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The Restaurant Auteur

McNally dining with his wife, Alina, at Minetta Tavern (in the background are Brooke Shields, Jay McInerney, Jerry Seinfeld, and George Stephanopoulos).  

With regulars and friends, McNally is incredibly generous. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has known McNally since the mid-seventies, when McNally sought out Sacks to treat a kitchen burn. A few months ago, McNally ran into Sacks, who had recently undergone two orthopedic surgeries, at the pool at Chelsea Piers. “I had lost nearly 40 pounds and was so weak and in pain that I had to be slung into the pool by a special device,” Sacks says. “Keith looked at my gaunt figure and said, ‘I’m going to put some meat on you.’ He said, ‘You’re going to have dinner for the next month on my account, from Pastis and Morandi.’ I put on fifteen pounds with that delicious food. I almost feel he did a lifesaving thing for me.”

At the G.M. meeting, when it’s the reservations manager’s turn to speak, she mentions a few VIP bookings. Naomi Watts is hosting a party at Minetta that Sunday. And reservations has just received a call asking for a table for eight, for Tori Spelling, at Minetta, that night.

“Who’s Tori Spelling?” McNally asks. “I have no idea.”

“Aaron Spelling’s daughter,” someone says.

McNally stares blankly.

90210,” adds Josh, the Schiller’s G.M. “It was a show in the nineties.”

Although McNally is passionate about theater and film, he doesn’t watch television. While he is savvy enough to want celebrities as part of his customer mix, and he is alerted whenever a VIP is dining in one of his restaurants (on a typical Wednesday evening at Minetta, Harold Ford Jr. was at the bar, Malcolm Gladwell and Brian Grazer were dining with two young women, and Ben Stiller sat in a corner booth), he doesn’t actively seek them out. McNally attracts this crowd partly through inertia: The group of loyal customers he cultivated when he managed the restaurant One Fifth has followed him ever since. It helped that this downtown group—people like Michaels and Wintour and Julian Schnabel—just happened to be of a generation that was on the verge of making New York its own. McNally grew up alongside them and knew how to take care of them. They became a kind of perpetual promotion machine for his restaurants. “He has a very good sense of what people enjoy when they hang out,” says Mike Nichols, the director.

McNally doesn’t socialize with fellow restaurateurs and is allergic to anything he deems self-serious, such as Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. “I would rather be shipped off to Iraq than write or read a book like that,” McNally says. Later, he elaborates in an e-mail: “As a restaurateur there’s no better operator in the country. However, there’s categorically no sillier or more pretentious title for a book. I’m just relieved Dostoyevsky didn’t use the same title for Crime and Punishment.”

Still, McNally’s role as proprietor of the city’s most fashionable restaurants has resulted in relationships, of varying superficiality, with a lot of famous people. Meg Ryan has come to his house on Martha’s Vineyard for breakfast, and several years ago, McNally and his wife, Alina, spent a weekend in Dublin with Balthazar regular Bono, because he wanted McNally to renovate a restaurant Bono owns there. (“He was very kind and generous, but I didn’t want the job.”) When McNally and Alina were married, in 2002, Keith Richards and Julian Schnabel were among the guests, though Richards was there only because he happened to have rented McNally’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, and McNally doesn’t remember why Schnabel was invited. (“It’s just very difficult because it’s exclusively about him in the conversation,” McNally says of Schnabel.)

“Of course, I’m a little bit impressed with certain people,” he says, “but not that much. I probably do a good job at concealing it.”

McNally’s father wasn’t as practiced at projecting nonchalance. When he was 82 years old, he came to live with Keith and Alina in their new house in the West Village, and he stayed busy folding napkins and packing up delivery orders at Balthazar until he died of stomach cancer, in December 2008. “He would sometimes be too pleased to have met someone who was English and famous and the sort of person he would never have been in a position to talk to in London,” says McNally. “That would irritate me.”

“My brother and I had class issues,” says Brian McNally on the phone from Vietnam, where the restaurateur behind Indochine, Canal Bar, 150 Wooster, and 44 has been living for the last three years. (Keith and Brian have had long periods of estrangement, but at present they e-mail every day.) “How can you not? We don’t bang on about it, but there was a class system that really excluded you and defines you in a way. Orwell said the English people are ‘branded on the tongue’ … I think for Keith’s restaurant career it’s been a tremendous advantage, because he’s never been seduced by that life, because of not ever really feeling a part of it.”