Keith McNally


In the vibrant, ever-changing and fast paced New York City, where restaurants come and go quicker than a carton of milk spoils, how has one man has been able to continually build and thrive?

Enter Keith McNally: brainchild behind some of the most well-known and sought-after restaurants, such as Balthazar in the fashionable SoHo, Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, and Pastis in the trendy Meatpacking District. Coming from the working class of England, McNally is the perfect example of how to rise to the top of the most competitive and ruthless restaurant communities. Known equally for his restaurants as for his temper, we investigate a little more into the life of “the restaurateur who invented downtown.”

Odeon, which McNally opened with his brother Brian and then-wife Lynn Wagenknecht in 1980, was the first indication of the magnitude he would begin to create (Odeon was once frequented by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat.) His influence has defined the New York City restaurant scene since. To this day, though no longer under McNally’s ownership, Odeon remains a New York institution through its décor, history, and menu. Following suit: Balthazar’s, Pastis, Café Luxembourg, Lucky Strike, Morandi, Minetta Tavern, Schiller’s Liquor Bar and Pulino’s.

But it wasn’t always easy. McNally was born in England to a father who worked at the docks and as a cab driver and a mother who was an office worker. An upbringing of working hard had also instilled a sense caution of anything frivolous. It was then that he distinguished the approachability or inapproachability of a restaurant, discovering how many upscale restaurants created an out-of-place feeling. Through the success of Odeon, McNally was able to open Schiller’s Liquor Bar in 2003, a restaurant that was very near to him, attracting those not looking for a pretentious environment. The décor is a direct nod towards that of the butcher shop with recycled wire-glass windows and light fixtures throughout—nothing that is meant to look brand new or expensive. Formerly a drug store on the Lower East Side turned into a casual and cozy late night dining and bar scene—Schiller’s was a hit.


Stemming from Schiller’s well-known cocktail list, the release this fall of Schiller’s Liquor Bar Cocktail Collection  contains 4 mini books, including a Bartender’s Handbook. This will be the second of books to be released by McNally, following the uber-popular Balthazar’s Cookbook. Just another side venture he can add to his list following actor, film writer and director. While living in London, McNally ventured in the world of acting, admitting to being a bad one. Many years and restaurants later, he decided to try his hand on the other side of the camera where his films were successful and recieved acclaim in the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals. Not too big of a shock as the entertainment business and restaurants in this city go hand-in-hand.

Watching McNally work, you get a sense of his direct and no-nonsense attitude. That being said, the only thing that supersedes McNally’s restaurant resume is his awesome temper. Most recently exemplified by his reaction to a less-then-stellar review for his newest Balthazar’s London restaurant, he was quoted calling his critics “a backstabbing bunch of narcissists”. However, defense is what we should expect from the man who has helped defined the restaurant scene in New York for longer than most of his predecessors. He has rightfully earned his title. McNally possesses the ability to continually redefine and capture a moment in time throughout the decades of New York City.

Text by Emily Wong