Location: You’ve established this reputation as a pioneer—a neighborhood-changer—with Odeon in Tribeca, Pastis in meatpacking, Schiller’s on the Lower East Side, to name a few. Conversely, your newest ventures seem to be centered in some rather well-established parts of town. Has all the culinary frontier in downtown Manhattan been gobbled up?
Mr. McNally: I’m neither a pioneer nor a neighborhood-changer. Given that it’s downtown, the space matters more to me than the location. Minetta Tavern, as it happens, is quite a bad location, I think.
Whether the ‘culinary frontier’ has been gobbled up, I don’t know; it doesn’t interest me. What does is the fact that most restaurants opened up by established, affluent restaurateurs are basically boring repeats of something they’ve done in the past. Generally, the creative and interesting places are those cobbled together by people not affluent enough to solve problems with money. The more interesting places, therefore, are generally, but not always, in neighborhoods with very cheap rents.
I had read that the rent on Minetta Tavern was about $50,000 a month. True?
The rent is $15,000 a month. Why on earth did you think it was $50,000?
That was the rumor. I think I read it in The Villager. You mentioned that Minetta Tavern is in a bad location. How so?
Minetta Tavern’s location is on Macdougal between Bleecker and West Third. It’s the Village of the ’50s and ’60s that’s been out of fashion since Dylan went electric. Weekend nights it’s packed with kids from Bensonhurst throwing up on the sidewalk. So, no, it’s not a great location. However, the restaurant itself is so special it more than makes up for it.
What makes that place so special? Modernizing a historic room without sacrificing its old charms is a delicate art. How do you approach it?
Most of what was originally quite special about Minetta Tavern has been preserved: the bar, the mural, the tin ceiling, the caricatures. But there was a lot of junk there, too, and that’s been tossed out. With a place as old and beautiful as Minetta, one has to be careful about not turning it into a museum piece. There’s enough of that with me around.
On the other hand, the menu apparently needed some work. Elsewhere in Manhattan, it seems, Italian has become the new French, the prevailing trend. Yet here, you’re going the opposite direction, changing from Italian to French. Will France rise again?
My chefs at Balthazar, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, are my equal partners in Minetta Tavern. French food is their passion and what they’ve cooked all their lives. The food is the best thing about Minetta Tavern. We’ve put a lot more thought into that than the look of the place.
At the corner of Bowery and Houston, meanwhile, it’s about … pizza?
The place I’ve just begun building on the corner of Bowery and Houston will be a pizzeria. One without a twist.
The once down-and-out Bowery is now lined with luxury hotels, trendy boutiques, bank branches, etc. As a noted pioneer, are you disappointed not to be the first guy in?
I wouldn’t claim, as you do, that the Bowery is lined with luxury hotels, etc. But I also wouldn’t claim I’m breaking new ground by being there. My intention was never to be on the Bowery. It was to be on that very specific corner of Houston and Bowery, and for the last four years I’ve been trying to get it. Most of that time the landlord has told me to get lost. And he often used the F-word when saying it. But I like rejection, so I persisted.
What was it about that exact corner that made it so desirable?
I gravitated to that corner because it’s a gritty, ungentrifiable, New York crossroads. I couldn’t care less about being on the Bowery. It was the crossroads I couldn’t keep away from. And, from the get-go, I always imagined a big, busy, inexpensive pizzeria there. I can make it big and inexpensive. It’s the busy I’m worried about.