BRIAN McNALLY - THE LIFE OF BRIAN
Brit-born Brian McNally is Manhattan’s restaurateur du jour. His Midas touch has turned seven downtown eateries into neighborhood hangouts for the most desirable of neighbors - fashionable, successful, but relaxed.
Photo: JOHN STANMEYER
Restaurateur Brian McNally is perched on the back of a chair at Canal Bar, swinging his stocky soccer-player legs to and fro, chatting with the people at the table with nary a glimmer of nonrecognition on his slightly stubbly face. The girl with strawberry-blonde hair to her waist is hanging on his every quip with rapt attention. In the back room, former Saturday Night Live honcho John Head and his new bride, Miranda Morrison (“a poor Guinness,” as Brian described her), are celebrating their nuptials for the second time that day with Lorne Michaels, Nell Campbell, and Adam Brooks. (The lunch party had been celebrated at Brian’s brother Keith’s restaurant Odeon; Keith also owns - with various partners - Cafe Luxembourg, Nell’s, and, as of recently, La Gamelle, which he has renamed Lucky Strike and plans to turn into a chic inexpensive bistro.) Canal Bar’s blue-and-white-striped back room was Siberia a couple of weeks ago, a place where the packs of Wall Streeters (who come in tugging at their ties, demanding of their exotic and tendrilled waitresses, “Well, what are you, anyways?”) could be “buried.” But with a set designer’s eye and enthusiasm for refurbishing, Brian sprayed over the stripes with gold paint, stuck a triptych with a naked lady up on the middle wall, and suddenly Siberia began to sizzle. Only a week earlier Courtney (Mrs. Steve) Ross had hosted a dinner there for the New York City Ballet, and the guests - including a squash-racket-wielding Jesse Jackson, Ahmet Ertegün, Don Johnson, Peter Martins, Mike Nichols and his freshly hot-rollered and Donna Karan’d wife, Diane Sawyer—were enough to christen the Hot new room Cool.
"Canal Bar’s blue-and-white-striped back room was Siberia a couple of weeks ago"
The former co-owner of Odeon and current proprietor of seven restaurants in downtown New York - Indochine, Canal Bar, Jerry’s, the coyly no-named restaurant at 150 Wooster Street, the recently acquired but not yet McNally’d Man Ray and 103 Second Avenue, and the private rooms in Indochine’s basement referred to as Undochine - Brian McNally has been the undisputed King Midas of downtown eateries for nearly a decade. The thirty-nine-year-old immigrant from London’s East End is possessed of an unerring Zeitgeisty sensitivity to the five-second whims.of Manhattan foodies and a no-nonsense If-it-works-let’s-do-it approach to business. He’s managed to turn every one of his ventures into a raging success in a city where the odds against a trendy new restaurant’s surviving more than a year are terrifyingly high, and where the “art” restaurant of one month can become the “retail” restaurant of the next month, and, when the retailers find themselves rubbing shoulders with other retailers instead of artistes, be empty the following month. But McNally, who claims he never set out to “start restaurants for trendy people,” has this uncanny talent for “backing the right horse,” for knowing who’s going to make it and who isn’t. And he appears to be a magnet for all that’s trendy in New York.
McNally, with his back to the door, feels that fame has just walked in. Sure enough, a trio of stars make their entrance: Lauren Bacall followed by Carrie Fisher followed by Paul Simon, all late arrivals to the wedding party. He deftly leaves the not-quite-famous strawberry blonde, not bereft but grateful for her allotted five minutes of Brian-time, in order to greet his really famous friends. A little later the candy-wrappered maja Diandra Douglas and party walk in, and Brian, clearly impressed by her winsome beauty, shoos away the busboy and sets the table for them himself. (English novelist Martin Amis, a friend of Brian’s from earlier days in New York, remembers Brian once doing the same thing for him, but, Amis notes, “there’s not one ounce of oiliness in him; he was never the pushy or gushing sort.”) Assorted models are draped over their Kir Royales, making desultory conversation with their scruffy millionaire hairdressers, and the breathtaking waitresses in their bare-bellied Bardot tops and Marriage Italian Style flowered frocks are steely-eyed and sullen with concentration. Brian is simultaneously sitting at four tables and John Head is imploring him to come and sit down at his. “All a bit nerve-racking, this, innit?” says Brian, with a sort of bleary-eyed exuberance, clearly not flustered by any of it.
McNally, forever playing down the successful businessman that he is, doesn’t like to revel too much in his glory. Like many an Englishman, he reacts to genuine admiration with apparent embarrassment. Never completely immune from feeling suspicious of his success, he makes a point of rating this business of “hash slinging” at the low end of the spectrum of Compelling Professions.
"...the degreeless autodidact is probably better read than most of the people he serves."
In one sense, Brian is vastly overqualified for his job; having left school at the age of sixteen, the degreeless autodidact is probably better read than most of the people he serves. What other restaurateur, as editor David Rieff points out, can sit down with Jonathan Miller and discuss the merits of Morandi? What other restaurateur gets and reads The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic? Or quotes Christopher Marlowe to giggly girls? Or says his favorite poets are W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin?
He punctuates enthusiastic “And where can it go from here?” questions with his listless “I just want to pack it all in” riff. In his 100 percent un-Americanized Cockney accent, he insists that “life to me is a series of phases, and at the moment I’m in my Restaurateur Phase. The idea of not working is fabulous. I mean, there is a limit to making money, unless you’re driven, like those big guys Jimmy Goldsmith and Carl Icahn. Normal people only need so much - if you’re making $20,000 a week, do you actually need $25,000?”
Brian met his wife, Anne - an heiress of Norwegian-French extraction originally from Paris - in 1980, four years after he arrived in New York, through their mutual friend, Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Ironically, the setting was the SoHo restaurant La Gamelle, now owned by Keith and his wife, Lynn Wagenknecht. (Although a friend remarks that the brothers lead “mirror lives” - they live a block apart in Greenwich Village - they have not spoken for five years. Brian has never set foot in Nell’s, but he still eats brunch with his six-year-old daughter, Jessica, at Odeon.) Anne, who had arrived from Paris only three days earlier, remembers at the time “not understanding a word of what he was saying.” But she liked him nonetheless, and they married in 1982.
With bone structure that belongs on Beekman Place but a Zip Code that belongs in Greenwich Village, Anne, a committed balletomane whose best friends hail from the New York City Ballet, is part of that downtown Ice Maiden set: her frighteningly expensive wardrobe is offset by coltish legs in Lycra leggings, silver ballet flats, and shopping bags sprouting radicchio and little somethings from Comme des Garçons hooked onto the baby stroller. Intensely wealthy and intensely chic (her husband is always claiming, half-jokingly, that he “married well”), the rather shy Anne now sits on the Producers Council at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the board of the Prix de Lausanne, and the masthead of Wintour’s Vogue.
Writer and friend Christopher Hitchens remarks that Brian is “fairly emancipated from the class system, though not by being unconscious of it.” And indeed he still finds it difficult to be glib about the jet-setty perks of his life. He goes through his summer plans: the party his best friends, Prince and Princess Michael of Greece, are hosting in Seville; then the trip around the Aeolian Islands with arbitrageur Asher Edelman and his wife, Regina, on their one-hundred-foot yacht - all this before or after the off-season family trip to St. Barts. Anne and Brian’s very existence is a life-style chronicler’s dream, what with the new monogrammed navy Jaguar (“I told the car dealer not to bloody do that”), the apartment in Paris on the Place des Vosges, and the rambling Greenwich Village brownstone, always in a state of glamorous disarray - Louis XVI furniture toppling with books and toys, Anne’s shopping bags strewn across the drawing-room floor.
Brian applies this same laissez-faire approach to his trade, but it’s misleading. The scruffy jeans, the chummy, sometimes flirtatious relationship with his staff, the bundles of cash lying around, the way he’ll appear to consult everybody (plasterers, waitresses, passersby) about the color of the new banquettes or the prices of the specials, belie a manic perfectionist. Tranquil holidays in St. Barts can be torture if there isn’t a telephone nearby for calling in to his restaurants every hour on the hour to grumble about the music or to ask impossible questions like “Don’t you think the lighting’s a bit bright?”
His days are spent much like his evenings, tooling around SoHo in the “Indomobile” - a messy Jeep Wagoneer littered with parking tickets - making repeated pit stops at Canal Bar, Indochine, 150 Wooster, and Whitechapel Enterprises, his holding company’s extremely low-key headquarters on Spring Street. The close-knit staff, culled from New York’s clubland and back home (including his other brother, Peter) help Brian tend to the nuts and bolts: projected dinners are toted up, byzantine guest lists and seating charts are prepared (Brian related how Doris Saatchi’s secretary called up to ask if he could take Ms. Saatchi’s place at the Courtney Ross dinner; Brian said no), and constant phone calls are made to satisfy Brian’s obsession with looking at new spaces - any piece of real estate that can be made into a restaurant. Two new projects are being discussed. The first is a space which he is helping his two favorite managers open on the Upper West Side (still uncharted territory for Brian) near Columbus Avenue. The other is a “huge, Prague-style café” that he and two other partners hope to open at a secret location downtown by October. He’s also talking about starting up some slick photographic studios (“with great stereo systems and great catering”) in the same building.
The McNally business formula, pioneered by Keith, is startlingly prosaic. Dirt-cheap rents (around $7,000 per month), pre-existing kitchen facilities, “undesirable” locations, and do-it-yourself décors keep his costs low and profits high. Investment banker Tommy Cohen, Brian’s friend and financial adviser, claims Brian can “open up a restaurant three times cheaper than anyone else in the city.” Transforming the threadbare Lady Astor’s into Indochine in 1984 cost less than $250,000; turning Munson Diner into Canal Bar in 1987 cost a measly $180,000. 150 Wooster has been the most expensive project to date (the space was formerly a garage), but the contracting costs - around $500,000 - were still much less than what the competition spends. Man Ray, one of those 1930s-looking pricey bistros, which got its two stars back in 1987 and was never heard from again, cried out for a McNally makeover; Brian outbid Michael Weinstein (of Ark Restaurants: An American Place, America, and Museum Cafe) for the yearly lease by $10,000, and talks with relish of “taking out all that Art Deco crap” and overhauling the menu.
"The scruffy jeans, the chummy, sometimes flirtatious relationship with his staff, the bundles of cash lying around... belie a manic perfectionist."
Fiddling around in his pocket for an American Express receipt from the above mentioned restaurant, Brian points to the total for the “snack” he and Tommy Cohen recently ate there: a whopping $100. Pointing to the thirteen-dollar vegetable-plate entrée on Canal Bar’s menu (“I lose more money on those bloody vegetables”), he explains, “You’ve got to give people the choice of ordering something cheap.” An average three-course dinner for two at one of McNally’s restaurants costs about seventy dollars.
Brian Arthur McNally was born in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. His father had been a stevedore until containerization laws were enforced in Britain and he became a taxi driver. While Brian balks at the Ralph Lauren vision of the English—“the wafer-thin-cucumber sandwiches, the polo, the languid-wit-of-the-drawing-room nonsense” - he is also loath to romanticize his working-class upbringing. “I can’t stand all that Terence Stamp/David Bailey crap. All that Cockney Sparrer, honor-among-thieves stuff. There was no honor - everyone was stealing from each other!” he says. “We weren’t deprived. We had our regulation school milk - it wasn’t like we went hungry or anything.” But Brian does have recollections of sitting on a pebbly shore at one of those miserable British seaside resorts when he was very young, fantasizing about “crescent-shaped beaches and palm trees.” It wasn’t that he was unhappy, really, just that he knew there was something other than what he had, and that whatever it was, he wanted some of it.
After leaving school, he scoured the papers for work that would get him out of the East End: a job in a dreary stockbroker’s office, waiting on tables at one of those Butlins-style holiday camps, selling English-magazine subscriptions to baffled Dutch people in Amsterdam, and finally working as a busboy off Sloane Square in London’s posh Chelsea.
In 1969, Brian left London and embarked on his Hippie Trail around the world. His penultimate stop was to be New York City, where his brother Keith, who had also been traveling, had four months earlier landed a job as a waiter at One Fifth Avenue, the home away from home for the original Saturday Night Live crowd and the burgeoning downtown art scene. Soon, with Keith’s help, Brian had copped himself a job at the bar. If Keith showed some of the fiery intensity of an ambitious entrepreneur, Brian showed more of the fiery intensity of meeting cute American girls. According to Nell Campbell, who had met both brothers in London while performing in the stage version of The Rocky Horror Show (for which Keith had been the spotlight boy), women used to pass Brian little notes across the bar wondering what he was doing after his shift. Christopher Hitchens says, “You had to be careful if you came [to One Fifth] with someone, in case he caught her eye.” (Vestiges of that era still exist: the now happily married McNally told one female interviewee for this article to make sure to mention that “he’s good in bed.”)
While shooting the shit with types like S.N.L. creator Lorne Michaels, John Belushi, and art pasha Henry Geldzahler, Brian was pulled by the undertow of art-world and show-biz gossip and reading everything he could get his hands on. If ever Brian felt out of his depth, it would have less likely been among his new American friends than with his new English ones, with whom the vicissitudes of his background couldn’t help but be brought into relief; many of them were precisely the sorts of public-school Britishers with plummy accents whom he’d never have met if he’d stayed in Bethnal Green.
After Brian’s stint at Mr. Chow’s and working for avant-garde art patron Cristophe de Menil, his brother’s plans for them to launch something together began to materialize, but his idea of turning the Towers Cafeteria in the then ghostly and barren environs of Tribeca into their own place met with less than a great deal of enthusiasm. Anna Wintour, among others, remembers thinking that it would never work, but somehow by 1980 Brian and Keith had managed to raise $35,000 from friends (Nell sold her bicycle to pitch in) so they could buy the space and brasserie-ize it. The rest is restaurant history: nine years later, Odeon’s comforting red neon sign is still the landmark used by every modish New Yorker to navigate the streets of Tribeca.
That Brian and Keith parted ways in the fall of 1984 is common knowledge in certain New York circles, but the reason for their rift is still shrouded in secrecy, protected, most of all, by their loyal friends. Brian is absolutely adamant about not discussing the specifics.
“It was a squabble of the most stupid kind, and it just got way out of hand,” he says. “I’ll talk about my brother [which he does with unfailing loyalty], but I won’t talk about it. It’s something that would really upset my mother.”
One ex-employee says the fracas was caused by the fact that Brian and Keith’s mother was supposed to have come to New York for a holiday and that Keith called her up just prior to her trip and told her to cancel because it wasn’t a good time. The story goes that Brian hit the roof when he heard what Keith had done. Another version is that Keith used to pester Brian with late-night phone calls which eventually took a toll on Brian’s nerves. What is known is that late one evening, just months prior to the opening of Indochine (Brian’s first solo venture), the brothers were seen leaving Odeon looking very much as if they needed to finish an argument. Soon after, all the busboys and waiters were clustering around the front door to try to see what was happening outside between the two men. Since then they haven’t spoken, although Brian now says he would welcome some kind of “rapprochement.” About two months ago, Brian and Anne had dinner at Flamingo East, a restaurant started up by one of his ex-managers. A little later on in the evening, Keith, Lynn, and a boisterous Nell Campbell walked in; the brothers never exchanged a word.
If the Brian McNally stamp seems a little difficult to define, it’s because it isn’t meant to show. Reaction to the cuisine at his restaurants is positively hyperbolic, but also unspecific: very decent, incredibly acceptable, absolutely what you want, totally unthreatening. The serendipitous frisson you feel the moment you walk through one of his doors boils down to this: a just-opened McNally venture will always seem like an old favorite; an old favorite will always seem like it’s just opened. Rarefied party designer Robert Isabell might be hard-pressed to clarify exactly what the McNally touch is. Life-style florist Philip Baloun wouldn’t necessarily understand Brian’s apparent love affair with palm trees. The only way, in fact, to link McNally’s stellar and sui generis spots together is with the one element they all share: a hipper-than-hip mishmash of uptown and downtown sorts who all seem to consider his joints “neighborhood” hangouts.
Despite his Über-restaurateur status, McNally hasn’t let himself become a caricature, like his late friend Peter Langan, owner of London’s Langan’s Brasserie. Langan, who committed suicide last year, was famous for insulting his posh and famous clientele, telling Wolfgang Puck, “This is the worst fucking food I’ve ever tasted,” and peeing in a plant at Ma Maison. Taking such a posture would limit Brian’s uncanny ability to assimilate, to slip like a graceful eel from one situation to another. Neither does he allow himself the luxury of banning someone from one of his restaurants for acting like an animal. When a particularly loony lawyer once made a stink about the looks of his beautiful (and almost bald) black waitress at Indochine, McNally forbade him to come back only after he’d eaten his dinner (and the diner has since been allowed to return).
But as much as Brian is the elegant host, defusing “difficult” situations with the “pas trop de zèle” aplomb of Prince Talleyrand, his rough-and-tumble roots do surface from time to time, prompting one observer to comment that “you can take the boy out of Bethnal Green, but you can’t take Bethnal Green out of the boy.” About five years ago Brian put up the cash for a party some of his Indochine waitresses wanted to give in a downtown loft. One of the guests was an ex-coat-check girl who’d recently been fired for not being Indochine material. When Brian walked in she apparently advanced toward him and dumped her glass of champagne over his head. Face dripping, Brian took a swing at the girl and she fell to the floor, expletives of the Do-you-know-what-happens-to-people-who-do-that-to-me kind flying.
On a rainy Monday afternoon at Jerry’s - his SoHo diner-cum-restaurant - Brian is not answering my questions, and I’m beginning to think I have said something offensive. Thumbnail in mouth, shoulders bunched up to his ears, the morose McNally is silently appraising one of the staff. His unwitting victim, perhaps a bit wide in the hips, seems pleasant enough, the sort of girl you might expect to announce her name along with the specials. But she is driving McNally crazy. “I can’t concentrate,” he mumbles. “Let’s go somewhere else,” he says, muttering that he’s got to have a word about this with Jerry, his partner in this relatively new venture. We leave for some tonier - and emptier - place on West Broadway, where a half-Brazilian, half-Chinese hostess whom Brian’s been keeping his eye on for a while greets him effusively. This one certainly does have the right look to join Brian’s sultry United Colors of Benetton staff, to join the ranks of the cool-as-diced-cucumber beauties who glide across the floors of Indochine, Canal, and 150, who all get health plans, free R&R trips to Florida after working for a year, and perhaps even dibs on Anne’s cast-off designer clothes (some lucky waitresses now wear Anne’s Chanel “discards”).
Brian has almost made it to half past eleven, but the temptation to leave Canal Bar is driving him crazy. It is the crowded opening night of 150 Wooster, which he started up with journalist Nessia Pope and painter Sylvia Martins. “It’s their bloody restaurant,” he said, “and I’m not going to interfere.” Even the last entry in Canal Bar’s reservation book - “Rachel [sic] Welch + 1” - can’t hold Brian back, and eventually he heads for the place he vowed not to enter.
Within five seconds he’s scanned the maître d’ list, hissed “Do you realize that’s the radio you’re playing - not a tape recorder,” to his partners, and started to massage the celebrity-flecked crowd as if he’d been there all evening. A few weeks later the “It’s perfectly manageable without me” line sounds even less convincing when I notice Brian at the star-studded, four-limo-deep benefit dinner at Indochine and Undochine he’d donated to the Kenny Scharf, and Madonna, orchestrated concert, Don’t Bungle the Jungle! (a fund-raiser to help save the South American rain forest). Brian swore that he and Anne were going to take a little holiday and miss the heavy-duty event, but of course he does turn up, and, in his Don’t-mind-me-I’m-just-overseeing-everything way, looks almost gleeful. Suddenly the idea of Brian McNally outgrowing his “Restaurateur Phase” seems very far away indeed.