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The Restaurant Auteur


With his daughter Sophie and Kate Pulino.  

McNally lives in the expectation of failure. “Basically, I’m pessimistic, but I think it’s Russian roulette,” McNally is saying. It’s a recent Wednesday afternoon at Balthazar, and he’s sitting on a banquette next to the raw bar. He picks at a plate of seviche and glances twitchily around the room. Pulino’s is McNally’s eleventh restaurant opening, but he insists that it has been the most challenging yet. It’s the first restaurant where he has hired a name chef, and his most expensive project to date. It was supposed to open in December. With six weeks to go before the new opening date in March, the project is running low on money, and in three days he’ll fly to England, to tell his backer in Pulino’s, Richard Caring, the owner of clubs and restaurants including the Ivy and Soho House, that they need to jointly inject about 30 percent more cash than envisioned. “I’m always in this position of being overbudget and behind schedule,” McNally says.

So far, it has always worked out. McNally’s various businesses gross a total of about $70 million a year, and they net profits ranging from 8 to 14 percent. But he doesn’t have confidence that his streak will continue. “You know at one point you’re going to have a big failure,” he says. “Most of my big failures have been reserved for my private life. But for the restaurants, I’m waiting for something. I tend to think that if you get good reviews for one restaurant, the next one generally doesn’t. And so I’m worried actually about this place, because Minetta was quite well received. So I’m preparing myself for the worst.”

As lunch winds down, he seems almost melancholy. “I think everything hangs by a thread, whether it’s a relationship or one’s business or one’s health.” He is absently tearing his napkin into pieces and rolling them into little balls. “That’s the way it is, and I think it’s not a bad thing to think that, and then maybe deal with it. The thing where you say, ‘Oh, I never thought they could break up, I never thought they would divorce’? Everything, everything hangs by a thread.”

A few hours later, after stopping by his office to interview people for busboy, waiter, and bartender positions at Pulino’s, McNally walks from Soho to the West Village for a meeting at Morandi with all his general managers. With seven current restaurants and some 1,100 employees, McNally spends most of his time, when not launching a new place, just keeping the whole enterprise running.

Huddled around a table next to the bar, his G.M.’s take turns reporting on the past week’s operations: The first weekend of brunch at Minetta went better than expected; a server at Schiller’s has developed an attitude problem; Pastis is getting ready to debut a revised menu and to re-stain its floors. The issues brought to McNally’s attention extend to the astoundingly picayune: Morandi’s G.M. reports buying two extra $35 bicycle helmets because one delivery guy was bothered by another delivery guy’s fancy helmet.

As always, there are customer issues. Kelly Cutrone, the fashion publicist and subject of the Bravo reality series Kell on Earth, has recently had a string of outbursts at Balthazar and Lucky Strike. “This is the same woman I called a few months ago?” McNally asks. “I always liked her.”

“She’s having a hard time because of this whole TV show,” the Lucky Strike G.M. says.

“Well, it’s not our fault,” McNally says. “I don’t want her to be abusive to staff.”

It is agreed that the Lucky Strike G.M. will talk to her.

Another regular, the head of an ad agency, has canceled seven of fifteen reservations he’s made at Minetta; at Balthazar, he’s simply been a no-show on several occasions and been difficult when he has shown up. “Anyone who cancels that regularly, in a place where it’s so difficult to get a reservation,” McNally says, “then we should not waste time with them.”

“I’m sorry,” the Balthazar G.M. says, “he’s notoriously horrible. The other day, as the waitress is pouring the wine, he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ ”

“I hate that sort of thing,” McNally says, “and I don’t want staff to be subjected to it. Let’s take him away from double A. Make him single A. He’s trouble. In fact, that guy, no more Minetta.”

Cultivating, rewarding, and occasionally punishing regulars is an integral piece of McNally’s formula. Since opening Balthazar, he has had a private reservation number for them, staffed by a live person fourteen hours a day, and ranked them from A to AAA, in order to assign priority to reservation requests. Only about fifteen people are AAA, Anna Wintour among them. (“Minetta doesn’t deliver,” McNally says, “but we deliver to Anna.”)

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