Keith McNally: New York state of mind

Balthazar London owner Keith McNally has a coffee with Edwin Smith

Bethnal Green was a very different part of town when Keith McNally left the East End for New York in 1975. Having started out with ambitions of making it in the film industry, he switched his attentions and, in 1980, opened Odeon, the first restaurant in his Manhattan empire. Ten others followed, the most famous of which, Balthazar, became the city’s “it” destination, synonymous with its star-studded clientele and a notorious “tiered reservation system”. We caught up with him in the London version of Balthazar ahead of its long-awaited opening this week.
Balthazar London will be your first restaurant outside of New York. Why London, and why now?
Because I’m living here. I didn’t want to be part of a chain so I wouldn’t have opened a restaurant in a foreign city unless I was living there and it could be an extension of my life. I also went quite broke building and renovating my house in Notting Hill, so I needed the money.
Will there be differences between Balthazar in London and the original New York version?
Of course, hopefully some of them will be positive. It has to be its own place. I realised that it was pointless trying to reproduce every single thing, so it’s not an exact replica, but it does look like it. Ultimately, it’s got to feel like it.
What are the good things about coming back to London after so long in New York?
I was away for 36 years – coming back is a bit like being Austin Powers. The most fantastic thing is the addition of the train going to Paris. I think the Eurostar is the best thing that has ever happened to England.
Robert Reid, former head chef of the three-Michelin-starred Oak Room, will be in charge of the kitchen. Why him?
I can’t bear the idea of working with celebrity chefs. I’d rather have a celebrity bus conductor or miner. I like chefs who are conscientious, work hard and care about people. Those are absolutely the only criteria I go by when I pick one.
Balthazar in New York has a reputation for attracting celebrities, why is that?
I go out of my way to treat them like dirt and they love it. No, I’m joking. We don’t do anything in particular. We’re nice to everybody – I would never give a free drink to someone famous.
What are the mortal sins of the restaurant world?
Restaurants that are mildly fashionable and have staff who think they are mildly fashionable too – I loathe that.
What do you think makes a really outstanding restaurant?
I think a restaurant works well when you can’t put your finger on why it’s great. You know the food and the service were good, that you could engage with the people you’re with. But you come out feeling transported in some way. I’m hoping this will be the case with Balthazar. It’s like a film: if any one thing stands out, there is probably something else missing.