Shipping to
United States
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  • 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.

Byron is at The Surf Lodge. Where did you - an Irishman and a Scotsman who have lived your whole lives in cities - find your inspiration in surf culture?
Mr Brophy: Ha ha, good question! Both Brian and I have very strong ties with Australia. I lived there for five years as a child and Brian spends a lot of time there with his partner James who is a native. When we drove into Montauk for the first time we were struck by how much it reminded us of Byron Bay in Australia: the great beaches, sunsets and laid-back surfer culture. So, when we were asked by The Surf Lodge to conceptualise a restaurant in the hotel, we felt inspired to bring a restaurant with an Aussie feel to Montauk.
In a sense of design, what have you imported from your Whitehall and Highlands spaces to Byron in Montauk?
Mr Brophy: The space at The Surf Lodge is so perfectly imagined that we didn't want to change things too much. We did however install our signature reclaimed wood ceilings, which brings a real warmth to the restaurant.

It's quite incredible when, at the end of
the night, you look at how many people
we have just served dinner to

What did you find to be the biggest surprise when it came to running a restaurant on the beach?
Mr Brophy: We knew going that The Surf Lodge was a very popular destination, but nothing could have prepared us for just how busy it can get sometimes. It's quite incredible when, at the end of the night, you look at how many people we have just served dinner to.
Which of your country's cuisines have you both brought to Whitehall?
Mr Brophy: I grew up in a culture of bars. I grew up around people coming in and out of my home, the hustle and bustle; being a host is in my blood.

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.
I was in London recently and the food is so fantastic now; it's become a huge part of that culture.
Mr Brophy: Our chef Chris Rendell has an amazing pedigree: The Sugar Club, Mews of Mayfair, PUBLIC with Brad Farmerie in New York. Basically, Chris was on the vanguard of that whole movement in the 1990s. When he started working with us he came home to a place where he was free to be creative. In our menus, especially at Byron, there's always a shade of Asian influence. His passion for Southeast Asian cooking ties in very well with what we do. The British Empire spanned the whole globe; those ingredients are staples in the UK: curry powder, etc.
Where do you like to eat back home?
Mr McGrory: I go up north. Most important to us is to get out to the real, authentic Scotland. There's a place, Loch Fyne, that has the best salmon there is. Up in Skye there's a place called The Three Chimneys as well. What's great about Scotland is the intimate dining scene; there are all these boutique B & Bs with exceptional restaurants.

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.
I came in here a while ago, a little hungover, and had a warm home-made doughnut. It was heaven.
Mr McGrory: Our pastry chef, Ryan Butler, is amazing. We bake all of our pastry in-house, whether it's the brioche bun with our burger, or our fresh pastries at brunch. He's very versatile as well, he can do simple, cake-on-a-plate, and then he can do these beautifully crafted, manicured desserts.

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.
Whitehall has definitely become a fashion favourite - why else do you think that is?
Mr McGrory: I think first and foremost it was Donal and I as fashion icons [laughs]. Seriously, one of our silent partners, James Marshall is married to Elettra Wiedemann. From the get-go they were huge supporters of us. But the fashion crowd is the most fickle; we were actually worried we'd be the flavour of the month.

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.
Your first establishment, Highlands, made a real impact on this neighbourhood.
Mr McGrory: Highlands is the date capital of the West Village.

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

Your second restaurant, Mary Queen of Scots, which you opened in 2011 closed after a year - what did you learn from that?
Mr McGory: Everything. It was a very expensive mistake. It was a destination place and we are community driven people. We need a community around us.

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, you were an actor back in Ireland and when you first came to New York. Running a restaurant and acting: where do they meet?
Mr McGrory: They're very similar. Creating roles.

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.
What are your next roles?
Mr McGrory: We've launched our event company, Commonwealth Catering. That's going very well. Every event is a blank canvas, and we can work with these design installations. For us, it's not about the money, it's about the creativity. It's creating an environment for our clientele. So when we do these events we go all out.

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.