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30th Anniversary Issue / Keith McNally: Feeding the Frenzy

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I don’t think of myself as a restauranteur, but, like middle age, it sort of just happened to me while I was planning other things. After arriving here in October ’75, I was rejected as a waiter at SoHo’s Broome Street Bar and from there became a mediocre busboy at Serendipity, an inept waiter at Maxwell’s Plum, and a horrendous oyster shucker at One Fifth. Fired from that job and unable to do much else, I was hoisted into management, where I remained as both manager and maître’ d’ at One Fifth for four years.

Along with Lynn Wagenknecht, my girlfriend at the time, and my brother Brian, I opened the Odeon in 1980. Within months, the place was packed with artists, gallery owners, writers, and the Saturday Night Live troupe. John Belushi would often walk into the kitchen late at night and cook his own hamburgers. In 1983, we opened Cafe Luxembourg. Unfortunately, the opening was a disaster: The kitchen caught fire. The tips were miserable that night.

Three years on, Lynn and I decided to open a nightclub. With our then-friend Nell Campbell, we built Nell’s, a relatively sedate club with the emphasis on talk, food, and lounging instead of drug-taking and dancing. Then in 1989, Lynn and I opened Lucky Strike on Grand Street. That same year, I wrote and directed the first in a long line of two feature films. At that point, Lynn and I were married, with three children, and living in Paris. Happily. Very happily. Until we divorced six months later.

Somewhere in the divorce “settlement,” I lost three of the four restaurants. Lynn bought the Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg, and Nell’s from me. But not my underwear, thank God. (In fact, I was told she wouldn’t even touch them.) However, I was still clinging to Lucky Strike, which was fortunate because I didn’t have much more to cling to. I was in deep shit. I was also broke. That’s when I decided to try to build a “constructivist” bar serving caviar and Russian appetizers. The result was Pravda. This was 1996. One year later, I built and opened Balthazar. Putting it together was such a strain that it sort of confirmed my thought that in the one year it takes me to build a restaurant, I age five. By the year 2000, I should be 403. . . .

Twenty years ago, it was possible to open a restaurant quietly and slowly, with ample time to correct the various problems inherent in such a venture. Today, that time doesn’t exist. The press and critics are hovering like vultures and within seconds have informed two thirds of the city. Within ten days, everyone and his brother has trampled through your dining room and quickly headed off to the next and more dynamic place. This has created that ludicrous phrase “restaurant of the week,” a category I spend half my life trying unsuccessfully not to fall into, because a year or so later, those very same idiots will tell the world you’re now out of fashion. But if your restaurant is good and substantial and you work at it, well . . . then you end up even further out of fashion. But that’s the restaurant business.

Interviewed by Beth Landman Keil


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