From the archive, one of our most enduringly popular stories. Known for his fashionable restaurants in New York and London - restaurant owner Keith McNally of Balthazar has applied his obsessive attention to detail to creating a welcoming family home in Notting Hill
Keith McNally is one of the most successful New York restaurant owners of the last three decades. Two years ago he returned to England with his wife, Alina, and two children, back to his London roots; "I wanted to explore Britain, and for my children to go to school here, and although I had many years of fleeing from the UK, I felt a strange gravitational pull." So, after 35 years at the top of his business, he has transformed a house in Notting Hill and is now applying the same obsessive eye for detail and style to opening Balthazar - sister to his hugely popular New York Parisian-style brasserie of the same name - which is within the former Theatre Museum building in Covent Garden.
Keith grew up in Bethnal Green in London and his early career began as a child actor - roles included appearing in Mr Dickens of London with Michael Redgrave and in Alan Bennett's Forty Years On with John Gielgud. He gravitated into making films and it was with the intention of eventually working in Los Angeles that he first went to New York. He found the city compelling with its energy and vitality, took to it, and stayed. Taking jobs in various restaurants, he progressed from working as a busboy to opening oysters in a kitchen, becoming a waiter and then mâitre d'. Keith discovered that he loved the work; "I liked the sense of immediacy, making order out of chaos, working with the staff and creating schedules."
He eventually became manager of One Fifth on Fifth Avenue, which sponsored him for his green card, and then began a career trajectory that earned him the sobriquet of "the restaurateur who invented downtown New York". He has opened 11 bars and restaurants, all of which share the same McNally magic; his practised eye uses vintage finds and old materials to give his interiors an ambience that never strays into pastiche. Keith left the UK partly due to his distaste for the country's class obsessions and it is key to his restaurants that while they are stylish, they never have a sense of elitism. They are approachable, intimate and fun, and what is more they provide excellent food.
There are differences between creating an intimate public space and creating a comfortable home but for Keith the same perfectionism informs both. The house he and Alina bought, a traditional, solid early-nineteenth-century building, had several rooms on each floor. Working with architect Charles Tashima and designer Ian McPheely, with whom Keith works on all his restaurants, they stripped out the interior walls and moved the staircase from the back of the house to the front, so that now only the front door remains of the original fittings.
Unsurprisingly, food and entertaining are central to Keith's home life and the design of the kitchen was a priority. "At first," he says, "we couldn't decide whether to put it on the ground floor, as it is in our New York house, or in the bigger space of the basement." In the end, the regular requirement to seat 10 to 12 made the outcome inevitable. Now, the substantial open-plan kitchen, sitting and dining room, which runs the length of the lower ground floor, has an oversize dining table and comfortable sofas at one end.
"Basement kitchens are a bit of cliché in Notting Hill, but sometimes things work despite being clichés, and this works for us," he explains. "Since the two rooms that are used most in a house are the kitchen and the bedroom, you have to pass through the sitting room in order to get from one to the other, so we tend to spend a lot of time there."
"Basement kitchens are a bit of cliché in Notting Hill, but sometimes things work despite being clichés, and this works for us," says Keith.
To achieve all this while on the other side of the Atlantic, Keith and Alina relied on the tried-and-tested expertise of those they already knew. As he points out, "When you're organising a house in a country you're unfamiliar with, it's sometimes easier to use the sources you already know."
Pine was used for the kitchen cabinets, sitting-room chimneypiece and children's bunk beds. Keith used Vermont pine, rather than pale English wood, preferring its rich warmth and depth. All this was made in New York and shipped over, as were the reconditioned tiles, most of which are over 100 years old and come from demolished or refurbished factories.
The walls of the house were finished by a craftsman he always works with in the States, who carefully applied imperfect plaster, creating a texture that allowed a glaze of raw sienna and yellow ochre to collect in the grooves, which gives the walls an aged finish.
There are paintings everywhere, although not a collection - he hates the term - which are predominantly of a period. "I like German expressionism, and a lot of English and French paintings from 1920 to 1940, but I can be as enthused by a frame as by a picture," says Keith.
"I buy paintings at flea markets or at auctions and I hardly ever pay much for them." However he did once buy a Vlaminck; "it was very special and rather expensive - but actually it did not work with everything else and I sold it again."
The integrity of this house is in its consistent emphasis on comfort, warmth and casual intimacy. "I suppose I wanted a country look; I wanted to create a home where children can run around and knock anything over, and nothing matters," he explains. What he has achieved is an environment that, despite its visual impact, is intriguing, instantly relaxing and stylish.
An American friend once told me that while he loved living in London he missed Balthazar, his favourite New York restaurant - well now he can apply for citizenship.
, 4-6 Russell Street, WC2
Taken from the February 2013 issue of House & Garden.
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