John McDonald Never Says No to Regulars
The longtime New York restaurateur and media founder on the secrets of VIP status, Ray Liotta's pancakes, and the many channels of creative satisfaction.
John McDonald is founder of Mercer Street Hospitality in New York. He has opened and operated well over a dozen restaurants and bars in almost three decades in the city, including Soho fixture Lure Fishbar, as well as cofounding the Dos Caminos local chain. Most recently he turned his existing restaurants El Toro Blanco and Burger & Barrel into Hancock Street and Bar Tulix. McDonald also serially launches media operations, such as City magazine, the original Tasting Table food newsletter, and now Broken Palate on Substack.
Considering your dual career in both New York restaurants and media, how do you feel about the state of those industries?
The media thing has changed. You look at all the media outlets we’ve all grown up with, and it’s clear that normal media is destroyed. I think magazines are almost obsolete now. I just did a two hour in-person interview with Graydon Carter for Broken Palate. We talked about that a little bit—how everything’s a blog. There’s not a lot of real reporting.
On the restaurant side, it’s kind of convoluted. When you look back to how people used to read restaurant reviews, you really took them seriously. You wanted to read Frank Bruni’s review, or Adam Platt’s. You had real criticism.
But criticism has changed. Everyone’s a critic. Your restaurant—your product that you put your heart and soul into—is constantly under attack. I’m not crying about that. You have to do your job. People are paying money, and you have to try to do your best. But there’s definitely an overreach where everybody is just so aggressive.
Similar to the Graydon Carter piece, I did a long sit-down with Daniel Boulud that we haven’t published yet, and we talked about the idea of the critics and the customers, and how wouldn’t it be fun if we could rate our customers like Uber drivers rate theirs. If we could say, “This is a difficult customer. They’ve canceled 50% of the time that they make a reservation.” It's the fantasy of having a customer who’s just so difficult, and they’re mistreating your staff on a high, high level. “Okay, you can do that. But I’m going to let everyone know that you’ve abused people and done X, Y, Z. And that way, when you go to all my friends’ restaurants, they’re going to know you’re that guy or that girl.” But of course you can’t do that. I’d be in big trouble.
That brings up something I hear a lot from people working in the business—they’d like customers to think of hospitality as more of a shared experience between guest and service, rather than a one-way relationship that can feel oppressive or even abusive.
I love that idea. It’s just so hard to get consumers in that mindset. They’re the customer, I get it. It’s like if I'm going to a concert, I want to be entertained. I want to be taken care of if I’m paying, and the more money I’m paying, the more demanding I’m going to be. It’s just gotten a little out of control and a little unrealistic. Everybody thinks they’re a VIP. The number of human beings who believe themselves to be VIPs has to be 100x what they were ten years ago. No exaggeration.
“The number of human beings who believe themselves to be VIPs has to be 100x what they were ten years ago.”
I can remember a real conversation in the early mid-nineties, when I was in my twenties, when my friends were asking how to become a VIP at Nobu. I told them it’s very easy. I’m going to book you a table. You go, and when you leave, you book a second reservation for the following week. You stop, you talk to the maître d’—”Hey, my name is whatever, I’d love to come back next Wednesday. Hey, what's your name?” Get his name. You go back the following Wednesday. You make another reservation for two weeks out. You've now gone three times. You know the guy’s name. You’re now a VIP because you’re actually a customer. That’s the difference between being a real VIP and saying, “Oh, I'm a VIP because I go to Lure Fishbar once a year.”
What do you think causes the rise in customers insisting on VIP treatment?
It’s social media. “I have a lot of friends. I got followers, look at me, I’m so cool.” It's a certain level of entitlement without behavior that backs it up. If you eat in my venues on a regular basis, I never say no under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if someone else unfortunately might get dinged. I hate that happening, but I just don’t believe in saying no to guests who truly frequent restaurants, because there aren’t that many of them. It’s so much harder to replace someone that eats with you 30 times a year.
So when you don’t say no, you mean to unusual requests?
Like, “Hey, I need a table Friday night for four people,” and they give me 30 minutes notice. I’m like, “I got it.” I’ll make it work. If they’re in the restaurant and say, “Can I get scrambled eggs?” It's like, “Chef, make some scrambled eggs.” The late great Ray Liotta would come to Lure with his daughter and his girlfriend at the time. He would book at noon, and we'd make him the pancakes he wanted at dinner. Every time.
On other other side of the equation, how do you de-escalate when someone is maybe pushing the boundaries of entitlement?
One time there was a younger guy that started frequenting Lure, and he got a little bit out of control. My GM told me, “Such-and-such is coming in. He’s walked up to the podium, and he’s very demanding and started throwing your name around.” I called the guy up, saying, “Look, man, I love and appreciate you coming in, but you’ve got to be respectful of the fact that everybody has their things going on. And you're just not going to win the battle here if you don’t behave in a way where everybody actually likes you.” If you really want to be a great guest, the best thing is to behave in a way where everyone feels happy to see you, like, “Hey, Chris is here! Chris just walked in!” Otherwise they’ll be like, “Ugh, guys ... it’s that customer. Oh, man, Chris just came in.”
That would be more enjoyable for everyone, guest and server alike. It would seem natural to cultivate the kinds of guests who actually like engaging with servers and others, rather than just being waited on by obedient drones.
That’s the best part of working in a restaurant. Lure is almost 20 years old. I’ve got servers and runners that have been there ten years, maybe more. I’ve got customers that specifically want to be seated in those peoples’ sections because they enjoy the company of those servers. That’s the energy they share with each other.
You’re still creating and opening new spots. When you come up with these concepts, are you imagining already how they also might become longstanding institutions? Or does each one come from a different place?
The reason I closed and renovated El Toro Blanco, and then changed Burger & Barrel to Bar Tulix, was just sheer boredom during lockdown. I was here. I didn’t leave. I just wanted a creative outlet and a project.
What we had originally planned with El Toro Blanco was closing for a week and doing a light renovation. But then lockdown hit, and we didn’t know how long it was going to last. Serge Becker helped design and curate Hancock Street—he was here too. So we said, hey, let’s do something. We wanted to make that restaurant feel like it had been there already, to give it the physicality that comes with restaurants that feel like institutions. Serge is so good at the nuance of all these thousand little decisions.
Everything in restaurants today is like, the same sconces from the same vendor, the same catalog. Just like Instagram created fast, fast fashion where everything gets knocked off, in a restaurant you can have good design, incredible light, and the next thing you know, it’s in some knockoff catalog. I can remember starting ten-plus years ago buying these restaurant chairs from Amsterdam, and now everybody has that chair. Everyone, everyone has it.
“We almost have to make some decisions that are unusual, even borderline unattractive.”
We almost have to make some decisions that are unusual, even borderline unattractive. I found a chair for Hancock Street from this designer, Gilbert Marklund, that I’d never seen. It’s a little bit ugly. If you really stare at it, you’re like, “I don't know if I’d want that in my house.”
Why were you drawn to that chair?
It's beautiful, but it’s unusual. You notice it. Probably if you saw the chair, you would think I’m crazy. Like, “That's a beautiful chair. What are you talking about?”
My goal with these projects is to give them a patina—make them feel imperfect. Leave things scarred that are scarred without being fabricated. That age and that warmth resonates with people when they sit down.
I was in this one restaurant the other night. It’s visually stunning. There’s stuff everywhere. There’s materials, and these tiles, and brand new lights. And it felt like Disneyland. In other restaurants too, sometimes those things look overly staged with a bunch of new stuff on a shelf. It’s meant to look like a restaurant that was there for 50 years, but that’s really hard to do.
I don’t know if 2% of customers even think about this, or have an eye for it, or care about what they like. But even if they don't care, if you can do it, I think they feel it without knowing they feel it. For example, people just absolutely love Raoul’s. That's like the ultimate of ultimate. It's totally illogical. There’s random stuff everywhere.
But reputation drives so much. In my interview with Graydon, we’re talking about what’s the most important puzzle to solve for a restaurant—is it the food, the service, the design, the music, the lighting. My point is that it’s reputation, because with social media and all these new editors and writers, if you just get a good reputation, people will go. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are so many restaurants I know that I don't believe are great, but they've got two or three things in the beginning that some young writer wrote about and said were great. And then two other people copied that article and said it was great, and and it became great. And then people go. I’ve always said that you could take sushi from a deli and put it on the plate at the best sushi restaurant in the city, and if someone was sitting down at that plate in that restaurant, their brain is going to tell them what is on that plate is the best. Not everybody, not everyone that you know, but a lot of people would be tricked into it. “Oh, my God. That tuna!”
How does this consciousness of reputation and profile work with your experiences in media—from City magazine to Tasting Table and now Broken Palate?
I sold Tasting Table in a weird set of circumstances. We sold it to another media company that wasn’t in the business of doing email. I did the deal, but I kept the mailing list. So I thought, do I want to just walk away for good and be out of publishing completely? But I had this resource. At one point I was entertaining the idea of launching a completely new Tasting Table—raising money, having meetings with investment bankers. And as I got deeper into it, I realized I didn’t have the appetite to go down that road—chasing programmatic ads, the tech burden to build all that. Someone I know said hey, you should talk to the founders at Substack. They want to be bigger in food.
So I started the conversation with them. I said, hey, I like what you guys do because you obviously take on all this tech burden, and I like the idea of people subscribing and a paywall, and supporting writers all over the country. But can you make it look a little better? Can you make the home page feel a little bit more slick, a little bit more like a magazine? They worked out how to do full-bleed pictures that bleed left to right on the page. They just made it so easy for me that I thought, you know what, there’s almost no risk here. We have over a million people on our mailing list that we know love food. Let’s see how many of them are going to care about this.
All of this happened in the last year?
Yeah. I think my editor told me that we’re the number two in terms of views. So every day on average, when we send something out, we’re seeing anywhere from 375,000 to 450,000 views on the email. They don’t have super-sophisticated KPIs in terms of really digging down to what that means. But you know, it’s a pretty sizable number. It’s a good audience. We know that when we we write about something, it helps people sell things. We get good feedback.
What drives you to spend time with media and publishing while also doing hospitality?
It just taps into a creative outlet that I like. I enjoy the process. I love building. And I like the risk. I don’t mind failure. I really don’t, and I’ve had enough failures. Some of the best things I think I’ve ever done didn’t work out, like Lever House. Michelin star, Dan Silverman as chef, the best room design from Marc Newson, loved it. 2008 hits, the world collapses, all the investment banks stop. That was my client base. It was over. I was done. I was dead in the water. No one was going out. No one could spend money. It’s still probably one of the best things I've created. But it died.
So what inspired you to make these latest moves on these new places?
It comes down to working with really, really great chefs. When I decided to do the first two projects—Hancock Street and Bar Tulix—the seed and the passion was wanting to work with hardcore, super-passionate, high-level-thinking chefs. It might sound silly, but there's plenty of chefs I know that aren’t like that.
At Hancock Street, chef Ryan Schmidtberger and I spent six months talking before we even agreed to do it. We spent six months cooking. He'd make something, and then a month later he’s like, “Hey, can we do that again? I want to tweak.” So I just knew he was going to own it—not just superficially take ownership of it, but really dig in. And that’s what drove me to do it.
With closing El Toro Blanco, I realized I wasn’t going to have a Mexican restaurant. And personally I love Mexican food. Then I run into Justin Bazdarich, and I just said, “Hey, would you ever come into Manhattan?” I’ve known him since he started at at Jean-Georges, and then worked his way up to the top. I watched him open Speedy Romeo. I knew his character. I knew his work ethic. I knew his back training. When you work for Jean-Georges Vongerichten or Daniel Boulud, and you don’t just do two or three years but you do real time, it's next level.
So I say to Justin, “Look, man, I won’t reopen Burger & Barrel if you agree to come and partner with me on a new place there, and you dominate and own the food. I’ll do the room, you curate the game plan. Let’s do something totally different.” I don't want Bar Tulix to be remotely like what I did with Dos Caminos or El Toro. Our style, no rules.
There are restaurants in Mexico that run tacos and pasta—they do anything. If you're a couple of people in Mexico and you open a cool restaurant, is it a Mexican restaurant or a restaurant that’s in Mexico? The room at Tulix has nothing in it that’s Mexican. There are no signals. If I blindfolded you, walked you in the room, took the massive tequila selection off the wall, and asked what you think? You couldn’t tell me what the food is. The question I get all the time is like, “Oh, is this traditional Mexican?” The answer is no.
You're not getting into questions about authenticity or gatekeeping.
The second I get those questions, I immediately respond with “No.” We're not going to handcuff ourselves to anything. If you can figure out what to put on a plate that’s craveable, that people talk about, and they want to come back for—that’s the hardest thing all these guys do. I know what I like, but I’m not a chef. I've been lucky because I’ve been friends with Jean-Georges for 30 years. He’s been next door to me for that long with Mercer Kitchen. The knowledge that you learn when you talk to guys like him or Daniel or Justin, and the challenges they have as creators to put something on a plate ... Even the simplest thing, like steak au poivre? Everyone does a steak au poivre. But there are instances where someone comes up with some minuscule difference, and it makes people want to come back for it.
What about the other place you’re opening in the summer?
I took over the space Andrew Carmellini had—Little Park—and Evening Bar down in Tribeca. They decided not to come back. The hotel wanted a change. I’m going to be opening Smyth Tavern there probably end of July, early August. And then on the lobby side, we’re going to put in a really great speakeasy-type cocktail lounge. The idea there is just enough upscale mixed in with kind of a neighborhood menu. I’m going to do a big curated art program every six months, working with all the Tribeca galleries hopefully, and really showcase some pretty serious art.
Considering how many restaurants and bars you’ve opened and closed over the years, how many do you want to be involved with at any one time?
This will be seven places for me. I don’t know if there’s an ideal number for anyone, depending on what makes you happy, and how far you want to go with your attention. But for me, I like everything close. I’m lucky—I can walk to everything I have. I did this deliberately. The Tribeca deal is going to be the farthest from me, and it’s only a mile.
Having a Lure in Chicago and a Lure in Miami has been great. Miami’s almost nine years old. It’s not as personal though. It doesn’t matter who you are—if you're one of these guys that have 30, 40, 50 restaurants, then it becomes a different business. In a strange way, it might even be a harder business because there’s no hiding behind one person’s touch or finesse. It’s all about the product, the formula, the price. If you can do it, if you enjoy replicating what you think is good, then great. It’s just not necessarily something that I look to do or that I enjoy doing.
Is it because you can’t be as personally involved with that many places?
I can’t be as personally involved. If I had another Lever House-style restaurant in Midtown now, it’s just not realistic that I’m going to be able to touch the floor there and be back downtown. When I had Lever House, I was up there every day—suit, tie, on the floor. I loved it. It was great, but I couldn’t do that today. I mean, I could do it, but then I’m not at Lure, I’m not at Bistrot Leo. All of a sudden, you just don't know what you’re missing. At some point, no matter who you are, they just become businesses that send you reports. If it works, it sounds good. And then when it doesn’t work, you’re not paying enough attention, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh shit, we need to fix something.” But often it's too late.
Great commentary from John McDonald on the hospitality biz. One of the top points- you are only as good as your top staff, everyone has to be well trained and mentally "all in".
What an incredible journey, peppered with so many great accomplishments. 👍