- Photography by Mr Will Davidson
- Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr John Hodgkinson
Two Scots and an Irishman walk into a bar. This is not a joke, this was the reality in 2009, when Mr Donal Brophy (the Irishman) and his business partners, Mr Brian McGrory and Ms Mary Wan (the Scots) opened Highlands, a woody, sophisticated, beyond cosy gastropub, which brought New York's tiny West Village a new kind of bar, and was recognised as an instant classic (it is, as it sounds, the ultimate date spot; several couples - gay and straight - have held their weddings at Highlands, it being the bar where they had their first date). They soon followed up with Mary Queen of Scots, in the frenetic Lower East Side, a popular weekend spot since shuttered, as well as Whitehall, a modern, London-inspired restaurant that quickly became one of New York's favourites for its famously fussy fashion set and Byron at The Surf Lodge in Montauk. On a recent Friday Messrs Brophy and McGrory revealed to MR PORTER the secrets to their success.
It's quite incredible when, at the end of
the night, you look at how many people
we have just served dinner to
Mr McGrory: London put England on the food map. Scotland and Ireland followed. Scotland supplies most of Europe with its seafood, because it has the coldest waters, ideal for catching fish. Ironically, Scotland didn't really promote its seafood inside of Scotland. People didn't actually eat a lot of fish. It was very much about fried food and wheat and stuff we now realise is really unhealthy. But in the past 10 to 15 years this has shifted.
Mr Brophy: Whenever I'm in Dublin I'm subject to all these pseudo-fancy restaurants that are trying to do what we have in New York City or London. You want a proper feel. My favourites are in the west and northwest of Ireland, like Donegal. There are so many local B & Bs, and even the pubs will have a catch of the day or oysters.
BYRON, THE SURF LODGE, MONTAUK
HIGHLANDS, WEST VILLAGE
WHITEHALL, GREENWICH VILLAGE
Mr Brophy: We're very popular with the fashion set, because the menu has such a wide spectrum. You'll definitely find comfort food on there: our pork chop, our burger. If you're hungover, there's an English fry up. Nothing better.
Mr Brophy: We had the revolving door of celebrities and socialites coming in. We were concerned, but we stayed true to who we are and we've sustained. All the glitz and glam means nothing if at the end of the day you're not providing good food.
Mr Brophy: A couple just got engaged there, because they met there three years ago. He spelled out her name in rose petals. We had our first gay wedding there in May, Memorial Day weekend. One of the guys was Scottish. They had come to Highlands on their first date. That is one of the most rewarding things as a restaurateur or a publican: to bring people together like that. Mind-blowing to think an idea you had five years ago brought people together and they'll get married and have kids.
We had the revolving door of celebrities
and socialites coming in. But we stayed
true to who we are and we've sustained.
All the glitz and glam means nothing if
you're not providing good food
Mr Brophy: We learnt a lot. It's all about location. We learnt you have to get it right from the get-go, not to move too fast with opening spaces. We also learnt a real strength in our friendship and business partnership. People with less of a bond would have fallen out with each other. We weren't killing each other at all. When things are great we murder each other; when they're bad we band together. The best analogy is a band's second album.
Mr McGrory: Like its namesake, it died too young.
Mr Brophy: I came to NY in 2000 and worked in nightclubs and then went to acting school for four years. I learnt these amazing tools in acting, how to behave in certain situations, and it helps me every day with the business. No matter what's going on behind the scenes, you have to go on the floor and bring it. In NYC what sets you apart from the restaurant down the street is the personalities. That's why people come here, they like to have a laugh. I'm a bit of a ham.
Mr Brophy: It's probably our weakness. We wonder why there's no money in the account - it's because we bought that $4,000 shelf from Restoration Hardware for that event. Oops.