Keith McNally Stirs the Pot

One of the luckiest issues that may occur to a restaurant is for it to stay open lengthy sufficient to change into a spot that well-known folks used to go.

That was a part of what made the March reopening of Balthazar, a SoHo mainstay since the peak of the dot-com bubble, uncommon. Jay-Z and Beyoncé turned up for dinner. Nancy Pelosi got here for breakfast. Patrons made out at their tables, took journeys collectively to the rest room.

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

But all these reveals have been upstaged by the one the restaurant’s 69-year-old proprietor, Keith McNally, is placing on every day over Instagram, the place, as an alternative of artwork directing his life, he has reveled in the mess of it.

After a debilitating stroke in 2017 made it not possible for Mr. McNally to talk usually; after Alina McNally, his spouse of greater than 15 years, served him the following 12 months with divorce papers, he has staved off the humiliation of being a straight white goliath in decline by heaping it on everybody in his manner. A Howard Beale for the Instagram period, he’s right here lashing out on behalf of boomerish energy lunchers who consider in a girl’s proper to a secure abortion and oppose police brutality however are too scared to confess how enraged they’re by a technology of absolutist woke whiners.

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.

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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