Byline: Alison Oneacre
NEW YORK — On Monday morning, Brian McNally is sitting at the only existing corner booth in his new restaurant, Smith, with three mobile phones spread out in front of him — all of them ringing. To his right, a group of painters pivot around a pile of stacked chairs, leather banquettes and tabletops as they apply a last-minute coat of black lacquer to the dining room’s wood-paneled walls. (“They were teak but it looked too posh,” McNally offers.) In the front room’s bar area, power tools grind at a deafening decibel.
“I need your opinion,” he yells, ignoring the surrounding din and leaping to his feet. “I’m thinking we should change these green banquettes to the cream ones.” He surveys the room. “It’s a bit gloomy in here like this, isn’t it?”
McNally — the restaurateur who brought New York the likes of Odeon, Indochine and “44” — will be hosting Vanity Fair’s Christmas party here on Wednesday night. In spite of the chaos, he appears remarkably calm. “It always looks like a mess until about a half hour before,” he says, half jokingly in a chummy British accent.
With his rumpled appearance and freewheeling approach, McNally comes off more like a witty bartender than the man in charge. But make no mistake — his vision for Smith is crystal clear. “Undesigned and casual. As simple and as plain as possible. We just came up with the name three days ago. Smith,” he says, smacking his lips. “It doesn’t get more ordinary than that.”
Ordinary isn’t a word that ever leaps to mind when pondering McNally, whose projects have more often been considered extraordinary. In a city that tires of restaurants almost as soon as they open, he and his brother Keith, who owns Pastis and Balthazar, have a knack for christening restaurants in Manhattan’s less-developed areas and making them the white-hot centers of the neighborhood. But unlike McNally’s former trendsetting venues, Smith, located at 64 East 1st Street (the restaurant row that includes Prune, Tasting Room and The Elephant), doesn’t seem to have anything to prove.
“A lack of inspiration, really,” McNally says of the restaurant, which seats 85 for dinner and about 50 in the bar room. “Nothing thematic. It’s just a regular restaurant.” The fare from chef Kenny Addington, previously of 44, is American contemporary, with an inevitable French touch. Appetizers range from warm oyster pie and spiced quail to salmon tartare (the signature dish of “44”) and leeks vinaigrette. Entrees include watercress risotto with seared short ribs, rib-eye steak and roast chicken for two with black truffles. The bar menu consists of the simpler likes of fried calamari, lamb sausage baguettes and McNally’s personal favorite, sardines from the can. “Nothing overcomplicated,” says McNally. “It reflects the times.”
For a man with an “ordinary” mission, life is busy: Up next for McNally is La Condessa, a new 120-room hotel in Mexico City, and then a tiny 60-seat cafe on Spring and Elizabeth. But for now, he’s focusing on making Smith presentable for Wednesday night. Does he foresee it as the kind of place where women won’t think of walking in the door without their Jimmy Choos?
“It’s certainly not based on chic,” he says with a shrug. “But you can’t stop them from coming, now can you?”