Keith McNally on Nearly Dying, Graydon Carter, Defending Woody Allen, and Saving His Restaurant Empire

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Benjamin Norman/The New York Times via Redux
Benjamin Norman/The New York Times via Redux

Keith McNally, the famed 69-year-old restaurateur of such hotspots as Balthazar, Pastis, the Minetta Tavern, and Café Luxembourg, is planning his return to New York City next month, having recovered from a life-imperiling battle with COVID in his native England.

In a candid interview with The Daily Beast, he says that the pandemic almost broke his restaurant empire, but that plans are advancing to build branches of the Minetta Tavern in Washington, D.C., and Pastis in Miami. “After divorce, a stroke, and COVID destroying 75 percent of the finances of my restaurants, it’s crucial I make money,” McNally told The Daily Beast.

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In recent months, his Instagram account has become a controversy vector, with McNally attracting criticism for attacking the decision of a publisher not to publish Woody Allen’s memoir; defending Ghislaine Maxwell as “currently innocent”; for saying a fashion buyer looked “like a hooker”; for highlighting a chef was Chinese and mentioning their accent (later criticized by writer Faith Xue); and for claiming creative director Marcus Teo had left McNally’s now-shuttered venue Lucky Strike without paying (which Teo denied via a receipt), which McNally later said was a joke.

Eater NY has said McNally’s Instagram account “has taken a wrong turn into yikes.” He also recently started an online war with Graydon Carter (former editor in chief of Vanity Fair, and Air Mail founder), who booked a table for 12 at Morandi, McNally’s Greenwich Village restaurant, then didn’t show. McNally said “this fancy fucker” would never be allowed in one of his restaurants again. (Carter later apologized, said he would make a donation to the wait staff’s tip pool, and called McNally “deranged.”)

In the interview below, McNally intimates Carter’s ban may not be permanent after all—and yes, there is a response from Carter to that.

McNally, who suffered a stroke in 2017 that left him paralyzed on the right side, also doubles down on supporting Allen, and expands on why he feels so strongly about making such provocative statements on Instagram, as well as speaking about how close he came to death, how COVID left his empire close to ruin, his standout celebrity memories (which feature Prince, George Clooney, and Bill Cosby), his drive to create restaurants, and his new relationship. It has been a wild ride since McNally opened his first restaurant, the legendary and much-loved Odeon, in 1980 with his first wife Lynn Wagenknecht and brother Brian McNally.

McNally asked to conduct this interview by email, so we began there.

Why did you want to do this interview by email?

I prefer interviews by email because since my stroke I sound as if I’m talking underwater.

How ill were you with coronavirus? I read you were “gasping for air” at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London?

I “gasped for air” only when asked by the hospital doctor, “Do you want to be revived if your heart stops?”

Did you make arrangements imagining you may die?

After the doctor told me I had a 50 percent chance of dying, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t think of my family, only my unfinished book.

Did the experience make you confront your mortality?

Like I confront all urgent matters, I put it on a back-burner.

How has it compared, if at all, with having your stroke?

Having a stroke was nothing compared to being tested with a fucking nasal swab for COVID.

Why choose to be in London rather than stay in New York City?

Initially because of the theater and my younger kids’ education, but these days—after divorce, a stroke, and COVID destroying 75 percent of the finances of my restaurants—it’s crucial I make money. I’m returning to NYC on June 25, and planning to live there full-time starting in September.

How are you feeling now?

Like always, hoping things get better, but knowing they won’t do.

What are you working on?

My memoir. (I hate the word “memoir.” It sounds like I’m speaking from a very high horse.) I’m two-thirds finished. Most of my day consists of putting off writing about a past which, for the most part, makes me cringe. I’m also building another Minetta Tavern in Washington, D.C.

Your restaurant Lucky Strike closed in the pandemic. How was that for you?

I never think twice about restaurants I’ve closed.

How has the pandemic affected your business? You said you were losing $5k a day.

COVID cost me a fortune. It cost others their lives, so I consider myself lucky.

Are you confident that NYC restaurants are back and healthy?

I was shocked by the response to reopening Balthazar. The first night was like V-E Day. Customers were dancing in the aisles and strangers kissed. And customers have suddenly gone crazy with their tips. I think Balthazar’s reopening symbolized to New Yorkers the re-emergence of the city. I feel very confident about the return of NYC more generally.

Did the city, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor De Blasio behave responsibly when it came to the hospitality industry—its shutdown and return to life?

In general, I think Cuomo did the right thing for New York, De Blasio less so, but it was an impossible situation for both of them.

What are your plans when you get back?

In September, I begin building the D.C. Minetta Tavern, and with my co-designer, Ian McPheely, I’m designing a Pastis in Miami with my Pastis partner, Stephen Starr. Like many restaurateurs, I lost a ton of money during COVID. These commercial ventures are a consequence of me being almost broke.

The Graydon Carter feud: what do you have to say about his response to you?

His response was bullshit. Graydon (Get) Carter knows he was a no-show without calling three times before. Look, there are more important things than no-shows at a Manhattan restaurant, but the fucker’s an editor. His whole life revolves around reshaping events to conform to his narrative.

Will you lift your ban on him, or is it total and forever?

Unless Graydon kisses my feet, the ban’s forever. Or at least one week.

In an email to The Daily Beast, Carter wrote in response: “It’s fiction, and I’m just not going to engage.”

Madonna was another difficult customer, you have said. Who have been your favorite and least favorite celebrities at your restaurants?

My least favorite customer was Bill Cosby, even before I discovered he was an accused rapist. My three favorites are Tom Stoppard, Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols. For the first six months after my stroke, Tom Stoppard would send me mini-reviews of plays he'd seen in London. I’ll never forget this.

What’s the wildest celebrity shenanigans in any of your restaurants that you witnessed?

The wildest night at one of my places was in 1988 at my club on 14th Street, Nell’s, when Prince gave a spontaneous two-hour performance for free. It was sensational. My unsuspecting customers went bonkers!

Which celebrities have surprised you the most, for good or bad?

For good: George Clooney left a $2,000 tip at Balthazar once on a $75 cheque.

For bad: One time at Nell’s I got a call from Bill Cosby’s assistant announcing that the famous comedian was coming to Nell’s alone the following Sunday. Cosby wanted no special treatment, the assistant told me. He wanted to be treated like everybody else.

The following Sunday, Cosby arrived alone, stood at the bar, ordered a drink or two, watched his favorite jazz band, and left without incident. He received cordial treatment, but nothing more. Three days later I received an angry letter from Cosby complaining about the service. He claimed it was so unfriendly he would never return. I never found Cosby funny before the incident, but after it, I disliked him as much I do all vain, egotistical men who drug women in order to sexually assault them.

Balthazar, Odeon, and the many others: what is their magic?

It’s not for me to say. I only build restaurants that I want to go to. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

Is there immense pressure when creating new venues to have those as legendary templates to live up to?

I would like to say that after my stroke, I feel no pressure opening something as superficial as a restaurant. But the opposite is true.

Was it fun having Pastis feature in Sex and the City (when Carrie went there with Aleksandr Petrovsky)?

Kind of. The director actually asked me to be in it. I said no, which I now regret.

What do you think of the vibe and folks who flock to the Meatpacking District now compared to, say, the days of Florent?

I like the Whitney (Museum) and the High Line. I loathe most of the other stuff.

Do you deliberately court controversy on Instagram? Why post what you did about Woody Allen, Ghislaine Maxwell, and the fashion buyer you said resembled a hooker? Do you stand by, or regret these and the other posts?

I hate cancel culture and political correctness. I’m a Democrat, but dislike liberals who hurl abuse at Trump supporters, or jump onto the bandwagon of the latest fashionable cause. I support the #MeToo movement, but I loathe people who are blind to its minor flaws. It was a disgrace that Senator Al Franken was forced to resign (in January 2018, over sexual misconduct claims) without receiving due process. But it was far more disgraceful how many liberals were gung-ho about his resignation. I’m not intentionally controversial, but it's hard to turn a blind eye when I see so much hypocrisy on Instagram.

1. WOODY ALLEN:

Woody Allen has never been charged with a crime. The Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale–New Haven Hospital made a thorough investigation in 1992 and came to the conclusion that Allen had NOT sexually abused Dylan, and one possibility they raised was that Dylan may have been “coached” by her mother. In my opinion, only one person in the world knows for certain whether or not Allen abused Dylan. And I believe him. (Editor’s note: the recent documentary series, Allen v. Farrow, criticized the credibility of the clinic’s evidence-gathering, particularly in how it questioned Dylan Farrow.) What I detest about today’s cancel culture is that it’s nigh on impossible to support #MeToo and also support Woody Allen.

2. GHISLAINE MAXWELL:

As I’ve said ad nauseam on Instagram: I don’t support Maxwell. I support her right to due process. I strongly believe that the more vile the accusation, the more important it becomes that the accuser receives due process. As a result of writing this on Instagram, I was accused of being a sex trafficker, a rapist, a pedophile, and worse. I was not defending Maxwell (as the muckraking Airmail maliciously suggested), I was defending Maxwell's right to due process.

3. MARCUS TEO:

A harmless joke that I regret. I deleted the post and apologized to Marcus who, according to my staff, is the most decent man imaginable. (He’s since been to Balthazar.)

4. FAITH XUE:

Faith took umbrage at a restaurant kitchen story I wrote on Instagram in which I imitated the Chinese chef's accent. I would have done the same if the chef had been French. Does this mean we have to remake Schindler's List with non-German accents? It’s fucking preposterous!

5. THE FASHION BUYER:

After remarking that a fashion buyer on Instagram was posing like a hooker, I instantly apologized to hookers everywhere for the disservice I did to them.

Did you/do you know Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein, and Prince Andrew? What are your thoughts on them?

No! I never met one of them, ever! Graydon Carter’s Airmail tried to smear my character by intimating that I’d met Maxwell. I absolutely have not met her.

Ghislaine should be tried, and if found guilty, forced to change her name to something easier to spell, before serving a hefty prison sentence. My guess is that Epstein was a dangerous, malignant creep. Prince Andrew should definitely be extradited and tried by an American court. The reason why this won’t happen is the reason why I’m an avid anti-royalist.

You seem very ready to come to the defense of people with damaged public reputations? What motivates that? Loyalty to friends, or something else?

Not in 25 years have I defended anyone I’m friends with. But in the end, a reputation is the only thing we have. Unless we want mob rule, it’s paramount we don’t accuse someone of anything unless we have incontrovertible evidence.

Are you intending to be more cautious on Instagram and social media, or continue to be as outspoken as you care to be?

Because I believe a democratic society is characterized by free and open discussion of ideas I won’t be any more cautious than I am already. Freedom is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear. Either George Orwell or Gina Lollobrigida said this. I’m not sure which.

What was growing up in Bethnal Green, East London like, and what kind of boy were you?

I grew up in a rough neighborhood in the 1950s where you had to be tough, or have a tough older brother, to survive. I had two, so life was cushy. Until they left to live abroad, that is, when I got the crap beaten out of me.

What were your early ambitions?

To have sex with Diana Dors.

You worked as a stage manager in a strip club. What were your other jobs and life before the restaurants happened? Was owning restaurants always your ambition, or something else?

I never had ambitions of being in the catering trade. In fact, I never ate in a restaurant until I was 17. At 19, I hitchhiked alone to Kathmandu, which I write quite a lot about in my very unfinished memoir. After returning from India in 1972, I worked days at Smithfield meat market in London and studied English literature at night school afterward.

You set up Odeon with Lynn and Brian in 1980. What is your relationship with Brian like now (you once said you didn’t get along with your brothers growing up), and with Lynn?

Lynn’s my best friend. Brian and I get along like brothers, meaning we hate each other half the time and get along great the other half. It seems to me that it’s far more natural for families to not get along than the reverse. But most people pretend the opposite is true.

People go on about the famous folks in your restaurants, yet you don’t seem to be a starstruck kind of guy.

I am starstruck, I just hide it well. But I’m a lot closer to my staff than the customers. I’m far more in awe of my chef who creates a dish than a customer who simply eats it. How can I not be?

Did you drink a lot or take drugs?

I drink wine with dinner, but seldom more than 2 glasses. Despite owning a fashionable nightclub, Nell’s, where everybody took drugs, I never took a single one because I have a fear of letting go. But Nell’s made the most money of all my places, so maybe I should not let myself go more often.

You have said you were served divorce papers when recovering from your stroke (from Alina, your second wife).

I was shocked out of fucking hell when, a year after my stroke, Alina had a lawyer’s emissary storm into my bedroom and toss divorce papers at me. But now, three years later, I can see the funny side of it.

What is your personal life like right now?

I’m lucky enough these days to be in love with a beautiful, intelligent woman who adores me without having to take ecstasy. She’s half-Palestinian, half-Austrian. Isn’t everybody?

What is your dream NYC night out when you return?

My dream night in NYC is staying at home, away from the madding crowd, watching a film with one of my children, or Tamimah, my girlfriend. By the way, Thomas Hardy (author of Far from the Madding Crowd) is one of my favorite novelists, although he always referred to himself as a poet, not a novelist.

What about the future? Is retirement an option, or not?

I’m lucky if I get up in the morning. The rest is a bonus.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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