Half a century later, McNally—who arrived in New York in 1975 and landed a job as a busboy at Serendipity, having ditched acting—remains a man for whom each diner in his establishments is McNally at 17, doing battle with a rind. Ever since opening his first restaurant, the Odeon, with his brother Brian and first wife, Lynn Wagenknecht, in a formerly run-down Tribeca cafeteria in 1980, McNally has built a career by identifying most with what he calls “the people who feel awkward being in one of my restaurants.” Inspired by the hospitable, demotic bustle of Parisian brasseries, McNally creates environments that are engineered—from the craquelure of the subway tiles and the foxed mirrors to the way the phones are answered—to welcome the great and varied parade of tout New York.
“He’s an amazing curator of people,” Jay McInerney said when I asked him how McNally has had an impact not only the city’s gustatory habits but its social rituals, even its sense of itself. (The Odeon famously appeared on the cover of his 1984 debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City.) McInerney mentioned McNally’s impressive personal circle—which has included such writers as Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Robert Hughes, and McInerney himself, along with musicians, actors, cartoonists, and exalted media figures, such as Vogue’s Anna Wintour. (She reportedly enjoys delivery privileges and is one of about 15 people granted the “AAA” rating for priority reservations.) But McInerney was also implying the broad assemblage of types—stars, tourists, young, old, gay, straight, whatever—that congregate in McNally’s restaurants, which pull off the neat trick of feeling like clubhouses for everybody. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger finds this to be McNally’s genius as a restaurateur. “Hot New York restaurants are generally not amiable,” he told me. “There’s usually an inverse relationship between chic-ness and amiability, and that model is one that McNally turned upside down.”
Éric Ripert, the French-born, three-Michelin-starred chef of Le Bernardin, describes the experience of visiting a McNally establishment this way: “You always have this feeling you’re going home.”
McNally creates environments that welcome a great and varied parade. “You always have this feeling you’re going home,” says Éric Ripert.
Walking into the new Pastis does feel like going home. You see that familiar curving zinc bar, the mosaic floor, the just-so banquettes, the one-page menu, the amber lighting purpose-built to erase the past dozen years of your life. The McNally Design Kit has never looked better. (For the record, he has long worked with designer-contractor Ian McPheely. “He does the heavy lifting,” McNally said. “I sprinkle the powdered sugar on top.”) For all the accolades piled upon McNally for nailing Paris at a lost moment in time, he loathes the notion of historical accuracy. “It usually results in nothing more than an artificial stage set,” he wrote in The Balthazar Cookbook—or, worse, a theme park.
“Knowing which wrong details to use is important,” Goldberger said, and it’s true. Pastis is a hodgepodge of brasserie, French flea market, and downtown Manhattan. It’s not a reproduction of anything, except maybe its old self. In the days after the unveiling, the place looked like it had been there for decades. And it was already buzzing, as the clientele flocked back to the nest after a five-year diaspora.
It’s something of a miracle that Pastis 2.0 came to be. In October 2016, McNally opened Augustine, his Gaslight Era fantasia in the Beekman hotel. The following month, he suffered a stroke that reportedly resulted in some paralysis of his right side. He is still very rarely seen in public. “My biggest challenge post-stroke,” he said, “is having to answer questions about my life post-stroke.” Elsewhere, McNally has discreetly described the effects as “awful.” These go beyond the physical. During McNally’s rehabilitation (which is ongoing), he and his second wife, Alina, split after 15 years of marriage. “Hey, when it’s your day, it’s your day!” McNally observed to me via e-mail, his preferred mode of communication since the stroke. “But that’s life, I suppose.” (He has two children with Alina, and three with Wagenknecht, who took over the Odeon, Café Luxembourg, and Nell’s, the defunct 14th Street nightclub, after their divorce in the early 1990s.) In 2017, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, a perennial McNally hot spot, closed due to a rent hike; it was followed in 2018 by Cherche Midi, his Bowery bistro. (It had been the pizza-centric Pulino’s, McNally’s only flop.) Meanwhile, his longtime investors bailed. “I had never felt so down in my life,” McNally said. Building a new Pastis looked next to impossible.
In 2016, McNally suffered a stroke. Then he and his second wife split up. “Hey, when it’s your day, it’s your day!” he observed.
His daughter Sophie, having taken over the finances of McNally’s restaurants, took up the torch, eventually finding Stephen Starr, of the eponymous Philadelphia-based restaurant empire, as a willing investor and co-operator. (Starr’s Morimoto and Buddakan are a couple of blocks from Pastis.) The McNally-Starr partnership came as a surprise to many observers. Starr appears to practice a Manifest Destiny approach to restaurant domination, while McNally is an irascible obsessive along the lines of The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, as described by James Thurber: “He dreamed of perfection, not of power or personal fortune.” Yet, like McNally, Starr takes a no-holds-barred approach to getting the atmosphere exactly right, which has made his Le Coucou, on Lafayette Street, one of the most transporting dining rooms in America.
In McNally’s view, Starr is the savior of Pastis. “Stephen was about the only person in the city who had faith in me to build a restaurant,” McNally said. “He allowed me to build Pastis exactly the way I wanted to without one iota of a restriction. Because of this I would like Pastis to succeed mostly for him.”
For his part, Starr (who put his trusted chef Michael Abt at the helm) was struck by McNally’s energy and focus, despite the physical compromises and the fact that McNally’s main residence, since 2011, has been London. “He designed the restaurant and has been here constantly,” Starr told The New York Times ahead of the pre-opening friends-and-family nights, which McNally rallied to attend, seating himself near the front door. McNally, Starr told me, is “an iconic restaurateur that I’ve always looked up to. I feel that the impact he’s had on the industry goes beyond food, affecting popular culture in New York City.”
“I’m knocked out by the idea of him going to Stephen Starr,” Ruth Reichl, the best-selling memoirist and former editor of Gourmet, told me. “He makes wonderful restaurants.” She sees little risk when it comes to reanimating Pastis in a new space and era—unlike, say, the ill-fated Four Seasons reboot. “It will be packed,” she predicted. “It’s an absolute no-brainer.” McInerney has already declared himself a regular. “The old black magic is working,” he told me.
A Whirl of Fabulousness
Despite surrounding himself with a whirl of fabulousness since 1980, McNally, presiding with a kind of careworn handsomeness, has never quite lost himself in it. If he loves the access that comes with being the proprietor of Balthazar and Pastis, there remains an apartness to him, a sense that he’s never forgotten where he’s from and might be embarrassed about where he is now. He has yet to relinquish the kid within who once tossed a cricket ball through a pub window or struggled with a cantaloupe at Bianchi’s. In the way of other British working-class wonders, from Michael Caine to David Hockney to Keith Richards, the effect has been like catnip upon the exalted and boldfaced, who keep swarming his restaurants and populating his social calendar.
He is a natural storyteller, with a fidgety, self-lacerating wit that makes him the Alvy Singer of restaurant men. “Do you know how they say some men are good to be with in trenches?” he said when opening the London Balthazar in 2013. “Well, I’m not that man.” In the press he’s flippant and unpredictable and free of crapola, which is refreshing indeed in our era of media-trained blather. Sample quote: “My favorite customers tend to be those who slip a hundred bucks for a table.” Along similar lines: “My ideal clientele would be layabouts, prostitutes and ex-cons.”
Some facts about McNally. His favorite film is The Third Man and his favorite Italian city is Bologna, the capital of mortadella. Fancy wine terrifies him. “Snobbery, of any kind,” he has said, “repulses me.” He considers the best job he’s ever had to be an all-too-brief stint working in a London strip club in the mid-1970s. He collects German Expressionist art and loathes the word “collector.” He despises “the bullshit of multi-millionaire con artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.” Also, “Monet’s overrated Water Lilies and his fucking sacred house and garden at Giverny.” He takes wonderful photographs, often of building façades; they are minimal and low-key, yet they vibrate with intense energy, much like the man himself.
There are reports of good-natured acts of McNally charity not engineered for publicity, such as feeding the cast and crew of London’s Donmar Warehouse and providing Oliver Sacks with food from Pastis and Morandi, his West Village trattoria, when Sacks was recovering from surgery. His chefs have been pleasantly startled to have a boss who prefers to discourse about great films, books, art, and records rather than rattle on about bottom lines or the Food Network. (His most celebrated kitchen lieutenants, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, went on to open the mobbed Frenchette, in Tribeca, last year, and recently bought Le Veau d’Or, the grande dame of New York’s French bistros.) You don’t hear about restaurant-titan rages or martinet cruelty, just the occasional pushback against critics, as when McNally blasted the “unremittingly sexist slant” of Frank Bruni’s Times columns. (Bruni returned fire: “McNally is a horrible man.”)
Then there’s that on-and-off feud with his brother Brian that goes back to the Reagan administration. The Brothers McNally are the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of the New York restaurant world. “Even when we get along—as we do now—we’re always one wrong word away from not talking,” McNally admitted. After the Odeon, Brian went on to establish Indochine and 44, the 1990s power playpen in the Royalton hotel, which McNally said might have provoked fraternal envy on his part. “Life without him,” says Keith, “is difficult to imagine.” (Brian declined to comment on family matters.)
The Brothers McNally are the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of the New York restaurant world.
McNally turned 68 last month. He appears to be in an elegiac, even Proustian frame of mind as he spins tales of melon and the Maharishi. Having made two films (End of the Night and Far from Berlin), it turns out he’s been at work on a memoir. “I write for six hours every day,” he said. “Of course, five of the six hours of this is spent re-writing.”
“Keith is a workaholic, totally work focused,” McInerney observed. “He is not the kind of guy you find drinking at his own restaurants at one or two in the morning. Mario Batali he is not.” I asked McNally if he considers himself a workaholic. “I’m too busy to answer the question,” he replied.
In 1999, when the original Pastis opened, the treasured bistro Florent had been serving steak frites and Beaujolais to a good-looking, wee-hours crowd in the Meatpacking District for 15 years. The area was the home of the faux–redneck bar Hogs & Heifers, not to mention a few nightclubs where, as John Waters fondly remembered, one could see “men pay good money to get pissed on.” In other words, it wasn’t all just rats and hookers and slaughterhouses. Even so, Pastis came to emblemize the gentrification that drove Florent out of the Meatpacking District in 2008. When it came to sharks jumping, Pastis was declared the great white of the area. But they kept jumping: the Standard hotel, the High Line, Stella McCartney, DVF, Soho House, eventually the new Whitney.
Pastis itself was driven out in 2014. The 2019 incarnation has Hermès and Loro Piana as neighbors. “Apart from the Whitney and High Line, I find most of the changes in the area to be fairly atrocious,” McNally told me. The old Pastis location is now a Restoration Hardware, housed in a building McNally considers “utterly out of place in the 19th-century neighborhood. It’s perfect for Dubai, as is the fucking awful Gansevoort hotel.”
The endless waves of foodie revolution since 1999—gastronomic gentrification, if you will—have been kept at bay at McNally’s establishments. You won’t find rotary evaporators in the kitchens or fried reindeer moss on the menus. Brasserie cooking, after all, is straight up the middle. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels once described the Odeon in words that apply across the board at McNally’s restaurants: “It had sophistication and it had French fries.”
“It had sophistication and it had French fries.”
Those McNally fries are the ambrosial stuff of legend, presented in a towering pile, enfolded in waxy paper ($10 at Pastis). Ripert once called Balthazar—which turns out 750 pounds of them a day—to find out how they’re made. He lauds the no-nonsense, no-shortcut approach: “Fresh every day. Good potatoes. The right technique”—soaking Idaho russet slices in water and then frying them twice. “It’s not a bad idea to build an empire on French fries!” Reichl said.
Like the tiles, lighting, and mirrors that McNally obsesses over, French fries are a crucial detail expressing the precision and care in his restaurants, from Balthazar to Minetta Tavern to Pastis: “You’ll never go there and have a bad meal,” Reichl said. “Where else can you say that?” Ripert agreed. “It’s incredible how they can keep that consistency with the volume that they do,” he said. When I mentioned the universal affection for these French fries to McNally, he shrugged it off: “I wouldn’t say I’ve nailed it with anything, especially with the restaurant’s side dishes.”
There are some naysayers who agree. Balthazar, for instance, has been dismissed as a tourist trap with ho-hum food even as it’s been lauded as the quintessential New York restaurant. For the record, Ripert thinks it’s “probably the best brasserie in the world.” In fact, it’s possible in 2019 to view McNally as not only a successful restaurateur (whose business was estimated in 2013 to net $60 million annually) but as a global steward of a particular mode of eating. Alexander Lobrano, the author of Hungry for Paris and the ranking non-French expert on French restaurants, told me, “Often it’s an outsider who best understands the DNA of a great foreign institution.” In his opinion, the Paris brasserie—with its roots in the 1870s—has been “saved from mediocrity and irrelevance by savvy re-invention, not in Paris, but in London by Sir Terence Conran—and New York City by Keith McNally.”
Two or three generations of New Yorkers have been the beneficiaries. They have found in McNallyland the places they’ve had first dates, gotten engaged, gotten divorced, become pregnant, celebrated birthdays, mourned losses, grown up, grown old, stayed forever young. They’ve had their share of steak frites and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, occasionally to ritual excess. “I’ve had hundreds of happy hours under roofs that Keith was leasing,” McInerney said, summing it up for the general populace. Almost 40 years after the Odeon, McNally is still giving New Yorkers what they want to eat and the places where they want to eat it. No doubt, New Yorkers are still hungry for more.
“In many ways I’m sick of restaurants,” McNally rather alarmingly told a newspaper three years ago. He then went on to open two more of them. After pushing Pastis 2.0 across the finish line amid a stroke and personal strife, does he have another restaurant up his sleeve? “Let me check my sleeve,” McNally said by way of signing off, “and get back to you.”
Mark Rozzo is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL.