Keith McNally has mastered the art of French restaurants better than most Frenchmen: the tin ceilings, weathered mirrors, and red leather banquettes. Just look at his body of work — Balthazar, Pastis, and Schiller’s Liquor Bar. Not bad for a working class British man, who used to bus tables at Serendipity and shuck oysters at One Fifth. But before he arrived in New York, McNally tried to make a living as a theater and film actor in London.
Nowadays, McNally oversees seven restaurants, including his newest venture, Minetta Tavern. It’s something straight out of the 1930’s — the restored bar, the murals, black & white photographs, Grand Marnier souffles and tavern steaks.
If you thought he was done, he’s embarked on another- a yet unnamed pizzeria on the Bowery. What does McNally do in his spare time? He tends to his garden and chases after runaway piglets in Martha’s Vineyard.
your first divorce a tumultuous one or peaceful?
When children are involved divorce is always terrible. Luckily, I'm on very, very good terms with my ex-wife. But it was easily the worst time in my life.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
You grew up in a small town in England, where you spent time acting, even appearing with Michael Redgrave.How did your career evolve there?
I grew up in a working class section of North London. After school, I drifted into acting and somehow performed in a number of plays and films. (Including a play with John Gielgud and a film with Michael Redgrave).
When you came to New York, you first job was a busboy at Serendipity.What inspired you to abandon a career in an acting career for the restaurant business?
I didn't abandon an acting career as I barely had one to begin with. At 19 I left England to hitch-hike around Europe. I ended up in Afghanistan and India where I lived for a year doing very little.I came to New York at 24 with a vague ambition to make films. I ended up as a busboy at Serendipity.
Once upon a time you shucked oysters at a restaurant called, “One Fifth.” How did these entry level jobs prepare you for the empire you now oversee? Shucking oysters prepared me for shucking oysters, nothing else. I'm not sure what prepared me for building restaurants. I enjoy putting places together, that's all. With that comes a knack for working with people far more talented than myself.
You’re British, yet, you’ve never opened a British restaurant.Instead, you focused on French brasseries and bistros, Italian, and even Russian.Why?
I wouldn't want to open a British restaurant for the very reason I'm British. I'm not anti-British but I am anti pro-British. In fact I'm anti pro- everything. I find nothing more loathsome than British people in New York 'playing' on their Britishness. I'd rather open an Icelandic restaurant than a British one to tell the truth.
Which cuisine most fascinates you?Which do you feel most closely connected to?
I like French and Italian food more than anything else. Partly because I like their films, their cafes, their museums. The women aren't bad either.
You also have a reputation for pioneering restaurants in not quite gentrified neighborhoods, such as Odeon in Tribeca and Pastis in the Meatpacking District.Why so brave?Did you ever think you would indirectly encourage New Yorkers to move to those areas and other restaurateurs to follow suit? My brother, Lynn Wagenknecht and I opened The Odeon in Tribeca simply because it was the only area where were could afford to be. Being pioneers or whatever, had nothing to do with it. However, once The Odeon was successful, Drew Nieporent and several other restaurateurs quickly followed. This has often been the case after I've opened a restaurant, but I've always thought it was ridiculous. I opened Pastis in the meat-packing district because I liked the particular corner the building was on, not because it was the meat-packing district and because no one else was there. I'm more interested in the shape and feel of a space than the location. The location can be anywhere as far I'm concerned. And often is.
You were partners with your brother at Odeon, but went separate ways where business is concerned.What’s your relationship like these days and would you ever consider working together again?
My brother lives in Saigon and despite the enormous cost we talk for an hour on the telephone every day. We talk about his celibacy. (He's far from celibate.) We've discussed doing a club together. (The Monogamy Club). We'll see what happens.
Do you ever ask him for advice or he you? Do I ask him for advice? Yes, but mostly about his celibacy. It's a subject I thought I'd be less interested in as I got older. But the reverse has happened.
You launched Morandi with Jody Williams and you both seemed so passionate about the project.Why the departure and was it mutual?Are you happy with Morandi these days?
I think Jody Williams is a terrifically talented chef, but unfortunately I did not enjoy working with her. And to me that's very important. After a while we decided it was time to part ways. Today I'm happier with the food at Morandi than ever before. I also love working with my chef, Tony Liu. I feel very fortunate.
Now onto your most recent venture – Minetta Tavern. Not many restaurateurs would have the confidence to attempt to revive such a historied NYC institution.What about that project interested you? Had you eaten there when it was an Italian red sauce joint?
Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, the chefs from Balthazar, were the ones who found Minetta Tavern. The three of us had decided to build a restaurant together as equal partners and this was the second space we looked at. I had doubts about the location but the place itself, which I'd never seen before, was fantastic. So many of its original features from 1937 were still intact. I wanted to work on it the second I saw it. And once I like a place that much I never think twice about the location.
There’s no question that you kept the integrity of the space intact; the bar, the black & white murals, tin ceiling, and photographs on the walls.How did you pull it off?Do you think Hemingway and Joseph Mitchell would approve or regulars who used to frequent the restaurant back in the day? When renovating a place I only think of what I would like. I never build to please others. If locals like it, and in this case I think they do, then I'm happy. But it's not something I'm aiming towards. I'm a much harsher critic than any local anyway. Or anyone else, come to that.
I like the Roast Chicken with Aligot Potatoes, the Halibut en Papillote, the Black Label Burger, the Lobster Salad and best of all the delicious Mussel Soup.
And your least favorite (yes, you must pick one)?
The Stuffed Calamari.
Do you really save walk-in tables at Minetta and what’s the likelihood that someone can actuallywalk in and get one?
We always have room for walk-ins at Minetta. It would be a very boring place otherwise. But it depends on the time of night. If someone's really nice and willing to be patient we always find a table for them. Always.
What’s do you think are the best seats in the house?The worst?Where do you sit when you dine there?
I really like the small, round corner tables. Obviously the two large booths at the back of the room are the ones people consider the 'best'. However, I prefer the two booths in the bar area. If and when I sit down at the end of the night, it's where I like to sit. (If the chefs are willing to serve me, that is). The worst table in the house is the one where you're arguing with your girlfriend all night.
How involved are you with the day-to-day operations of your restaurants?Are you a micro-manager? What kind of people do you want working in your restaurants?
I'm very involved in the day to day running of the restaurants. I have to be. But on the other hand, when I like and trust someone, I give them an enormous amount of freedom. I like working with people who take the job seriously, but not necessarily themselves doing the job. I want my employees to be decent, conscientious and intelligent. People who do the right thing regardless, or sometimes in opposition to, the rules. The very last thing I want is someone who stands on ceremony.
What inspires you to keep creating new restaurants and new concepts?Rumor had it Morandi was to be your last restaurant and then came Minetta Tavern.Is that your tour d’force or do you still have a few more restaurants you’d like to create?
Despite the fact that 80% of the process is painful and torturous, ultimately there's something rather rewarding about putting a restaurant together. The look, the staff, the food, the organization. All in all, I really enjoy it. Besides, I'm not sure I could do anything else.I'm currently building what I hope is my last restaurant. It's a pizzeria on the corner of Houston and the Bowery. It's already over budget and behind schedule and I'm at the stage where I'm pulling out my hair and wishing I weren't doing it.
Have you decided on a name for your pizza parlor yet? Throwing any names around?
I don't have a name yet for the pizzeria. The problem is the best names are taken. And every year there are fewer and fewer names to choose from.
In addition to the restaurants winning awards, you’ve received a lot of recognition for your humanitarian work, including awards from both C-CAP and the James Beard Foundation.How did you become involved in the charities you support?
Any charity work I might do, and I don't do that much, I do quietly and privately. It's not something I believe one should ever talk about.
Are you a good cook? What's your favorite dish to make?
I do cook, but I'm quite average. Occasionally I get all fancy and cook for 12 people or more. (Then realize I don't know 12 people). On Martha's Vineyard, I cook quite a bit. Last night, I cooked wild salmon on a bed of arugula with a mango salsa vinaigrette. It came out better than it should have. I make a fairly good roast chicken with garlic and rosemary but I would give it 3 stars.
You left the industry for a bit and directed two features. What were the names of those films and what was that like for you?
After my fourth restaurant, I stopped for a few years and wrote and directed two films. One was End Of the Night which got selected for the Cannes film festival and did really well in Europe. The other was Far From Berlin which was... far from successful. At the time I was living in Paris and going through a divorce, so I don't have the best association with it. But the film flopped and it was entirely my fault.
Besides your own restaurants, where do you like to dine out?
For personal reasons, I still like Raoul's on Prince street very much. Il Buco on Bond street also. I went to Locanda Verde the other day and really enjoyed the food. I thought it was terrific.
Where do you go to escape the city? You also have animals and a garden at your house in Martha's Vineyard? Do tell...
Twice a year I go hiking alone in England. The last one was in September when I walked about a hundred miles from the south coast of Devon to the north coast. My wife and I also have a small farm on Martha's Vineyard. We have a huge vegetable garden and lots of chickens and ducks and 6 sheep and 4 pigs. Of course it's far more work than the restaurants.