“I think I was grabbing at straws, probably,” McNally says now, a bit sheepishly. “I probably felt aggrieved. I’m now almost embarrassed. I should have just accepted it and moved on.”
"You’re a very good girl, aren’t you?” McNally is saying. “But why do I like you?”
Five-year-old Alice is on his lap, burying her face in his polo shirt.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Would I know that in my head or my heart?” her father says.
“I don’t know,” Alice says.
“Or my leg? Do you think it’s my toes that I should check on? They might be able to give me the answer.”
On a Sunday afternoon last month, McNally is at home on West 11th Street. He is just back from his trip to London, where he saw Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, ate at the River Café (“so good”), caught an Arsenal match with Richard Caring—and then got together with him again, to eat at Caring’s new Dean Street Dining Room and see the play Enron, but failed both times to mention the reason for his visit: the need for both of them to put more money into Pulino’s. “I didn’t have the guts to tell him,” McNally says. “So now I’m going to write to him tomorrow.”
It’s a warm, cozy, overstuffed house, with a fire going, stacks of books, and a jumble of prewar German Expressionist paintings on the walls. The open kitchen, with a wood oven, deep white sink, and long farm table, is vaguely Provençal and, less vaguely, McNallyesque. The 1841 townhouse, which McNally and Alina gut-renovated before moving in, contains several design elements familiar from his restaurants, including faux-aged plaster, wainscoting, wide-plank pine floors, and subway tile.
The aesthetic is more instinctual than calculated. The places he builds are the places he’d want to go to himself. Much of it comes down to a sensitive Everyman nerve that happens to be attuned to what New Yorkers want. “You have to provide the conditions, although it’s impossible to define what they are, to make it easier to engage with someone,” he says, “to talk, and almost to lose yourself.”
I ask McNally how important authenticity is to him in building his restaurants. “It’s my idea of authenticity,” he says.
McNally is curiously prone to going on ascetic benders. After his stint as a child actor, he spent a year on the hippie trail—traveling through Israel, Afghanistan, Iran, Nepal, and India—in order to purify himself. He opened Schiller’s, he has said, to “cleanse” himself after flirting with a lucrative offer from Steve Wynn to open a Balthazar in Las Vegas.
In 2008, Richard Caring offered to buy all of McNally’s restaurants for $100 million. They eventually struck a deal instead for Caring to invest in Pulino’s. McNally could be getting more than he has bargained for with this partnership. McNally’s sole backer in most of his restaurants has been Dick Robinson, the CEO of Harry Potter publisher Scholastic, who has no hospitality-business ambitions of his own. His co-investors in Minetta are its two chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson. Caring, on the other hand, is all about taking established restaurants and rolling them out as global “brands.” He sees his investment in Pulino’s as a first step toward deeper involvement with McNally. “We can help Keith on the West Coast, in Middle America, in Chicago,” Caring says, suggesting that a Pulino’s London would be a no-brainer and that expansion is McNally’s destiny. “I think he’d be bored to death growing vegetables in Martha’s Vineyard.”
“All those matters will be decided by me, ultimately, not Richard,” McNally says. And as it happens, he is quite happy growing vegetables on the Vineyard. He has transformed his property there into a farm with pigs, sheep, and ducks, and chicks that he rears in his West Village basement. He spends much of the summer tending a large vegetable garden, nurturing his compost pile, and coddling his pigs (until he roasts them). He reads extensively about sustainable agriculture and this year is planning to buy goats. “I’d like to make goat’s cheese, almost full-time,” McNally says.
“Keith is really passionate about this,” says Vineyard neighbor and multigeneration sheep farmer Clarissa Allen of his agricultural pursuits. “He doesn’t dabble. He was into this before it got trendy.”
Still, even with hoe in hand, McNally, who says he feels “phony most of the time,” isn’t entirely at ease with his gentleman-farmer ambitions. “I feel it’s a bit of an act, to be honest. I hope it’s not, but I do feel that. I know that I enjoy telling people I farm, and I think that’s a bad sign to begin with. Of course, it’s best if people find out that I farm.”