I lived in New York City for eight years and somehow didn't hear Keith McNally's name once. Can you tell I spent considerably less time reading magazines and scrolling Twitter during that time of my life? McNally, of course, is the celebrated New York restaurateur—dubbed "The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown" by an early-aughts Styles section headline—who owns an empire of stylish brasseries full of warm amber light and chronically chic New Yorkers.
By now, I've realized I've been to several of his historic and fiercely loved establishments, as they were hiding in plain sight. Schiller's Liquor Bar on a second date, the checkered floor haunt just a few minutes from my old apartment, and Lucky Strike for after-work drinks, the longstanding SoHo bistro-bar just a few minutes from my old office. Also, one time, a magazine editor suggested we meet for lunch at the Odeon and then paid for it with a company Amex. It was a real New York Writer Moment that I wasn't even really aware of at the time.
McNally has become somewhat of an Instagram savant within the past year, hammering out captions more interesting to read than some hardcover essay collections. Kicking up the digital dirt like this earned him new profiles in NYT Magazine and New York—as well as a slight fascination from me. I found the sections of these profiles that spoke to design the most interesting. McNally may be in a new spotlight thanks to his sharp tongue, but he has an even keener eye. Before long, I was devouring decades-old features on his multiple houses to see if he decorated where he lived like where he worked.
The best part about rich people is that they love having their homes photographed and featured in glossy print. That means there is no shortage of McNally spreads—the West Village townhouse, the Notting Hill home, the house and farm on Martha's Vineyard, the one in the English countryside. His eye is certainly "obsessive," a word that continues to show up in write-ups about his likeness and his restaurants. He carries that quality home with him, it seems. For his London home, he imported Vermont pine rather than use local pale English wood, preferring its warmth and depth. He did the same for his English country home, too. "I spent three weeks combing eastern Pennsylvania and Connecticut for 500 wide-plank 19th-century floorboards," he told Architectural Digest. In another home, he had the doorways cut to fit the antique doors he had purchased from flea markets, instead of the other way around.
The McNally aesthetic becomes crystal-clear when reading features on his home, his person, and his restaurants. He despises harsh overhead lighting, favoring the softer glow of wall sconces and table lamps. He loves mix-matched French antique chairs. He is a fan of reclaimed wood, especially the aforementioned pine. And most of all, McNally loves a farmhouse table. As big as the room will allow it. These characteristics can be found in his homes, although he has since parted ways with a few of them. ("My London house I'm forced to sell to pay for my fucking divorce," read one Instagram caption from last year.)
The hulking farmhouse table is the unmissable element from each of his homes. They're unpretentious and straightforward. McNally doesn't namecheck designers like an aesthete obsessed with mid-century modernism would. His guiding principle for picking a table seems to be that it must look at least one hundred years old and that it should be large enough to crush a small sedan. The designer or particular style does not seem matter to him.
The main thing I have gleaned from McNally's choice in tables is that he knows what he likes. It echoes the voice in his Instagram captions and the person in the profiles. Which is to say hardworking and to-the-point with some rustic charm. ("Rustic" is the culinary way to say rough-around-the-edges.) These are the tables of man who is sure of his taste, and perhaps, most enviously, of himself.