Keith McNally does not want for homes. He has one in the West Village, New York, another in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and has most recently acquired – for £4.25m – a two-bedroom, three-storey town house in northern Notting Hill, London. With each house, a slightly different McNally.
The restaurateur built his name and his business in New York, where he stripped out a sofa warehouse in 1997 to replace it with a gleaming brasserie, Balthazar, that became a lodestar of the Manhattan eating (and be-seen eating) scene, followed by many other hit restaurants.
Though he declares his love for New York, both he and his Alaskan wife, Alina, prefer their London base, where they have been living for just over a year, and where their two young children go to school. “We made the right decision,” McNally says, drinking tea at his long kitchen table, 12 French café chairs set ready around it. “We’re much happier.” This house, McNally explains, is smaller and cosier than the one they lived in on 11th Street.
The comment, in the context of this huge kitchen, evokes an image of a rattling great New York palace, but McNally is right: this is a comfortable space full of books, paintings and sofas draped in Navajo blankets – and given its price tag, with a further £2m spent on renovations, many would consider it small.
Of the cost, McNally indulges in an Eeyoreish joke: “It’s absurd, I’m ashamed ... We spent far more on it than any normal couple should. But I believe I can get my money back in about 360 years, so I’m not too worried.” Admittedly there are another two acres of communal gardens.
When we meet, McNally is in the throes of finishing Balthazar, the London “edition”, which opened on Monday in Covent Garden. He says several times that he is worried about its chances of success, noting that restaurants are “overrated”. This from the man who arrived in New York in 1975 as a hopeful film-maker, and left in 2011 as the big name behind a series of cleverly crafted and positioned restaurants: Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Minetta Tavern among them. These were his reward for toiling up the city’s restaurant ranks, from oyster-shucker, waiter and maître d’ to launching his own places from the 1980s.
“I’m nervous about [Balthazar London], I’m afraid of it not working. In some ways it’s something I should have done a long time ago,” he says of the joint venture with Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings. “I only decided to open a Balthazar in London because I was living here. I’m not interested in just a transplant, just dabbling in a city and moving back.”
The return to London is significant, not just professionally. McNally says there were times when he did not want to return to England at all, preferring instead to spend time in France and Italy.
Born in 1951, he grew up in east London, in a prefabricated house in Bethnal Green: it had freezing bedrooms, thin, damp walls, and was heated by a single fireplace. “There’d always be arguments between me and my brothers about who was going to get the coal from the coal shed,” he says. “When you’re young you just accept things, but when I look back it was quite an ugly place.”
McNally doesn’t talk about his childhood as a rags-to-riches beginning (“I don’t complain about it, I don’t bemoan it”) but it is alive in his resolute aesthetic choices, in contrast to his parents (a stevedore and a secretary) who, as he puts it, “talked for years about buying a green sofa and never did”. When he and Alina moved in, “not one splinter, only the front door” was left of the original interior. “We’re quite fastidious,” he says.
This could be an understatement: every last detail, as with a restaurant, has been thought through, with either Keith or Alina coming to London once a month during the renovations to oversee the work. To wit each floor is lit by a soft yellow lamplight diffused from Italian cathode lightbulbs, the same ones used in his restaurants: “they last forever”, says McNally.
Structural work improved the house’s layout. “It wasn’t a wreck, but we disassembled the entire place. The configuration didn’t seem quite right. The bedroom was on the street side. It should be on the back.” This required the staircase to be removed and a new one to be built in a different place. (McNally is very proud of this; he stops to point lovingly at the way the thick cracked wood turns in the spiral down to the kitchen, and even pauses to consider whether it’s his “favourite thing” about the house.)
Upstairs the children’s bedroom (with handmade imitation of a sailor’s bunk bed modelled from ships in Mystic, Connecticut) is next to their parents’; there are two bathrooms (old tiles and a spare, industrial look) and a laundry space on the landing.
For the kitchen – where the children practise the piano, the adults host dinner parties and they eat together as a family – McNally used his contacts to source oak beams from Vermont and white tiles from Brooklyn factories with century-old blackened grouting, and “we had people who work for us in New York build the cabinets, and the butcher’s block”, he says.
The cabinets are in American pine – “like honey” compared to the colour of the Welsh pine floorboards. The kitchen table looks like a French antique find, but is a cheap piece hand-painted for a paysan-chic finish by a friend. Everything is homely but just so: a large Aga with an electric oven on one side, yellow glazed pottery with a cherry motif, and copper and marble worktops. “I can’t bear it if everything is slate or marble,” McNally says. The giant fridge has a spaceship-like presence, with a transparent pane on the door: “I like to see the rotting, ageing food,” he deadpans.
McNally is something of an anti-host, in possession of a beautiful house but disinclined to boast about it. The property in Martha’s Vineyard, which he has owned since 1992, is where he plays farmer, freer from the metropolis and its expectations. “Really, I think I like the idea of being that person on the farm rather than being on the farm. I like what few people I know to think of me on a farm, carrying a bale of hay to feed the sheep and goats. I don’t mind doing it but it’s terrible that I like the idea of it more ... I don’t really know what’s me.”
It’s confusing. Possibly disingenuous too, given that McNally seems to know exactly how to express himself through the places he inhabits and the restaurants that he creates. But it was the couple’s plan when they first started researching property in the UK to find a farm, in the Lake District or Devon. They looked at a number of rundown properties, before they realised that London would be a better idea. Less of a “leap” from New York.
If Balthazar fails, McNally jokes – or half-jokes – that he will be so embarrassed he will have to leave London. But in the meantime, there is work to be done on the restaurant, including compiling the jazz-heavy playlist from the CDs scattered in the living room. “Not really my taste,” he says, shape-shifting once again.
“I like this,” McNally says, picking up a carved African head from the sideboard in his artfully cluttered living room. “I found it in a flea market in London.” This is a McNally habit: he browses flea markets regularly and travels a couple of times a year to vide-greniers in Montpellier. His living room walls are almost tiled with paintings, some of which were picked up this way. McNally points to a pastel Provençal scene, another flea-market find, with the rickety frame deliberately reversed, the better to reveal its worth. He says: “It means more to me if I haven’t spent much money on it. Not because I’m tight, but for the spontaneity of it.”