Jim Poris / July 2009
Food Arts presents the July/August 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Keith McNally, the New York City restaurant impresario who's produced a 29-year run of hits stretching from The Odeon to Balthazar to the reincarnated Minetta Tavern. His restaurants, bric-a-brac perfect sound stages designed by the cinematically minded McNally, are oxygenated by the rare air generated by an A-list of celebs, artists, writers, models, and the trailing paparazzi. But it's the food—whether it be the pitch-perfect French bistro of longtime chef/collaborators Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson (Balthazar), louche brasserie (Pastis), American tavern (Minetta), rustic-edged Italian (Morandi), or Gallic bread and pastries (Balthazar Bakery)—that thrills critics and the guidebook-toting, neck-craning hoi polloi. McNally has never had a dud; the pizza place he plans to open by year's end will hit the charts with a bullet. And then, the lord of emerging nabes, now 58, plans to rest.
"Restaurants are a bit like Russian roulette; you never know when you're going to have a flop," says the man who's never had one. "Seems I'm driven more by not wanting to fail than trying to succeed. I've reserved the failures for my personal life, and I compensate for them with my restaurants."
The Englishman, a commoner born of working class parents in London, doth protest too much. True, he's divorced from his first wife and former business partner Lynn Wagenknecht, with whom he had three kids, now in their 20s, and who took control of three of his early restaurants—Odeon, Café Luxembourg, and Nell's—when they split in 1989 (he retained Lucky Strike). But he's tidied things up, having remarried and bringing along two more young ones. Restored to his restaurant senses after a two-year artistic hiatus in Paris, where he repaired when his film End of the Night built a Euro following in the wake of raves at the Cannes Film Festival, he returned to the city for a scene-filled second act: Pravda (1996) and Balthazar (1997) in SoHo; Pastis, a meatpacking district pioneer (1999); Schiller's Liquor Bar in the Lower East Side (2003); Morandi in Greenwich Village (2007); Minetta Tavern in the Village (2009).
"Theres a fine line between an imitation Disney-like effect in restaurants and something that makes you think it's authentic," says McNally, who scoured French flea markets to outfit Balthazar. "Everything is a statement of some kind. I want to make my restaurants look like they've always been there."
The practiced patina, the evocative food, the acclaim, the ringing reservation phones—that's McNally's mark. "I guess I've made it possible to eat well in a restaurant without having to worry about how you dress or who you know," says the unceremonious McNally, deflector of accolades. "I tell my staff to pay attention most to the hesitant ones at the back of the line reluctant to approach the receptionist." That bit of empathy, from one who grew up without the means to ever set foot in a restaurant, has taken him a long way.