Thirty years ago, Keith McNally opened his first restaurant on his own, on a not exactly enticing street in Soho. This past summer, he and partner Stephen Starr opened a reincarnation of Pastis, one of his biggest successes, in a vastly transformed section of Manhattan, the Meatpacking Mall.
Eat at either Lucky Strike or Pastis today and it’s easy to understand the trajectory of the McNally touch and the way it transformed how New Yorkers eat. Both restaurants were very new concepts designed to look very old. Not for nothing does he so often get dissed for selling “faux glittery bistros” in a country where, as some wit once said, Europe is considered the prototype for Epcot Center. Both restaurants drew on the allure of a French brasserie but had menus that dipped into the immigrant melting pot and kitchens that always delivered flawless pomme frites. And both explain his many triumphs: While so much coverage has been devoted to his restaurants as celebrity magnets, the reality is that dweebs and olds (and sometimes both) have always made to feel as if they, too, belong. You never had to be a Bret Easton Ellis character to eat at a McNally joint.
The rough template was set at Lucky Strike, which the London immigrant opened after successes at The Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg with his brother Brian and then-wife, Lynne Wagenknecht. The late Seymour Britchky, New York’s best-ever restaurant critic, had the perfect description of it: “ramshackle good looks” and “a French bistro in a saloon.” It was there that McNally conceived of serving wine in water glasses and developed the good bread that would lead to his starting Balthazar Bakery.
Pastis, which he opened 20 years ago, closed in 2014 when the rent got too damn high; the space is now a Restoration Hardware. Now it’s open again, not far away on a very changed Gansevoort Street (get there at a good time and you can walk right in and sit down).
Between Lucky Strike and Pastis, McNally opened Nell’s, Pravda, Schiller’s, Cherche Midi, Balthazar, and Augustine. The last one, in the Beekman Hotel near Wall Street, is as over-the-top opulent as Lucky Strike was “ramshackle” —practice makes dramatic perfection. He also revived Minetta Tavern, with a pricey burger that sent a go-high message to so many other restaurateurs.
McNally, who came to New York in that other New York lifetime that was 1975, is now living in London again. He oversees a Balthazar clone there and—as a onetime child actor, feature filmmaker, and farmer—is writing a memoir in the aftermath of a stroke. He agreed to answer my questions via email.
Food & Wine: How did you go from arriving from London in 1975 to opening your first restaurant five years later?
Keith McNally: When I arrived in New York in 1975 I was 24 with vague plans of making films. On my third day I ran out of money and so I ditched the film idea and got a job, working illegally at Serendipity uptown as a busboy. Three months later I left Serendipity to work, again illegally, as an oyster shucker at a new, terrifically stylish place downtown called One Fifth. Television's Saturday Night Live first aired two months before I started at One Fifth, and the cast would hold their famous after-show parties there. I was soon given the dubious job of organizing these parties, many of which would last until five in the morning. It was at one of these parties where I met SNL producer, Lorne Michaels who would later invest in two of my restaurants. I also met my future wife, Lynn Wagenknecht, there and together with my brother Brian, who also worked at One Fifth, we decided to build our own restaurant. After I became legal, the three of us left One Fifth and found an old cafeteria in Tribeca for rent, which nine months of renovation and $150,000 later, we named The Odeon.
How does the restaurant scene in New York then compare with the scene now?
When I opened Lucky Strike, it was far easier to build a restaurant than nowadays. There weren't these absurdly strict health rules that are designed as much to rake in money for the city as to make eating in restaurants safer.
When I first began building Pastis in 1998, the Meatpacking District was so bleak and empty after dark one had the ghostly feeling of being at the world's end. I loved it. With the exception of the Highline and the stunning new Whitney, unstoppable greed has transformed the meatpacking district into the kind of high-end shopping mall one often finds in Dubai. Restoration Hardware, which replaced the original Pastis, had gone and imposed above its 19th-century facade a hideous-looking structure which, if anything, resembles plastic surgery gone haywire. But considering Pastis was partly responsible for triggering the change it's perhaps hypocritical of me to now criticize this change. But I triggered the change inadvertently, not deliberately.
How did you settle on the location of Lucky Strike? Do you have any criteria for where to develop new places? Beyond Cafe Luxembourg, why never on the Upper West Side (where I just happen to live)?
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, another restaurant was in the same spot. It was called La Gamelle, and it was famous for being open until 4 a.m. I liked it a lot and would hang out there after work. In May 1989 someone told me it was closing. So Lynn Wagenknecht and I took over the lease and with a friend, Ed Youkilis, changed it probably more than the place needed. But we were careful not to destroy La Gamelle's spirit. We then brought in two working partners and opened it as Lucky Strike.
I haven't opened another restaurant on the Upper West Side simply because, though I like the Upper West Side, I don't know it. I have no connection to it. More and more I believe to get the right spirit, you can only open restaurants in areas you have a real connection to.
What was your first restaurant meal, and how did it shape your approach to food and hospitality?
I was 17 when I had my first restaurant meal. It was in Soho, London, at a restaurant called Bianchi's. I was too petrified not to use the wrong cutlery to enjoy the food, or even remember it. The experience only “shaped” my approach to the hospitality business by inspiring me to stay well away from it.
What would you want for your last meal, and where?
I would like to eat my last meal at my oldest restaurant, Lucky Strike. I would eat the steak au poivre medium rare and drink my favorite cocktail, a Vanilla Shanti, which is a sensational mix of vanilla vodka, Cointreau, and a little pineapple juice.
How did Stephen Starr get involved with Pastis, given that you have been a go-it-aloner for so long? Does he credit you with inspiring some of his own places, like Parc in Philadelphia and Le Diplomate in Washington D.C.?
Stephen Starr became my partner because once I had a stroke my original investor of Pastis, the CEO of Scholastic, Dick Robinson, pulled out. Luckily my daughter, Sophie, who was running the financial side of my restaurants at the time, introduced me to Stephen, whom I liked instantly.
On our third meeting, Stephen thanked me for making him so much money from Le Diplomate and Parc which, until then, I'd never heard of. But I like Stephen's restaurants, Le Coucou and Le Mercerie, a lot.
How did you come to open Augustine, which seems to cater to a specific clientele (a.k.a. Wall Street) rather than the mix of nobodies and somebodies at your other restaurants?
I was offered the Augustine space and liked it. Like all my restaurants, I never “target” any specific clientele.
Not trying to elicit any emotions in fraught times, but do you think you could have made your empire anywhere but New York? Or in any country besides the United States?
No, not at all! Some English restaurants are really great, but, in general, English restaurateurs are a petty and xenophobic lot. I would never open another restaurant there.
You also put in time as a farmer, on Martha’s Vineyard. What did you learn from that experience? What lessons can restaurateurs take from that?
I’m not sure that I learned anything from my poor attempt at farming except that farming organically is double blessed: a blessing for the environment and a blessing for the soul of the farmer. I learned to make cheese from milking my goats and also how to grow tomatoes from seeds. The thing with growing your own food is that everything comes at once! I wish one could alter nature so that vegetables grew at the rate one eats them.
I understand Lucky Strike was the genesis of the bread that built Balthazar Bakery. How did that evolve?
My interest in bread came from my friendship with Eli Zabar. (We've since become estranged as most friends of Eli's eventually do!) Because I became obsessed with bread I took a bread-baking class at the New School and learned just enough to know I was no good at it. So when Lucky Strike opened I hired two people who were good at it: Sim Case and Mark Tasker (Tasker is now the head pastry chef at Balthazar), and things progressed from there. But I owe my interest in bread to Eli.
How has the labor shortage affected hiring? Are you taking on older servers where the young and the hip were once the ideal?
I always tried to hire older, unfashionable servers but twenty years ago only very beautiful hip servers were available, so I had no choice. Fortunately, these days the labor shortage has prompted all the older, demonstrably un-hip servers out of hiding so, thank God, they're nowadays available.
How important do you think newspaper and magazine restaurant reviewers are in this heyday of social media, with everyone being a critic?
Still important but far less so, especially to those under 40.
Your places are known as much for the mix of people as for the design and food. Is that still possible as New York City gets pricier?
It’s harder since astronomical rents have forced half the people under 30 to move to the boroughs. As a result, most of New York's more interesting restaurants are there, too.
Your restaurants have always been known more for you than for their chefs. Has that been elemental to their longevity?
The chefs I most admire tend to be—like most good craftsmen—uncomfortable with the celebrity aspect of the job.
How did you develop what’s been dubbed “the McNally design kit”? Did your work in theater and films have an influence?
I wouldn't exactly call it a "design kit.” I think working in theatre and film brought about my obsession in lighting, but what ideas I get as far as design goes come from living in Paris and, without wishing to sound pretentious, they also come from a serious interest in architecture and photography.
Schiller’s Liquor Bar was such an amazement, and not just as depicted in Richard Price’s Lush Life. Why do you think it was it one of your rare failures?
Schiller’s was open for fourteen years and made a substantial profit. If that's a failure, I'd like more of them. I've certainly had my share of failures where I lost millions, but Schiller's wasn't one of them.
Pulino’s and its successor, Cherche Midi, also did not last. Do you think the location was a problem? Did the neighborhood not evolve as others have for you?
When a restaurant doesn't work, the owner invariably blames the location. In the case of Pulino's and Cherche-Midi it was 100 percent my fault. They just weren't good enough. Saying that, Cherche Midi was one of my favourite restaurants.
Everyone is so bleak on the future of restaurants in Manhattan, and chefs are even fleeing Brooklyn for cities like Portland, Maine. What’s your take? Justifiably so?
Yes, I definitely agree with this. When I was starting out, in 1980, restaurant owners expected the rent to be 7 percent or less of the gross. In Manhattan today, it's expected to be 14 or 15 percent. That's why the young and the talented can no longer open restaurants in Manhattan, and as a consequence the more vital and interesting places today are outside Manhattan. Only those with deep pockets and few ideas can afford to open restaurants in Manhattan today, including myself. When I opened Lucky Strike 30 years ago, I was the opposite.
Why did you move back to London? And how difficult is it to oversee your empire from across the water today?
Seven restaurants is definitely not an “empire.” Without someone as knowledgeable and hard-working as my number two, Roberta Delice, my return to London would never have been possible. I moved back to London for two reasons: I wanted my younger children to have a sense of Europe and my background and because I'm bonkers about English theater.
How has Balthazar translated to London?
I suppose on the surface London's Balthazar translates reasonably well. Before building the restaurant there, I didn't realize how much downtown New York shaped the character of Balthazar. If given the choice I wouldn't build Balthazar in London again.
Lastly, how many frites orders do you think all your restaurants have served over the last 30 years?
1 million, 250 thousand. Answering this question took ten times as long as answering of all the other questions combined!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.