The first time Keith McNally ate in a restaurant, he was 17 years old. He was living with his dockworker father, his mother, and two brothers and a sister in a small prefab home, built as temporary housing in London’s crime-ridden, working-class, post-Blitz East End. At his job as a bellhop at the London Hilton, he had been discovered by a film producer and cast in a movie, The Life and Times of Charles Dickens, with Michael Redgrave. That movie led to other roles, including playing a schoolboy in the West End in Alan Bennett’s first play, Forty Years On, starring John Gielgud. It was with Bennett that McNally found himself one evening at Bianchi’s restaurant in Soho. He ordered melon and steak, the only words he could make out on the all-Italian menu. “I was intimidated, also fascinated,” he says.
His parents didn’t share their son’s new enthusiasms. One evening, just as a television play in which he had the lead role was about to start, his parents changed the channel. “They didn’t want to watch it,” McNally remembers. “It’s almost inconceivable. But actually, I quite liked that, because I was embarrassed.” When he told them he was to appear in the play with Gielgud, “My mum burst into tears: ‘You’re going to be working with a homosexual.’ ”
When Bennett wrote his next play, Getting On, one of the characters was inspired by McNally. “It was a rather lost character. I saw him as somebody who’d slipped through the net of the educational system, and whose talents were never going to be called upon, and whose life was going to be wasted,” Bennett says. “I was quite wrong, of course.”
McNally arrived in New York in 1975, intending to pursue a career as a director. Instead, a series of jobs waiting tables at places like Maxwell’s Plum and Serendipity led him to One Fifth, in Greenwich Village, where he ascended from oyster shucker to general manager. Saturday Night Live, then in the first flush of its Not Ready for Prime Time Players heyday, held its after-parties at the restaurant. McNally began developing a loyal coterie of customers and friends, including fellow immigrants Lorne Michaels and Anna Wintour. When he opened his own restaurant, the Odeon, with brother Brian and future wife Lynn Wagenknecht, the fashionable crowd from One Fifth followed them to Tribeca.
A truism about McNally’s restaurants is that they are like stage sets, with a theatrical sense of lighting, of casting, of narrative, of scale and movement and mise-en-scène. Meticulously engineered to feel like found objects excavated from a golden past that never was, his places are augmented-reality versions of the bistro, the brasserie, the trattoria, the café, the tavern. The Odeon introduced McNally’s vintage, salvage-based design sensibility and the then-novel combination of good food in a casual atmosphere. From the moment it opened, in 1980, the Odeon became the downtown nexus of post–Studio 54 early-eighties glamour. Janice Dickinson, the model, recalled a night when she strapped on a saddle and John Belushi rode her around the restaurant. It was at the Odeon that Jay McInerney would despoil his nose with Bolivian Marching Powder en route to writing Bright Lights, Big City.
McNally’s feel for the next neighborhood has been uncanny, and the tally of places he opened in underserved neighborhoods, just before they exploded, is a history of Manhattan’s gentrification in the last three decades: After the Odeon in Tribeca, there was Cafe Luxembourg in a deserted part of the Upper West Side (1983), Nell’s on West 14th Street (1986), Lucky Strike in West Soho (1989), Pravda in Nolita (1996), Balthazar in East Soho (1997), Pastis in the meatpacking district (1999), Schiller’s on the Lower East Side (2003). If his two latest, Morandi (2007) and Minetta Tavern (2009), both in the West Village, weren’t homesteading in quite the same way, Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, which opens next week at the corner of Bowery and Houston, marks a return to form.
Among the city’s leading restaurateurs, almost no one but McNally and Danny Meyer has built an empire that, as Times former food critic Frank Bruni says, “combine[s] the restaurant equivalent of big box office with serious foodie followings.” But if the St. Louis–bred Meyer is a genial, Jimmy Stewart–voiced executive in coat and tie who’s serving haute cuisine at Eleven Madison Park and franchising his fast-food stand Shake Shack as far away as Kuwait, McNally is the sensitive, temperamental, bed-headed artist in khakis and an old sweater, who has rebuffed opportunities to cash in by replicating any of his restaurants, who dropped out of the business for a few years to write and direct movies, and who routinely goes over budget in thrall to some private aesthetic compulsion.