In 1968, Keith McNally was cast as one of the schoolboys in Forty Years On, Alan Bennett’s first West End play, starring John Gielgud. Today, 45 years on, he passes the same rehearsal space in Covent Garden on his way to work at his new restaurant, Balthazar, each morning.
And appropriately for a former actor, his new site is in the former Theatre Museum, just off the main piazza. But McNally has come a long way from his days treading the boards. He left his home town of London in the 1970s, moving to New York in the hope of becoming a film director. Like many aspiring artists, he began waiting tables; unlike most, however, he ended up as one of New York’s best-known and most influential restaurateurs.
McNally’s restaurants, the likes of Pastis, Lucky Strike, the Minetta Tavern and Schiller’s, are consistently the most popular, hard-to-get-into and talked-about places in New York City. They’ve been referenced in popular culture from Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City to Sex and the City. Biggest of the lot, however, is Balthazar, an all-day French-style bistro, where locals queue for the chance of Saturday brunch.
Their influence is evident not only stateside, but also on this side of the Pond, where their signature vintage fittings and Parisian interiors have become the norm in new venues in the capital. “I think there’s been an explosion in the restaurant scene in London in the last couple of years in a way that there was in America 10-15 years ago,” McNally says, his soft voice practically without accent despite having spent most of his lifetime in New York. “I’m probably too thin-skinned about it, but yeah, I’ve seen elements of my restaurants here quite a bit. And actually, ironically, in Paris as well. But I can’t claim to have come up with anything so new myself anyway.”
He adds that it is “probably one of the reasons that I decided to build Balthazar here, because I’d never been interested in reproducing something I’ve done… A lot of people are doing something quite similar, so I might as well do it myself.”
Just like the ochre-yellow walls, leather banquettes and antique-mirrored walls, the food will be very similar to that in the New York original, which is itself essentially a Parisian bistro perfected, offering all-day eating. Robert Reid, formerly of Marco Pierre White’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant the Oak Room, will take the helm in a London kitchen serving French classics from fruits de mer to coq au vin. An adjacent bakery will produce indulgent bread and pâtisseries.
“I take a lot of care with our food, our French fries are cut here, [the chefs] cut the potatoes,” McNally says. “I don’t know of any other brasseries in London that would do that. I think the oil that we use is particularly good, it’s expensive oil. I don’t cut corners.”
This is very much in evidence when we meet at the restaurant, which is having final touches put to it by an army of workmen. Several times we are interrupted by people who want Keith’s opinion on everything from the tiny to the mundane: brass fittings to the length and colour of the bakery shelves.
The small details are something he “insists” on implementing to give the place a “handmade” feel, but this approach induces anxiety. His chief concern the day we meet is a new fridge. “We built an area for an under-the-counter fridge,” he says. “It doesn’t fit in there and it’s God-awful, it’s ugly – it was supposed to have a stainless-steel façade [but it doesn’t]. That will get me down for the next couple of days until we rectify it… but maybe we won’t find one by the time it opens. And then I think if it’s not right on the day it opens, then it’s all been pointless.”
Another concern arises at the suggestion (a compliment) that sitting in his restaurants can be like being on a film set, as they seem so whole, carefully lit and atmospheric. While he agrees that one wants “to be transported”, he adds that he doesn’t want them to be “Disney-fied”. “I’m always upset and struggle with that fear that they are more theatrical than I’d like them to be,” he says. “I’m constantly thinking about that… that’s why the mirrors are not contrived: it takes me a year to find the real thing.”
It’s amazing that he’s even here. For the past 30 years, his restaurants in Manhattan have been so successful, often turning empty areas into culinary destinations, that The New York Times dubbed him “the man who invented Downtown”. Now, having moved his second wife, Alina, and his children here, he talks of staying in the city of his birth “indefinitely”.
“I didn’t come back in order to build the restaurant; I came back to live in London. It was only after I was living here that I decided to agree to do it,” he says, seriously. “I don’t think I could make a restaurant somewhere I was living there. It has to be an extension of my life, really – that’s the way it was in New York.”
Despite his successes, McNally says that a refusal to cut corners and spending “a lot of money on each venue” means that his places are “not that profitable in the end”.
After “going partly broke” renovating his house in Notting Hill, he took up an offer of investment from Richard Caring, the owner of the Caprice Group of restaurants and the Soho House group, at the third time of asking to open an outpost of Balthazar in the Covent Garden space, which Caring owned.
On the face of it, they make an unlikely couple: McNally is a quiet, casually dressed and self-effacing man, while Caring’s image is of a carefully tailored and outgoing party-giver. But the pair bonded a few years ago during a 20-mile walk in the Devonshire countryside.
In 2008, he turned down an offer of $100m from Caring for his New York business. “It wasn’t the right time to do it. I think Richard offered me too much money and I didn’t want to take it,” he smiles. “I said, ‘You’ve got to offer me less,’ and he refused to offer less and so we argued over it and we never ended up making a deal.”
It was an obvious fit: like Caring’s group, McNally’s venues all have a “classic” feel, combined with high standards of food and restaurant design. They have also become known as a magnet for both the media set and celebrities; the most regular customers in the Manhattan spots were given the assignations “A”, “AA”, or the highest, “AAA”, to make sure that they could always get a table. This is something that McNally says won’t happen here, adding that he never courts the rich and famous to draw attention to his restaurants.
“Certainly the idea that someone would ask somebody famous to come into a restaurant or give them special attention – I’d rather join the Taliban than do that,” he says, adding that the present celebrity obsession is one he finds “off-putting”.
“The fixation with food and celebrity chefs… I find quite off-putting, to be honest. I’m not keen on that,” he says. “I think there’s a fucking awful fixation on fame and celebrity. You know, if I see another picture of Victoria Beckham or Jamie Oliver, I’m going to want to throw up. Nothing against those people, but I don’t get it. And why people are so obsessed with celebrity at the moment is just stultifying. It’s incomprehensible and awful.”
That said, don’t be surprised to see the A-list flock there, now that they’ve opened the doors.