Pulinos 4
Minetta Tavern 2
Keith McNally 1
Balthazar 2
Pastis 2
Balthazar 3
Pulinos 1
Minetta Tavern 1
Pastis 3
Balthazar London 7
Balthazar London 3
Pastis 1
Minetta Tavern 3
Pulinos 2
Balthazar 1
How to cook Italian cuisine when you are not Italian? How to open a classic French brasserie when you are neither French nor opening it in France? These are pressing questions for any budding restaurateur in New York - one of the most lucrative and unforgiving hospitality environments on earth.

Those that resort to inch by inch recreations of their favorite Parisian haunts often create mausoleums for their own conservatism and ultimately lose their shirt, having created spaces and menus that stifle and intimidate their customers.

However, those who get the essential components and ingredients wrong fare just as badly. One of the head chefs at Balthazar, one of New York’s most revered and star-spangled restaurants, is quoted as saying that on opening, one of their principal challenges was to create the perfect French fries. Whilst a seemingly unimportant detail in a multi-million dollar restaurant project, this is a
Keith McNally French brasserie, and as such it is vital that the bass note of a brasserie, ever present on almost every signature cover, is just right.

Creatively, Keith McNally seems to live in this tension between authenticity and detail - having instinctively produced exquisitely designed recreations of culinary experiences that he has had only in his own head. At their best, McNally’s restaurants feel like magnificent stages or elaborate movie sets on which grand productions are performed, not so much designed as imagined, and starring a Keith McNally character dining in a New York brasserie, bistro or pizzeria.

For a cream of the crop example, take Balthazar, a Parisian brasserie in East SoHo that has become, since opening in 1997, one of New York’s stellar dining locations. With a generous capacity of 221, Balthazar began life as an old leather warehouse, which McNally gutted of its labyrinthine interior and transformed into a space that is at once intimate and spacious. It is imbued with a powerful sense of nostalgia for something unknown apart from in a restaurant called Balthazar, with its McNally trademark tiled flooring, antique imported French mirrors and a bar surveyed by ceiling-high rows of backlit bottles of wine and liquor.

And then there is the food. McNally recruited co-chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, colleagues previously at three-Michelin-starred uptown French restaurant Daniel. These top chefs have gone on to place the Balthazar take on classic brasserie cuisine in the uppermost tier of Manhattan hospitality.

In fact, the collaboration with Nasr and Hanson proved so fruitful that they went on to become co-chefs McNally’s subsequent projects, French bistro Pastis and bar Schiller’s, and co-owners in the gorgeous renovation of the Minetta Tavern. A nightspot that had, since the 1930s, played host to such louche luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and Dylan Thomas, became under McNally an intimate and otherworldly comingling of the classic New York City Tavern aesthetic and a Parisian steakhouse. Reminiscent of a movie, still of a movie never made, Minetta Tavern opened to critical acclaim and spot of the moment status.

Last Year, McNally opened Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria, again with Nasr and Hanson as co-owners and with all his usual exquisite flourishes - black and white tiled floors, a bottle bedecked bar, and reclaimed fixtures and fittings. His project this time was to create a genuinely affordable bar and eatery offering top class food in a relaxed setting for the cool young crowd in the Bowery.

Born in the East end of London, Keith McNally’s background was as a child actor, having worked with some of the great talents of British theater, including Sir John Gielgud and Alan Bennett. Having arrived in 1975 seeking to pursue a career in cinema, he took casual work in a series of increasingly swish New York restaurants.

In no time, he had ascended to general manager at One Fifth in Greenwich Village, which was a favorite of the similarly up-and-coming crowd of comedians on Saturday Night Live, many of whom became loyal friends and clientele.

After opening his first restaurant the Odeon in still sketchy TriBeCa, he took this coterie of soon to be stars with him, and the Odeon soon became one of the hotspots in the nightlife boom of the early 1980s. Success after success followed, as McNally’s exquisitely rendered slices of food as theater landed in unfashionable area after unfashionable area - such as Café Luxembourg in a desolate section of the Upper West Side and Pastis in the trendy Meatpacking District.

McNally’s projects have a narrative trajectory that extends far beyond the exigencies of opening a restaurant. On so many occasions in his forty year career, his restaurants have acted as an omen of gentrification, opening in down at heel areas of New York and then growing in repute and success in parallel with the area. People almost seem to be investing in the neighborhood when dining at a new McNally project. Long after he sold most of his early restaurants, they continue to thrive and remain revered highlights of their respective neighborhoods.

All of these pieces of the McNally jigsaw - the innate and powerful theatricality, the buzz of undiscovered metropolitan corners, and the finest classic cuisine, and a list of deeply influential friends and regulars such as Anna Wintour - have meant that his restaurants always become celebrity haunts.

The type of success and notoriety that McNally has achieved will always lead to the impulse to reproduce the formula, to franchise the mise en scene he has created in each of his restaurants - a lucrative impulse he has thus far resisted. However, in exciting news, plans to open an equally expansive outpost of Balthazar in London’s Covent Garden were announced this month!

     - Ben Stewart

Keith McNally´s Restaurants

Address:  80 Spring Street
New York, 10012
Tel:  212 965 1414
Website:  www.balthazarny.com

Lucky Strike
Address:  59 Grand Street
New York, 10013
Tel:  212 941 0772
Website:  www.luckystrikeny.com

Minetta Tavern
Address:  113 Macdougal Street
New York, 10012
Tel:  212 475 3850
Website:  www.minettatavernny.com

Address:  211 Waverly Place
New York, 10014
Tel:  212 627 7575
Website:  www.morandiny.com

Address:  9 9th Avenue
New York, 10014
Tel:  212 929 4844
Website:  www.pastisny.com

Address:  281 Lafayette Street
New York, 10012
Tel:  212 226 4944
Website:  www.pravdany.com

Pulino´s Bar and Pizzeria
Address:  282 Bowery
New York, 10012
Tel:  212 226 1966
Website:  www.pulinosny.com

Schiller´s Liquor Bar
Address:  131 Rivington Street
New York, 10002
Tel:  212 260 4555
Website:  www.schillersny.com

Balthazar London
Address:  4-6 Russell Street
London, WC2B 5HZ
Tel:  0 20 3301 1155
Website:  www.balthazarlondon.com

Keith McNally´s Photo Credit:  James Hamilton
Keith McNally