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Keith McNally Stirs the Pot

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One of the luckiest things that can happen to a restaurant is for it to remain open long enough to become a place that famous people used to go.

That was part of what made the March reopening of Balthazar, a SoHo mainstay since the height of the dot-com bubble, unusual. Jay-Z and Beyoncé turned up for dinner. Nancy Pelosi came for breakfast. Patrons made out at their tables, took trips together to the bathroom.

“People are horny!” said Jonathan Wynne, the bartender.

But all those shows have been upstaged by the one the restaurant’s 69-year-old owner, Keith McNally, is putting on daily over Instagram, where, instead of art directing his life, he has reveled in the mess of it.

After a debilitating stroke in 2017 made it impossible for Mr. McNally to speak normally; after Alina McNally, his wife of more than 15 years, served him the following year with divorce papers, he has staved off the humiliation of being a straight white goliath in decline by heaping it on everyone in his way. A Howard Beale for the Instagram era, he’s here lashing out on behalf of boomerish power lunchers who believe in a woman’s right to a safe abortion and oppose police brutality but are too scared to admit how enraged they are by a generation of absolutist woke whiners.

One minute, he’s uploading sumptuous shellfish shots. The next, he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.

That’s what he told Hachette Book Group in the spring of 2020 when it canceled its publication of Woody Allen’s memoir, saying it “signals a dangerous victory for censorship by those who shout loudest.”

That’s what he told those who expressed outrage, by announcing that he believed Mr. Allen over his adopted daughter Dylan, who has long accused him of molesting her as a child.

That’s what he told all those lickspittles hanging on Meghan Markle’s every word when he uploaded a Photoshopped image of her husband, Prince Harry, standing beside Yoko Ono.

He picked fights with people who’d seemingly done nothing to warrant his ire.

One was a young woman who posted a picture of herself on the streets of SoHo wearing ordinary day clothes. Mr. McNally commented that she looked like “a hooker.” When Page Six called for comment — it’s done a lot of that with him over the last year — he said he “meant it as a compliment.”

Never mind that the woman had never met him.

This spring, he announced he was banning the magazine editor Graydon Carter from his restaurants after he failed to show up for a lunch reservation. Mr. Carter called this a “deranged rant.”

Mr. McNally, perhaps surprisingly to some, is a self-described “solid Democrat.”

He ridiculed Donald Trump and wrote admiringly about Monica Lewinsky, who had dined at Balthazar in June.

“Although I loathe Cancel Culture, I don’t intentionally offend people,” he said over email, his chosen mode of communication because of his difficulty speaking. “But as the great Thomas Paine once said, ‘He who dares not to offend cannot be honest.’”

And after he was hospitalized with Covid-19 and lost millions of dollars (pre-pandemic, he said his restaurants did around $70 million a year), those restaurants that remain are once again filling up.

Are his patrons simply too giddy in this post-pandemic moment to muster sustained outrage over his outré behavior?

Or, instead, has Mr. McNally homed in on the zeitgeist — or a zeitgeist — yet again?

Although Mr. McNally is one of the restaurant world’s biggest success stories, and a man who can talk a lot about himself, he remains something of a riddle.

He has won numerous awards for the food he serves, yet he is not a chef, and has little interest in what may be described as cutting-edge cuisine.

He has spent his life anticipating the changing tastes of fabulous, glamorous people but his closet is filled with pilling sweaters.

His compulsion to mold every aspect of his surroundings to his own specifications is known to everyone who works for him. So is his apparent belief in the inevitability of calamity.

Mr. McNally comes from London’s East End. His mother, Joyce McNally, cleaned offices. His father, Jack, was a dock worker and amateur boxer (paging Dr. Freud!). They had another son, Brian.

As a teenager, Keith was cast in the West End production of Alan Bennett’s first play, “Forty Years On.” His mother burst into tears, telling him, “You’re going to be working with a homosexual!”

He didn’t care.

In 1974, Mr. McNally arrived in New York hoping to make it in films and fell into restaurants by running out of money.

First, he waited tables at Maxwell’s Plum and Serendipity. Then, he shucked oysters at One Fifth, a celebrity hangout near the north end of Washington Square Park.

Lynn Wagenknecht, Mr. McNally’s first wife, was a waitress. Brian became the bartender there.

Anna Wintour got to know the brothers McNally after the chef at One Fifth refused to make her eggs Benedict and Keith prepared it himself. (Mr. McNally got himself in some trouble when he told a version of the story on Instagram and made a point of referring repeatedly to the guy not by name, but as a Chinese chef.)

She and Brian later shared a downtown loft, though they were not romantically involved.

Now that Keith is a figure of controversy, Ms. Wintour has just this to say about him, also over email: “Keith has always been very determined and sure of his taste,” she wrote. “He’s a perfectionist — every detail in every one of his restaurants is chosen and approved by him. Always kind to his teams and gracious to all who work with him. He has continued to work as hard, and with as much passion, even under the most difficult of personal circumstances.”

Lorne Michaels became Keith’s good friend because “Saturday Night Live” had its post-show parties at One Fifth.

“When the party was ending, Keith would be there for another half-hour and I’d be there for another half-hour and we’d talk,” Mr. Michaels said. “You’d be talking about what was good and what was bad, and what book you read and what play he saw. He was really read and sophisticated about those things with very strong opinions.”

Kim Hastreiter, a founder of Paper Magazine, credits Mr. McNally with helping establish TriBeCa as an artists’ haven in the 1980s.

Michael Musto, the longtime Village Voice columnist, blames him for gentrifying it, and “bringing what were essentially uptown restaurants south of the border, by which we mean 14th Street.”

“Overall, I’d rather see a more bohemian New York than one where restaurants make huge profits,” Mr. McNally said. “But I’d rather see a conservative New York than one where I personally go broke.”

The formula was hatched at Odeon, a retro French brasserie that Mr. McNally opened with Ms. Wagenknecht and his brother Brian in 1980. That was really the first place in TriBeCa where the leather banquettes, Art Deco lighting fixtures and glittery people went.

“Everyone you turned, there was a model, an artist, an actor, a writer, a director, a gallery owner or someone who was just beautiful,” said Jay McInerney, who immortalized the place in his first novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.”

Andy Warhol brought Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Madonna. They ate free of charge. In exchange, the restaurant got a monthly ad in Interview, the magazine Mr. Warhol founded.

Ms. Hastreiter worked out a similar arrangement with the Odeon’s owners. Her booth was in the back. “Except on Sunday afternoons,” she said. “Robert De Niro got it then. I wasn’t into brunch anyway.”

The brothers had started fighting.

In 1982, Keith became resentful of Brian, who in his estimation was working less hard while gaining more friends.

Night after night, Keith would peer over at the bar and notice that one of the guys behind it was missing. Then, he would look around the room, and there, sitting in some booth with some scintillating group, would be Brian.

“I was jealous of his social ease,” Keith said.

One night, standing on the sidewalk, Brian punched Keith so hard that he broke his cheekbone. (“Unfortunately true,” Brian said.)

After that, they dissolved the partnership and didn’t speak to each other for eight years.

Brian opened Indochine, a fusion Vietnamese restaurant on Lafayette Street, across from the Public Theater. Outside, it looked like nothing was there. Inside, it was a noirish tropical paradise, a Grace Jones video come to life.

Mr. McNally and Ms. Wagenknecht had recently opened their second restaurant, Cafe Luxembourg — another great bistro — on the sleepier Upper West Side.

It didn’t have anything as exotic as banana plant wallpaper. Brian got written about everywhere, and for a time became the star.

“I was livid with envy,” Mr. McNally said.

He and Ms. Wagenknecht retorted with an actual club, Nell’s, a downtown take on an uptown supper club (which they opened in consort with their friend, Nell Campbell). Bands played upstairs. And the crowd from Indochine flowed in.

But Mr. McNally and Ms. Wagenknecht’s marriage soon broke up. They worked out joint custody of their three children. And divided the restaurants between them.

She got Cafe Luxembourg and the Odeon, both of which she continues to run with great success. He took Lucky Strike, a bistro they had recently opened in SoHo.

A popular theory among critics is that Mr. McNally’s restaurants, with their amber glow, bistro fare and cast of recognizable characters, are really a frustrated director’s unrealized stage sets.

He hates hearing this, because, during the time Brian was getting all the attention, Keith went off and made a couple of films. And, as he says, “no movie reviewer ever compared them to restaurant dining rooms.”

Maybe they just didn’t spend enough time in them.

The first film, “End of the Night,” appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. In a YouTube clip from it, an actor who looks like he’s doing a schlumpier version of Humphrey Bogart moves through crowded clubs, transfixed by the beautiful people dancing to house music, and never really a part of it.

He’s uncomfortable. But he can’t leave.

Which is often how Mr. McNally described his own feelings about himself in his restaurants.

The film is shot in a neorealist, black-and-white style, giving the whole thing a past-meets-future thing that’s of a piece with the restaurants Mr. McNally subsequently created.

The warm-up was Pravda, a Soviet-style vodka bar Mr. McNally opened on Lafayette Street in 1996. The main event was Balthazar, and the spillover room, according to William Grimes — The New York Times restaurant critic at the time — was Pastis.

At all three, Mr. McNally obsessed over the next while romanticizing a mythic past that maybe once was. When he couldn’t recreate it through the assemblage of actual lost objects, he hired teams of designers to manufacture it.

Metal surfaces were oxidized, mirrors cracked and aged. And by the mid-aughts, downtown Manhattan had almost as many McNally restaurants as Duane Reades.

Seventh Avenue South got Morandi, the first McNally restaurant to do Italian food.

Macdougal Street got Minetta Tavern, which Frank Bruni said in a three-star review in The Times is the “best steakhouse” in all of New York City.

One of the few to fail was Pulino’s, an upscale pizzeria Mr. McNally opened on the Bowery in 2010. After a mediocre review in New York Magazine by its restaurant critic, Adam Platt, Mr. McNally responded with a scathing letter.

In it, Mr. McNally made fun of Mr. Platt for being “bald and overweight.” And called him out for using clichés like “scenesters” and “indie movie moguls” to describe people in the crowd.”

Wonder who might have leaked the letter?

Shane McBride was the head chef of the kitchen at Balthazar when the restaurant group’s manager of operations came in to tell him about Mr. McNally’s stroke.

At the time, Mr. McNally was living in London with Alina and their children, George and Alice, but he still came regularly to New York.

Yet Mr. McBride didn’t see his boss again until after he left the restaurant group a year later.

Mickey Drexler, the retail eminence, did. “Once,” he said. “It was tragic. He couldn’t really talk, he could barely walk.”

In the aftermath of the stroke, Ms. Wagenknecht came to London with their son, Harry, and daughters, Isabelle and Sophie. They became increasingly involved with his care (and his restaurants).

Ms. McNally, who according to friends had long struggled to find her footing, grew more isolated.

Eventually, she hired a divorce lawyer and served him with papers. Instagram turned out to be a refuge, as well as a kind of first draft for a memoir Mr. McNally’s writing.

“It’s the only time I’m not prejudged on appearance, it’s the only time I feel people see me as normal. That’s why I initially began posting,” he said.

Unlike more conventional influencers, Mr. McNally shares with the performers he has befriended a need for attention that is superseded only by his irritation in the face of it.

Contacted by a reporter, he would agree to an interview, then cancel, then agree again.

For days he would go silent. Then he could not stop talking.

Especially about his belief in the innocence of Mr. Allen. The main part of his reason is: “The three most intelligent men I’ve been fortunate to know well — Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens and Jonathan Miller — were each die-hard believers in Allen’s innocence. As was Aristotle.”

He wants to live in a world where some distinction exists between a boss flirting with an employee and a boss harassing one.

“When I was single, I’d of course, occasionally ask a waitress out,” he said. “But if she said no, which she invariably did, I wouldn’t dream of badgering her. I would rather promote a server who had the sense to reject me.”

His children have spent a fair amount of time trying to get him to shut up. Occasionally, he said, they have become “so angry by my posts that they’ve asked me to take them down. I usually do it.”

But among people in his own age group, something different has emerged: a desire simply to have a disagreement without it being a big deal.

When Mr. McNally wrote a post saying that Ghislaine Maxwell deserves due process rather than a public rush to judgment, Mr. Drexler shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “It seems like there’s very little is to defend there.’”

Still, he said, “I’m so tired of all this political correctness. It’s such B.S.”

“He’s a strong spice,” Ms. Hastreiter said of Mr. McNally. “It’s not about politics.”

“The only benefit of having had a serious stroke,” Mr. McNally said, “is I don’t care at all any more what people think of me. Having said that, I’d rather have not had my stroke and be terrified of what people think about me, by far.”


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