Keith McNally: ‘I was losing £5,000 a day with my six restaurants closed’
Keith McNally, 69, has created more than a dozen magnetic restaurants. In New York, where he moved in 1975, these include the Odeon (memorialised by Jay McInerney), Pastis and Minetta Tavern. Seven years ago, McNally launched Balthazar in Covent Garden, which recently reopened its doors after lockdown. Born in Bethnal Green, the son of a taxi driver and an office worker, McNally was one of the original cast of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On. Three years ago, a stroke left him paralysed on his right side.
How have you spent lockdown?
Partly gasping for oxygen in Chelsea and Westminster hospital. I had a bout of coronavirus that almost killed me. I gasped for more air after realising I was losing £5,000 a day as a result of my six restaurants being closed. But the cherry on the cake was having to sell my Cotswolds house that I’d bought only three years earlier and renovated inch by inch every day. The only thing that keeps me sane during lockdown is writing my memoir.
You were brought up in a Bethnal Green prefab. Do you recognise yourself as a child?
I don’t, and it makes me inconceivably sad because I actually prefer the person I imagine I was then. I was so plagued by this on returning to England that I spent three days walking the streets of my old neighbourhood. But the more I walked around, the more my past became ungraspable. It was like the development of a photograph in reverse. The second my boyhood sensations became recognisable, they disappeared.
What do you know about your antecedents?
My mother was born in Columbia Road. Her father’s family came from a line of French polishers and one of her ancestors had the imperious name of Napoleon. French polishing is an exceptionally skilful wood-finishing technique that involves applying countless layers of a shellac-like finish on to furniture. This building up of layers is something I unconsciously do when building my restaurants. If I’d been born 80 years earlier into my family of French polishers I would have felt so completely at home I’d never have emigrated to New York.
What other jobs have you had?
I worked in Soho’s Nell Gwynne club in 1974. Not as a stripper, surprisingly, but as the stage manager. I started at 11pm and finished at 4am. I had the pleasure of catching the strippers’ emancipated clothes as they were tossed to me in the wings. It was the only job I ever got fired from.
Do you identify with any literary character?
I would like to say the fearless Coriolanus, but I’m afraid it’s the timid Leonard Bast from Howards End, who’s pathetically obsessed with self-improvement and the need to be accepted by those “above” his station.
I think Alan Bennett gave you a hand at the Odeon?
During the renovations, in 1980, Alan came to visit me and generously pitched in. One stiflingly hot day he volunteered to drive me to the distant reaches of New Jersey to pick up three large, pink-tinted mirrors. These 70-year-old mirrors were so fragile Alan was forced to drive back to Manhattan at the speed of a hearse. The frustrated line of drivers behind us honked at him the whole way back. At the time, I wondered if their honking would have been as loud if they knew that the tentative driver ahead was an esteemed English playwright. In hindsight, I think it would have been twice as loud.
What’s the most money you’ve earned in a year?
Four and a half million pounds.
You had a skirmish with Madonna?
In 1986, I owned and ran quite a hip nightclub in Manhattan with my first wife, Lynn Wagenknecht, and “Little Nell” Campbell. It was called Nell’s, and Rose Gray, who went on to open London’s River Café, was the chef. Every customer had to pay $5 to come in. Madonna, used to waltzing into clubs for free, refused to pay so I didn’t let her in. She was so pissed off she called me a “fucking bastard”. I wonder if Jesus’s mother ever called an English nightclub owner a fucking bastard?
What are the most disgusting and delectable things you have served?
The most disgusting things ever served to me were steaming hot divorce papers (medium rare) while sleeping in bed a year after my stroke. The most delectable thing I ever had served was also in bed – Osetra caviar and blinis with champagne one sultry afternoon in a London hotel.
What is the future for restaurants?
That’s impossible to predict, and anyone who does is talking bullshit. All I know is, I’ve had to close two of five New York restaurants for good, and I’ve lost a ton of money due to the pandemic. I was about to say: “But at least I’ve got my health”, but that’s clearly not true. The only thing that is true about this pandemic is that it’s hit many people a lot harder than me.
What are your thoughts on the election?
I’m a Democrat, and of course think Trump is a terrible president, but it’s more beneficial to the Democratic party to try to understand Trump and his millions of followers than dismiss them as stupid assholes. Although I’m a Labour supporter, I prefer reading the Telegraph to the Guardian for the same reason. I spend most days as angry at the Democrats for the way they vilify all Republicans as I do supporting the Democratic party.
Would you refuse Trump or Johnson a table?
Despite loathing them both, I’d never turn either away. But if I was forced to turn just one of them away, it would be Johnson.
What makes someone alluring?