The POST-COVID, POST-MANHATTAN PLANS PLANS of the MOST MANHATTAN of RESTAURATEURS
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
KEITH McNALLY, TO GO
Matthew Schneier

THE LIGHTS ARE back on at Balthazar, and the tables are booked; the people spill into the street again, sometimes tripping into the security guard stationed, unobtrusively but not exactly invisibly, outside. Zouheir Louhaichy, a 24-year veteran of this and other Keith McNally restaurants, is at his old post at the maître d’s stand, which has been moved outside and outfitted with a bottle of hand sanitizer. He wears the same suit and tie as always, greets just as graciously, and flips through the dog-eared pile of papers that is Balthazar’s daily reservations list—even in the age of iPads and Resy—marking his inscrutable runes in pencil at the margins.

Inside, in the bronzy, nicotine glow of the dining room, an ambient roar floating up from the tables, it’s not the rude mechanics of the place you feel. It’s the analgesic drip of service and certitude: the oil greasing the gears, not the gears themselves. On a still-warm Friday night not so long ago when I managed to land a reservation, I moved my table an inch farther away from the couple’s next to mine, and a waiter, descending to take drink orders, noticed instantaneously and slid it back into position without a word. In front of me was the editor-in-chief of Town & Country, and opposite, the Broadway actor John Benjamin Hickey. Outside, as my friend and I left, shielded under the pandemic-era outdoor-dining huts, which have increased the table count of the restaurant by half again, was Tracee Ellis Ross, laughing and snapping pictures on her phone.

Balthazar opened in 1997 but was designed to look as if it had been there for decades or longer. Its menu is derived from Parisian brasserie classics, its frites manufactured with factory-line precision (in 2013, the New York Times dedicated an entire “Op-Doc” to that process). As with McNally’s other restaurants—Pastis, reopened in 2019, five years after losing its lease to the very forces of gentrification it had helped to unleash in the Meatpacking District; the Italian trattoria Morandi in the West Village; and Minetta Tavern, a Franco-American chophouse in Greenwich Village—Balthazar was never about a big-name chef with a foodie agenda. It doesn’t fetishize farms (and their nearness to tables) or raise up underrepresented cuisines. It represents only itself, which is to say New York, or not quite New York but an idea of New York, a place of sloshing martinis at all hours and tables for the elect, the few, and the favored—but if you don’t mind waiting, we might be able to squeeze you in at the bar—where every business meeting is a party and every party a potential business meeting.

THE McNALLY UNIVERSE

The many boldface mouths he has fed through the years.

At Morandi Calvin Klein and Kyra Sedgwick in 2009, Sarah Jessica Parker in 2009, and Malcolm Gladwell in 2013.

At Balthazar Julianne Moore in 2014, Victoria Beckham in 2016, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour in 1998, and Katie Holmes in 2009.

At the original Pastis Usher in 2011, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce in 2005, Beyoncé in 2009, and Marc Jacobs in 2012.

Recent years have been rough on McNally, even as his restaurants continued to sparkle woozily. A stroke in November 2016 left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak clearly (he now prefers to communicate via email, which we did over the course of several months). It was followed by a costly divorce from his second wife, Alina, filed in 2018.

Then the pandemic came. The devastation to restaurants wrought by covid-19 is well documented; 1,200 New York City establishments closed between March and August of last year alone. According to one recent survey, 51 percent of restaurants nationwide couldn’t afford their rent this past September. For months at Balthazar, the oysters weren’t shucked, and no one pleaded with the reservationists to be seated. Rumors, confidently asserted, bubbled through the brunching class that it was never coming back. The pandemic did claim two of McNally’s restaurants: Lucky Strike, a low-key Soho institution since 1989, and Augustine, grander, at the Beekman hotel near City Hall, which had just opened in 2016. And it almost killed McNally himself. In March 2020, covid sent him to the hospital, a second brush with death in four years. “Everybody was amazed, with his stroke, that actually it didn’t kill him,” says his old friend William Miller. “If covid was going to kill anybody, it would have been Keith.”

But back from the grave he roared: His speech might be impaired, yet he found a way to express himself. Just before the pandemic, he began using Instagram (current bio: “Deadbeat New York Restaurateur”), arriving without much fanfare and no great controversy—his first post was about an especially tall waiter—and very quickly began generating both. Three weeks in, McNally had to issue the first of a number of public explanations—not to say apologies—to the press for having offended the propriety of the internet by decrying the decision of the publisher Hachette to cancel the publication of Woody Allen’s memoirs. (Reached for comment, Allen said he “scarcely knows” McNally but appreciates the support.) Maybe he was just sensitive to the plight of a fellow memoirist since McNally has been churning away on his own recollections, rising early to work every morning from 5 to 11 a.m. Or maybe it was that having survived a major stroke to tell his tale, he wasn’t about to be put off telling it, weaker constitutions be damned. “He’s always been quite contrarian,” a London friend of his told me, but lately, “he’s definitely become less—what’s the word?—less filtered.

Now McNally, apparently as unsinkable and uncancelable as Balthazar, is preparing to do anything but slow down. According to him, he can’t. “Divorce and covid cost me $10 million,” he tells me. (“With Keith deciding to retain the same legal counsel that represented Prince Charles and Paul McCartney in their respective divorces, I imagine his legal fees must have been quite costly,” says his ex-wife Alina.)

The comeback plan includes teaming up with Philadelphia mega restaurateur Stephen Starr and others to build near facsimiles of his very Manhattan bistros in lesser cities. (For a man who spent years anticipating the next hot neighborhood, after a 1993 Williamsburg deal fell through, he never ventured into the outer boroughs.) Starr, whose 40-restaurant strong portfolio includes Le Coucou, a high-end French restaurant in New York, and the admittedly rather Balthazaresque Parc in Philly as well as Mexican joints El Vez and Jackass Burrito and the mammoth, party-down Pan-Asian chain Buddakan, first partnered with him for the reopening of Pastis in 2019.

It’s a new-old era for McNally. While others may imitate him, he has always recoiled from repeating himself. Over the years, he flirted with the idea of cloning his successes, only to back away. In the early aughts, the casino magnate Steve Wynn offered him $5 million to build a Balthazar outpost in Vegas, but McNally bolted. “I became, um, sickened by the whole idea of being out there and reproducing another thing that I had already done,’’ McNally told the Times in 2004, instead opening the bistro Schiller’s on the still-gentrifying Lower East Side. (It closed in 2017.)

He has gotten over that nausea and today says he regrets not taking Wynn up on the offer. Now he and Starr are building a new Pastis in Miami, and he’s close to a deal on a space for a new Balthazar oyster bar uptown. Separately, with his own group’s CEO and Minetta Tavern’s chef as partners, he is building a new Minetta Tavern in Washington, D.C. There was even a plan for a restaurant in St. Barts, though McNally now says it has fallen through. But it seems safe to say he and Starr have more afoot. “Stephen’s responsible for the finances and the kitchen, and I’m responsible for design and service,” says McNally. Starr, in turn, speaks reverentially of McNally. “In terms of the day-to-day operations, the nuts and bolts of the place, we were more than capable of taking care of that,” Starr says. “It’s his spirit and inspiration that you can’t buy.”

But McNally’s spirit is often cranky, as his social media—he has just over 32,000 followers on Instagram—reminds Starr. He has to put up with it. “I rarely look at Instagram,” Starr says. “But there was an occasion or two that maybe I felt it would be best not to discuss certain things—you know, just to let things go and not say what you really think.” Was McNally receptive to these gentle cautions, I wondered? “Not at all,” Starr said with a gruff chuckle. “Not at all.”

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