Dirt: Keith McNally's wonderful, horrible, messy Instagram
On appreciating a problematic follow
Jason Diamond on the restaurateur’s awaked Instagram
I had a nightmare last night. I was sitting at Minetta Tavern and I was alone at the bar. I had a white demitasse in front of me and I was alone. The bar was totally empty, no servers, no bartenders and no rich finance bros talking about crypto or investing in weed startups or anything like that. I kept looking down at the little cup with espresso in it and I remember thinking or feeling that the whole thing had a very David Lynch directing Jack Nicholson sitting by himself in the bar at the Overlook Hotel vibe. Or maybe I didn’t think that and when I woke up and was trying to figure out what the dream meant I came up with that comparison. Whatever it was, the whole feeling was forbidding. I couldn’t tell if it had something to do with the fact that I’m still trying to process the last 17 months and all the death while casually going out to eat and drink again or if I just spend too much time looking at Keith McNally’s Instagram account.
McNally, along with his ex-wife, Lynn Wagenknecht and his brother, Brian, basically invented the dining scene in downtown Manhattan, and, for better or worse, have influenced New York City restaurants for over 40 years. I don’t mean to say “for better or worse” against any of them, but more about all the lesser copies they’ve influenced that have come and gone. McNally is the reason we have or had Odeon, Nell’s, Cafe Luxembourg, Minetta Tavern, a handful of places you might recall if you lived in NYC in the ‘90s or aughts (Pravda was a personal favorite, Schiller’s meant a lot to me) and, of course, Balthazar. I am an unapologetic McNally restaurant stan. His places are my peak “Treat yo self” dining experiences. His Balthazar croissants and other baked goods are now ubiquitous throughout New York City, the breakfast offering of choice in every other coffee shop you’ll visit. Celebrities and tourists alike still flock to his restaurants. The Keith McNally thing is a massive part of the Manhattan landscape. And, to be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad time eating or drinking or both at any of his places. Keith McNally’s restaurants are, overall, great. I like them. They make me happy.
His personal Instagram account, on the other hand, can go from chaotic good to chaotic evil in the blink of an eye. And I love that.
The greatest example was truly Page Six fodder. Back in May, McNally took to his account to blast it out to the world that Graydon Carter, “the former Vanity Fair editor, and current editor of Airmail magazine” ( I put it in quotes because I appreciate that McNally himself pointed this out) had made a reservation for a dozen folks during prime lunch hours, and then just didn’t show up. Now, anybody who has worked in the service industry knows this is a shit move, but it’s unfortunately a common one. Diners often make reservations and just bail. It sucks and it messes things up for the people that work at the restaurant, but, again, it happens often. Yet when a big-time media figure like Carter did it, McNally let the world know:
“Graydon Carter had done this very same thing before,” McNally wrote in the post. “Once at Minetta Tavern and twice at Balthazar. Perhaps, being something of a social bigwig, Mr Carter thinks he is above having to cancel restaurant reservations. Perhaps. But I'll tell you one thing. The fancy Fucker will never be allowed to make a reservation at one of my restaurants again. Never.”
Now, you might be thinking that McNally deserves some sort of folk status for this, and he probably does. The guy is a working-class kid from London. Who doesn’t love a lad taking the piss out of the rich and powerful? It would be funny at any point to see two rich guys who made their bones in the ‘80s having a public spat over something like skipping a lunch reservation, and as the restaurant industry struggles to get back on its feet after the pandemic, it’s especially important to not leave people hanging and at least cancel your reservation if you can’t make it. And, to Carter’s credit, he did issue a response to People saying it was a “wretched” mistake and that he’d donate money to cover the staff’s tip pool, so you’d think all would be forgiven, but supposedly Carter is still banned from ever entering any of McNally’s restaurants — which is petty as hell, but still hilarious. It’s even funnier when you consider the two have a pretty long past, that Carter’s publications, from Spy to his reign at Vanity Fair, has always promoted McNally’s places, either through ad space or whole articles on the “McNally magic.”
Yes, I’m weird and will forever talk about the great McNally and Carter Instagram spat of 2021, but the thing is, there’s so much more to the guy’s account than just picking fights with Graydon Carter. Simply put, Keith McNally’s Instagram presence could be described as messy at best, sometimes outright problematic. And, truth be told, I love it. I don’t agree with much of it, but damn, the guy’s lack of any fucks is sort of refreshing to see.
When I say “problematic,” I’m talking about his defense of Woody Allen. He is very much a Woody Allen Guy and he has no problems posting photos of Allen and Soon-Yi going to his restaurant with the caption “ACCUSATION IS NOT PROOF. Sophocles.” Now, I’m not going to give you a rundown of all the Allen stuff because I’m guessing you know and you already have your very firmed up thoughts on the matter, but in the year of our lord 2021, being actively pro-Woody Allen on the Internet is basically the online version of waving a red cape in front of a bull and going “nah nah nah, you can’t hurt me, stupid bull.”
Even more out there was his comparing Ghislaine Maxwell to Mary Magdalen, writing in the caption that “Although I think Maxwell is guilty, I'd be reluctant to say so publicly, until she's given Due Process and found guilty by a court of law.” And, yeah. due process is a thing we value in this country, but then comparing her to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, I don’t know. That was weird moment only made weirder three days later when he posted another picture of Maxwell and wrote “As a result of posting on Instagram that Ghislaine Maxwell is Innocent Until Proven Guilty, I was accused by Scores of people on Instagram of being....... a rape apologist, a pervert, a sex trafficker a child predator, a paedophile, and worse.”
The easy way to have avoided any of this, of course, is to just not post about Maxwell. That seems fairly obvious.
Yet through it all, you stay for the sour as well as the sweet…and sour. To fully appreciate McNally’s problematic Instagram, you have to take it all, the Woody and the Ghislaine posts, along with the scores of cards left by customers like the one who said they live across the street from Balthazar and named their new baby…Balthazar.
There is a certain degree of cringe you’re going to have to deal with if you follow McNally and I honestly think that’s great. I’m not here to get into some debate of freedom of speech or anything like that because there are already plenty of people who make lots of money making bad faith arguments about why some dummies should be able to say the stupidest, most harmful things. Instead, I’m just going to enjoy the ride, the weird, all over the place, chaotic Instagram account that belongs to Keith McNally. I’m just going to sit here waiting for the next post, hoping it’s not him saying “Fuck that small-time nobody Jason Diamond, he’s banned from all my restaurants forever,” but also think to myself that if that does happen, then dammit, I’ve made it.