Keith McNally’s name has been in the press a lot recently. The restaurateur called out James Corden. He walked back his call-out of James Corden. He called out James Corden once more. For the thousands of new Instagram followers McNally gained during the back-and-forth, this may have been the first time his name crossed their paths or their phone screens. But the London-born owner of New York restaurants, including Balthazar and Minetta Tavern, has been making waves—and causing controversy—for decades.
Since he began opening restaurants in the ’80s, as he will undoubtedly cover in his upcoming memoir, McNally has been a scene maker. Carrie Bradshaw repeatedly dines at McNally’s French restaurant Pastis over several episodes of Sex and the City. “Ten-thousand restaurants in New York and everyone’s at Pastis,” declares one character as they squeeze into a tight booth. McNally owns Balthazar, as well as an offshoot of the restaurant in London, along with Pastis, Minetta Tavern, and Morandi. All these years after those episodes aired, McNally’s restaurants remain as buzzy as ever.
But McNally himself is increasingly becoming an object of fascination, in part due to his well-followed Instagram feed where he frequently courts controversy. For those just becoming acquainted with the restaurateur, here’s what to know.
Many of McNally’s restaurants have become iconic celeb-magnets
McNally’s constellation of restaurants around Manhattan represent a specific slice of New York City dining culture—one of casual glamor, effortless cool, and unpretentious luxury. His restaurant career began with The Odeon, which he opened in the early ’80s. It became a hangout for such characters as Andy Warhol, Robert De Niro, and Madonna. A 2004 profile in The New York Times dubbed him “The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown.” Anna Wintour, the fashion icon (and global chief content officer at Condé Nast, Bon Appétit’s parent company) is perhaps one of the most constant McNally devotees, but according to nightly reports from managers at his restaurants that he posts on social media, other guests have included the likes of Eddie Redmayne, Natalie Portman, and Olivier Sarkozy, among others.
The word iconic gets thrown around a lot these days, but within the New York restaurant world, McNally certainly approaches icon status. Whatever you think about him, you have to admit: Keith McNally knows how to cultivate a vibe.
He’s faced physical and personal troubles in recent years
In a 2021 interview with The Daily Beast, McNally was frank about the issues he was working through. “After divorce, a stroke, and COVID destroying 75 percent of the finances of my restaurants, it’s crucial I make money,” he said.
That stroke, in 2017, left him partially paralyzed, and the next year, his second wife, Alina McNally, filed for divorce. In 2020, COVID shut down his entire restaurant empire, which, along with divorce expenses, “cost me 10 million dollars,” he said in a 2021 interview with Grub Street. “It left me not giving a fuck what anyone thinks of me,” he said in the same interview, which may be the genesis of some of his more recent controversies.
McNally is not afraid to speak his mind—and stir up scandal
The restaurateur has a rich history of saying whatever the hell he wants—often leaving scandal and outrage in his wake. After a one-star review from New York Magazine’s Adam Platt in 2010, McNally wrote a letter to Platt, calling the critic “bald” and “fat” and said he was “incapable of reviewing lively downtown restaurants impartially.” When a similarly negative review of Morandi, led by chef Jody Williams, appeared in The New York Times, McNally accused former restaurant critic Frank Bruni of sexism. According to McNally, the critic had never given a female chef more than a single star at the time. While Bruni never formally responded to the letter, he did call McNally a “horrible man” later that year. Platt was a bit more loquacious in his response. “I respect Mr. McNally, of course, and have praised the food and atmosphere at many of his ‘busy, exuberant’ restaurants in the past,” he wrote. “As always, in these cases, he is entitled to his opinion and I, as a bald, middle-aged and, alas (slightly) overweight professional restaurant critic, am entitled to mine.”
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