The Story Behind Balthazar - 2013's Hottest London Restaurant Opening

Esquire's Food Editor Tom Parker Bowles looks into the story behind legendary New York restaurant Balthazar and how it became London's most talked-about restaurant opening.
 

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According to The New York Times, he’s the man who invented Downtown — a restaurateur so powerful, so in tune with the fickle fancies of that most capricious of cities, that wherever he lays his beautifully tiled walls, local resurgence and hip prosperity are sure to follow. With the Odeon, Keith McNally’s first restaurant, opened in the autumn of 1980, he inscribed New York’s Tribeca, a rough, edgy and otherwise neglected area at the mouth of Holland Tunnel, firmly in the Filofaxes of the city’s elite.

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Almost 20 years later, Pastis transformed the Meatpacking District from dangerously depressed hooker haven to the epicentre of lower Manhattan chic. In-between, McNally’s bars, clubs and restaurants provided the setting for stylish, off-duty NYC hedonism, and they continue to do so today. Quite a journey for a boy from Bethnal Green.

“Keith McNally,” says no less an authority on the New York scene than the novelist and chronicler of Eighties box-shouldered excess, Jay McInerney, “has been one of the people who have helped to define the Downtown ethos.” The Odeon’s famed knocking-shop-red art deco neon sign throbbed out from the cover of Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney’s 1984 blow-fuelled classic.

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“The place makes you feel reasonable at any hour,” says the novel’s narrator, “often against bad odds, with its good light and clean luncheonette-via-Cartier deco decor.”

Owned and run by McNally, his older brother Brian and Lynn Wagenknecht, later Keith’s first wife (they divorced in 1992), the Odeon acted as an elegantly sputtering candle to the city’s moth-like beau monde. Here, among the globe lanterns and proper wood panelling, squashed against the curved, mirrored Thirties bar or crammed into an old telephone booth, they ate, drank, dreamed, talked, fought, flirted and snorted.

The food was Parisian brasserie with a splash of nouvelle cuisine — something for every pay grade, but quality, too. Serious eating — warm goats’ cheese salad, croque monsieur, tuna burger, hanger steak — not throwaway pap.

The Odeon’s early clientele drew from every segment of the Downtown scene —yuppies, Wall Streeters, brat-pack writers like the young McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis — with a heavy emphasis on the art, movie and nightclub crowds.

The young thrusters of the Eighties Manhattan art world — Schnabel, Koons, Haring and Basquiat — shared gossip and green bean salads with the old masters, Lichtenstein, Hockney, Castelli and Warhol. The Odeon became the official after-show venue for the Saturday Night Live crew: Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, who was usually to be found, around dawn, in the walk-in fridge, devouring that day’s mise-en-place.

On any given night you might see Martin Scorsese deep in conversation with Robbie Robertson. Robert De Niro picking at his salad, desperate to lose his Raging Bull bulk. Throw in Warren Beatty, Elizabeth Taylor, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Wolfe, Diane von Furstenberg and Tina Turner and you didn’t just have a scene. You had the whole goddamn play.

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McNally's people: Victoria Beckham

This was just the beginning. In short order, McNally opened Café Luxembourg, a French bistro; Pravda, a subterranean caviar bar on the edge of Soho; Nell’s, a breathlessly fashionable nightclub done out like a faded gentleman’s club; Lucky Strike, just down the road from the Odeon, for late-night comfort food with a cool copper bar.

Balthazar, his great Soho brasserie, opened in 1997. The Meatpacking District’s game changer Pastis followed after that. More recently, McNally has opened Schiller’s Liquor Bar, which set the seal on the revival of the Lower East Side; Morandi, a proper Italian trattoria — real food with real balls — on Waverley Place; the peerless Minetta Tavern, a Parisian steakhouse combined with a classic New York bar; and Pulino’s, a pizzeria on the Bowery.

With the exception of Nell’s, which was sold and then shuttered, and Café Luxembourg, which is on the Upper West Side and which McNally no longer owns, all of these remain as much a part of the Downtown fabric as the Russian Baths and Brooklyn Bridge. Even the new additions seem to have been there forever.

You could imagine Damon Runyon and AJ Liebling swilling bourbon in Minetta Tavern, deep in Greenwich Village, while Joseph Mitchell and Lucius Beebe talked beefsteak dinners by the flicker of Balthazar candlelight. Ever reliable, and resolutely unfussy, McNally’s restaurants are unmoved by transient whims and short-lived fads. His various businesses gross around $70 million a year, and they net profits ranging from 8 to 14 per cent.

As a result of all this, everyone in New York knows Keith. Or at least pretends to. When a McNally joint opens, the city paints on its party face and hurries towards his door. But for the first couple of months, they say, only the gilded few will enter, enabled by a legendary private number more sought after than a Yankees World Series win.

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People talk in hushed, reverent tones about these magical digits as if they contained the very essence of eternal life. Mere mortals need not apply — if your name’s not Woody Allen or Anna Wintour, you’re not coming in.

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And this year, for the first time, McNally will open a restaurant outside New York: in his hometown. Balthazar London, on Russell Street, Covent Garden, is a partnership with Richard Caring — owner of, among others, The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey.

In appearance, it will be almost identical to its New York brother — the same soaring ceiling and French decor. The menu will offer the same classic brasserie favourites: steak frites, a roast chicken for two, crème brûlée. Expectations are sky high, the Twitterverse and blogosphere giddy with tremulous anticipation. It is indisputably the most important British restaurant opening of 2012.

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So McNally is a man whose name not only precedes him, but struts down the block six feet in front of him, swathed in a silken aura of New York legend. Meeting him for the first time, I’m not sure what to expect. Part Peter Langan, part Peter O’Toole, all “Englishman in New York”? Or a gimlet-eyed “Master of the Universe”, poured into slick, Savile Row threads? The reality, thank God, is miles removed from both.

We’re in a Notting Hill café in midwinter. McNally is recently returned to London with his second wife, Alina Johnson, and two younger children, Alice, 7, and George, 8, to oversee the ongoing arrangements for Balthazar.

A little taller than average, with boyish good looks that belie the fact he’s entering his sixth decade, McNally’s soft blue eyes sit below a high, noble forehead and a thick thatch of pale grey hair. For all his success, there is no bluster or arrogance.

“I’m much happier in other people’s restaurants,” he says, his east London accent polished smooth by 30 years across the pond. “Something crashes to the floor in someone else’s place and I’m enormously relieved not to be responsible for it. It’s one of the rare times I feel good about myself.”

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One might think that after all these years, opening a new place must be a breeze. McNally shakes his head, gazes out of the window. Anything, it seems, to avoid my eye.

“When I’m building a place, I feel that every restaurant I go into is far better than mine. That other places possess all the qualities mine is very conspicuously missing. Unless, of course, the restaurant I visit is obviously terrible. In which case — and to my shame — I become deliriously happy.”

At first, this constant self-deprecation seems like a mask to slip behind when irritating journalists pepper him with half-baked questions. McNally has little interest in being a celebrity restaurateur. “I come from a very working class family in London. I didn’t go to a proper restaurant until I was 17,” he says.

The third of four children, the son of a stevedore and a secretary, much has been made, over the years, of his rise from an East End backstreet to master of Manhattan. In the past, he’s shown a marked reluctance to talk about his upbringing, for the simple reason that it’s “boring”.

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It’s not. After a brief spell as bellboy at the London Hilton Hotel, he was plucked from his first gig in the hospitality trade to appear alongside Michael Redgrave in a TV film about Charles Dickens. “I wasn’t very good,” he has said of his acting days, “but I was on television a little bit.”

He played The Winslow Boy in a York theatre production and was in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, with John Gielgud, for nearly a year. A spell on the hippy trail followed before he found himself in New York in 1975, hoping to make films.

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McNally's people: Robert De Niro and Yoko Ono

Any dreams of directing, though, were put on hold (although 15 years later, he did direct a film, End of the Night, that was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival) as he began his adventures in the restaurant business. He worked as a busboy at a restaurant called Serendipity, before moving on to a place called One Fifth, where he first met Lorne Michaels, the creator of the US TV institution Saturday Night Live.

He climbed slowly up the front-of-house ladder, from shellfish shucker to waiter, maître d’ and, eventually, manager. Michaels, speaking from California in a baritone so rich and deep you want to pour it over ice and sip it down, noticed McNally’s talent from the start. “He was really smart, so relentlessly curious and very sophisticated. By the time he was ready to start the Odeon, he knew exactly what he wanted.”

In its Tribeca location, the Odeon was out on its own — the first example of McNally’s extraordinary ability to pick a neighbourhood and almost single-handedly gentrify it. “I’ve never had a master plan in my life. I wouldn’t know one if I saw it,” he says, “but Tribeca and the Meatpacking District were both areas that were underused. Very few people went there at night. Unless, as in the case of the Meatpacking District, they went looking for hookers. But back then, there certainly weren’t any of these fancy shops or hotels. And the area — not unsurprisingly — was far more interesting and vital.”

“Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, once said: ‘The history of New York is written by out-of-towners’,” says Michaels. “Keith has a very romantic vision of what New York should be. In each of his restaurants, you have the feeling you’re in a magical place.”

“Every one has its own special ‘McNally’ character,” notes Richard Caring. “And even though they compete with themselves, their standards are always consistently fantastic and they have become brand names in their own way.”

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McNally's people: Andy Warhol and Keith Haring

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Despite all this, McNally’s rampant success has, it seems, done little to quell his fear of failure. “Do I still have the same worries I did when I started?” he wonders, between bites of toast.

“No, my worries are far worse now. Michael Owen scored a brilliant goal against Argentina when he was 18, but of course never repeated it. There are certain things you can only do when you’re young because you’re not conscious of being the person who does those things. And you’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. Once you’re stupid enough to think you’ve got something to lose, it’s over as far as I’m concerned. And that’s no doubt where I am.”

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He looks down at his plate. “I’m envious of restaurateurs who can breeze through the opening of a new restaurant. Because I happen to feel anxious and somewhat tortured from day one.” Because of the financial risks? “No, not because I’m afraid of losing money, but because I’m afraid of exposing myself as fraudulent. And also because I’m terrified of criticism. Not that I don’t deserve it.”

He gives a wry smile. Does he always read the reviews? “I get obsessed with them! I can read 16 paragraphs of praise without it meaning a thing. But one word of criticism and I’m a basket case for eight years. Of course, by the ninth year, I am completely over it.”

The ethos of his restaurants is simple: “I only ever open restaurants that I’d like to go to,” he says. “I’ve never had a PR person. Hyping up a restaurant before it opens would be like telling a date how great you are in bed. It’s fatal.”

And yet, in this most fickle of industries, McNally’s places have managed to maintain their cachet, evolving from restaurants-of-the-moment to enduring classics. Surely he agrees?

“Ironically, the most fashionable restaurants are the ones that haven’t opened,” he says. “If my restaurants happen to be fashionable, it’s for about five minutes. Then the reverse happens and those who went there initially stay away in droves. Then, if one’s lucky to be around for five or six years, the dust settles and people, hopefully, return. Year six is a good place to be, and about the only time I begin to feel OK about my restaurants.”

If you look hard enough, you’ll find some bitter souls in New York who claim McNally is less about food than “vibe”, “buzz” and other such nonsensical terms. But as anyone who has eaten at his joints will attest, good food is key. “Although I obviously like food, I tend to stay away from posh places,” he says, as we get ready to leave.

“There was a time when I did go to Michelin-starred restaurants or whatever. But I only went to them because I thought I should go, not because I enjoyed them.”

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He puts on his coat and we stand up. “There’s also the pressure of having to enjoy those places. It’s like seeing a six-hour documentary. You can’t come away saying it was rubbish. You feel obligated to like it. To be honest, I’d rather join the Taliban than dress up to go to dinner. So those kinds of restaurants,” he says with smile, “are sort of out for me.”

Over the years, I’ve feasted in most of McNally’s places, devouring vast, towering plates of spanking fresh fruits de mer; crisp, gloriously burnished French fries; perfect moules frites; and a macaroni gratin that gets the taste buds priapic with greedy excitement.

Nigella Lawson, who’s known McNally since she was 16, raves about the Black Label Burger at The Minetta Tavern. “Oh, and the bone marrow on toast,” she says. “I had a recipe for it in my last book. And the Pasta Za Za, too.”

Euan Rellie, a British banker and fixture of the Downtown scene (he was the original “Toxic Bachelor” before he married), reckon’s he’s “never had a bad meal at a McNally restaurant, and I’ve eaten in them all, at least 10 times each. He has a passion for authenticity and aesthetic perfection. Decent food, and bloody good service”.

Jeremy King, who along with his partner Chris Corbin, are Britain’s greatest restaurateurs (they transformed The Ivy, Le Caprice and Scotts, before opening The Wolseley and The Delauney), chides me gently when I ask after his favourite McNally dish. “Not an appropriate McNally question. A favourite McNally experience is more appropriate.”

He’s right, because most don’t go to Pastis, Balthazar or Lucky Strike for the food alone. The experience is everything. Parisian spirit looms large; menus, atmosphere, design and soul. “Going to Paris in my late teens was quite a revelation,” McNally says. We’re standing in the street now, our first meeting drawing to a close.

“I’d always hated pubs and pub life and suddenly here were cafés with decent food and great coffee, where one could sit for hours and read and see attractive women and not be threatened by louts. Well, to a certain degree my restaurants are an extension of this early experience. Especially without the louts.”

McNally’s restaurants have been endlessly and slavishly copied across the world — the utilitarian tiles, the pressed tin roofs, the chequerboard floor, chicken wire, flattering lighting and bottles on the wall.

“The truth is that in many ways,” says Jeremy King, “his success emanates from being influenced rather than influencing — he is a wonderful magpie taking the essence of France in particular and recreating and enhancing it in NYC.” None of his features are entirely original, yet by putting them all together, he creates something essentially McNally-esque, rooms far greater than the sum of their parts.

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Robert Hughes, the magisterial art critic goes further. “It’s not hard to grasp that McNally sees the task of making a restaurant, finishing it down to the last detail,” he writes in his foreword to The Balthazar Cookbook, “as a utopian enterprise, more than a mere stage setting, yet having something of the qualities of theatre. He will take a large, neutral space with no particular character of its own, and laboriously endow it, not with Louis-something splendour, but with the worn, browned, chipped and tobacco-fugged look of a place that has been there for ages.”

Anyone can copy a Parisian brasserie, but it takes a McNally to give it soul, to make it live, breathe and work. Russell Norman, the man behind current white-hot London favourites Polpo and Spuntino, sees McNally everywhere in our capital city.

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“I was definitely smitten with Schiller’s Liquor Bar while designing Polpo,” he says. “The Wolseley certainly nods to Balthazar and the Dean Street Townhouse owes a massive design credit to Minetta Tavern.”

Soon, of course, there’ll be a real McNally in town for London’s restaurateurs to measure themselves against.

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McNally's people: Jude Law and Sienna Miller

“When Richard Caring first asked me to build Balthazar here, I wasn’t interested,” McNally says. “For one thing, I’ve never duplicated any restaurant of mine and felt — and still feel to a degree — that there’s something morally questionable about making a copy of one’s restaurant. For six months, I told Richard it wasn’t for me. But once I was living back in London, it was difficult not to think I should be working and earning money.”

Although Balthazar London will look the same as its predecessor, keep the same hours and have a similar menu stuffed full with brasserie classics, this will be London, not New York. Many a British restaurateur has come a cropper in New York, underestimating the fundamental differences between the two cities. What about the other way around?

McNally nods. “There are quite a few dangers in opening a restaurant 15 years or so after it’s opened somewhere else. One is the fact that because there’s been a few copies of the place it might appear that all I’m doing is jumping on the brasserie bandwagon. However, when [the original] Balthazar opened, there was nothing quite like it in New York. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore and it worries me. Ultimately, I just have to think the food and service will be quite sensational, and leave it at that. But, of course, I can’t.”

A few months after our Notting Hill meeting, I join McNally again at Balthazar, on New York’s Spring Street in SoHo. He’s eating something healthy — granola and yoghurt. “I’ve never seen it so empty,” he says. “Seriously, I’m worried. What’s going on?” He shakes his head and goes back to his granola. As ever, the mixed, mainly local crowd are all comfortably ensconced on the red leather banquettes, their early morning complexions gilded by that all-important glow.

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We return to the subject of design. “I tend to like places that have character or feel lived in, but, most importantly, don’t feel too designed. It’s like one’s house, I suppose.” He stares down at the table, and fiddles, absentmindedly, with a sachet of sugar. “But achieving this from a raw space is difficult. Places that are too obviously distressed or over-distressed end up theatrical and somehow awful. The best restaurants in my mind are complete dumps with absolutely wonderful food.”

Jeremy King once told me that successful restaurants need four ingredients: heart, soul, confidence and ambition. “Keith survives because of these,” he said. “And because he’s not cynical.” Plus his attention to detail is legendary. The exact size of the tables; the precise grade of transparency of a piece of glass separating the men and ladies’ loos; the feel of the red leather that lines the banquettes; the order of the different soundtracks that play in each of his places.

No lighting fixture is unimportant, no font too petty to discuss. As Nigella Lawson says, “I think it’s because Keith isn’t trying to create a hip place, he’s trying to make the perfect place — as he wants it, rather than concentrating on how it will be seen. He is very focused on how it will feel to be there.”

McNally brushes off any such compliments. But Robert Hughes is right when he describes McNally as having “the same kind of relationship to his restaurant that a choreographer has, not only to the top dancers of his company but also to its scenic painters, lighting crew, and entire corps de ballet. Little escapes him.

And like the restaurant, he never stops.” McNally is always on the move, even when he’s sitting down. And he’s interested in everyone’s opinion, whoever they are. He is not a snob.

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McNally's people: Marc Jacobs

“What few friends I have are very ordinary people,” he says as we walk down Canal Street towards Broadway and McNally’s headquarters. “At least very seemingly ordinary.” But what of the special phone line, and rumours of the great and good being graded anything from A to AAA in terms of importance? This seems utterly incongruous with his democratic restaurant ideal.

“It is true,” he admits, “although it’s not how it might be portrayed. To make it easier for our regular customers to get a table, we have, for want of a better word, a private number. This doesn’t mean that those without it can’t get in, because only 20 per cent of the dining room is ever reserved for regular customers. And no, the number’s not there for wealthy or famous people. It’s given to either those who come regularly or those who simply seem like decent people. The kind I would like to invite to my house for dinner.”

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This all started at the Odeon, more than three decades ago. “Through good luck, or whatever, I had a vast number of customers who were loyal to the place and who continued to go there for years. And as I opened up more places, I felt it was rude not to look after them. All I’m trying to do is make sure that regular customers get somewhat decent treatment. But not, and this is the absolute truth, at the exclusion of others. It’s getting that balance right that makes the restaurants work.”

So what seems to be hideously exclusive is actually fundamentally inclusive? “For better or for worse, I have a sort of affinity for people who don’t fit in,” he says. “Who are unsure of where they stand and who check their pockets before they enter a restaurant. I happen to believe in treating everyone the same.”

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This is why all his restaurants, from the Odeon onwards, pay so little attention to pomp, dress codes and snarling maître d’s. You don’t need to know your beurre manié from your Baumaniere to fit in. Or be embarrassed by going for the burger rather than the chateaubriand. “And the very, very last thing I want,” says McNally, “is for someone to come into the restaurant and feel uncomfortable. I’m one of those people who can never get the barman’s attention in a busy bar, so I understand far too well what it’s like to be ignored.”

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McNally's people: Liv Tyler

Still, he also knows that he can’t please everyone all of the time. “Coming from the working class end of the class system, I loathe certain types of exclusion. On the other hand, there are certain facts — we can’t all get into Harvard and we can’t all sleep with Kate Moss. At the end of the day, it’s not a bad thing to walk into a restaurant and see a sprinkling of like-minded people. More than a sprinkling, however, and it then it becomes unpleasantly clubby.”

We’re back at McNally’s office now, where his meetings stretch on all day — and take in everyone from telephone operators to general managers. This where I see him at his most relaxed. He misses nothing and his humour, drier than a Minetta martini, comes to the fore.

“Now you’ve all heard the bad news about changes at the top?” he asks his senior staff at the start of their session. “I’m sorry, but it had to be done…” There’s a horrified silence. “It’s a joke!” The whole room lets out a collective sigh of relief. “You have such a nice voice,” he says to a hostess, entirely without sleaze. “I was so mesmerised by it I didn’t hear a word you were saying. Sorry.”

Again and again, the importance of consideration and good service are drummed into his staff. “You’re the first people the customer speaks to,” he tells the telephone operators. “It’s very important to be kind and decent at all times. I take the way we answer the telephones very seriously.”

“Be yourselves,” McNally exhorts his maître d’s. “Treat people walking into the restaurant the way you would want to be treated. Or better still, your parents. One used to be able to judge a good restaurant by how snobbish the people at the front door were. But things are different now. And I want my places to be the opposite. It’s intimidating walking into a busy, well-known restaurant. Please don’t forget that.”

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McNally's people: Robert De Niro and Martin Scorcese

A great restaurateur is a heady mixture of businessman, diplomat, interior designer, gourmand, cook, confidant, shoulder to cry on, social worker, trouble-shooter and hard man. And McNally leads from the top. Jeremy King agrees. “Many owners call themselves restaurateurs, but Keith exemplifies the latter in that he does it the hard way by being on the floor.”

“His restaurants work because he puts so much time into them,” says his friend, the writer and photographer, Christopher Sykes.

There are those who accuse him of being thin-skinned. But show me a restaurateur who doesn’t care about such things, and I’ll show you a fraud.

“Did I ever mention food critics in our conversation?” he writes to me later, in an email. “While admiring them, even those that criticise me, I’m constantly surprised how they always have an opinion, how they always know. Why doesn’t anyone ever write that he’s eaten at such-and-such a restaurant, but he somehow just doesn’t know? In real life we don’t always know. Why should critics be any different? How one would admire a critic who wrote that he hadn’t got a fucking clue.”

On my last day in New York, I sit in on a meeting at Pastis between his team and a woman who works for the High Line, a hugely successful public park built on the freight rail line above the West Side. They want him to run a new restaurant in a vast glass box below the entrance. He was approached a year ago but wasn’t keen.

“They seemed to have designed the place already. Why do they need me?” he tells me. But he’s since discovered the project would give him carte blanche. It’s just waiting for his first stroke. As he throws out more and more questions, about food, clientele, and the possibility of outdoor seating, he becomes increasingly animated.

One can almost hear the gears whirring smoothly in his head, the whole site constructed in his mind. This could work.

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McNally's people: Steve Martin and Chevy Chase

“Let’s build it as if it’s a space in the middle of nowhere,” he suddenly says.

“Not connected to the High Line. Let’s make it a standalone neighbourhood restaurant first, and start from scratch. Those three million visitors to the park are a bonus. But I’d like to approach it as if no one has ever been to the area before — or not for a long while, anyway. Just like the Odeon, Balthazar, Pastis and Minetta.” I get the feeling this is how all his projects start, as a bolt of inspiration, a vision of potential greatness that goes far beyond the dreary present.

As we walk over the road to the site, Keith is still firing questions, making notes, casing the area, pacing through the imagined tables and service stations. “I don’t know why I’m so much more enthusiastic now,” he muses out loud. “We could do this.” For one, brief, heady moment, I feel part of the whole thing, too.

I think back to what he said in London. “I just feel that the people who do their jobs in my restaurants are people that I really admire. I’m in awe of them, from the busboys to the chefs, and that’s the truth. Most of them do jobs that I simply couldn’t do and there’s not a moment I’m not conscious of this.

It’s everyone working together and working well and working honestly that makes the places work. I’m the one who gets singled out, and I’m very fortunate. But I know that if we were all in a lifeboat together in the middle of the Pacific, I would be the least capable.”

With that, the great restaurateur, the architect of heartfelt good times, wanders off to his next meeting, the High Line box building unfolding in his head.

Locations may change, and Britain beckons. The McNally ethos, though, is constant hard work. An innate understanding of what it is that gets customers coming back, again and again. And just enough angst and self-doubt to ensure that standards never slip. New York’s had McNally long enough. Now it’s London’s turn. A hungry city awaits.

By Tom Parker Bowles

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