Star Restaurateur Keith McNally Tells All

By Kristin Donnelly Posted April 23, 2007

This week is a big one for Manhattan restaurateur Keith McNally: His French bistro, Balthazar, turns 10 today, and Wednesday, New York Times critic Frank Bruni doles out stars (or not) to McNally’s newest place, the Italy-inspired Morandi.  

Here, McNally muses on the success of Balthazar, whether or not Morandi can make it, and his love for actress Maria Bello.

Why, after 10 years, do you think Balthazar is still so successful?
Probably the quality and consistency of the food and service for a restaurant that often serves 1,500 meals a day. I think not having me there to greet the customers is a big draw, also, since I don’t have much personality.

In the forever-changing New York restaurant scene, how has Balthazar stayed relevant?
I wouldn't call Balthazar relevant. After all, it's only a restaurant. And if the scene—as you put it—is forever changing then being oblivious to the scene becomes very important. You have to stick with what you know and makes sense to you. Always.

What do you think about the state of New York restaurants today?  
I really don't know anything about the state of restaurants today. I don't pay attention to that sort of thing. Ever.

Are there any aspects of Balthazar that you think need refreshing?
Breakfast at Balthazar has become absurdly busy—we often do 400 covers a day during the week. The need for a more comprehensive breakfast menu is quite important right now. I hope to add things I want to eat, like a croissant with cheese and ham, perhaps. I’ll be meeting with chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson and we should put something new in place in two or three weeks.  

How often do you eat at Balthazar?
Because Morandi just opened, I haven't eaten dinner at Balthazar for two weeks, which is unusual. But I'm there for breakfast and lunch quite a bit. Plus I have meetings there all the time. But I never lose site of the fact that it's a privilege for me to eat there. I'm more than fortunate.

What’s your all-time favorite dish there?
I've always been partial to the roast chicken for two. It's perfectly cooked and is without question, my favorite dish in the city.

After you opened Balthazar, loads of French bistros opened in New York and around the country. Some are nearly blatant knock-offs. What do you make of these?
When I see a knock-off of Balthazar I feel sorry for the owners. Unless it's wildly successful, in which case I'm furious!  But in the end, the look of Balthazar has much less to do with why it works than one would imagine. It actually works because neither the chefs nor myself ever think it does work. That's why.

What would your last meal be if you could choose?
If possible, it would be on the navel of the actress Maria Bello.

Even though in a recent Q&A with Time magazine, you said on Scarlett Johansson’s navel?
Oh, I much prefer Maria Bello. Really.

What do you make of all the negative buzz about Morandi? Does it stand a chance to last as long as Balthazar?
I've no idea. I think only about today and tomorrow. But I couldn't be any happier with the place or with Jody Williams's food. And we couldn't be any busier either. However, Adam Platt of New York magazine gave us a terrible review, and despite the fact that he made some atrocious mistakes in describing the ingredients, I have to begrudgingly accept the fact that Morandi is not for everyone. Of course, Balthazar wasn't universally well-reviewed when it first opened either, but people tend to forget that.

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