IF a person’s happiness is inversely proportional to the length of his commute, then John McDonald might be the most contented guy in his downtown Manhattan neighborhood. The buttery-smooth scene-maker’s kingdom includes two restaurants, a style magazine and a celebrity-filled bar — all based on the same street where he lives. “It’s one block, one street: Mercer between Houston and Prince,” Mr. McDonald said proudly.
His latest venture, Burger & Barrel, opened six weeks ago and is the rare burger joint where you could drop $295 on a bottle of Marcassin pinot noir. It is roughly 100 paces from MercBar and the City magazine offices, 30 paces from Lure Fishbar, and 150 paces from his loft, stylishly furnished with pieces by Paul Frankl and Mies van der Rohe.
In short, his might be the most compact theme park in the city. It’s certainly the easiest to keep tabs on. Mr. McDonald, 42, can check in on all his businesses in little more time than it takes to fire a patty to medium-well, and still make time to catch up with old friends like the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose office is just around the corner.
“You live in New York City, but if you manage to isolate your path and your circle, it really does become like a strange village-type lifestyle,” said Mr. McDonald (above) between bites of cheeseburger smothered in caramelized-onion-and-bacon jam.
That’s if your village is peopled only with boldface names, jet-setters and the cultural elite.
“Kyle!” Mr. McDonald yelled, after spotting Kyle MacLachlan, the actor, who came by for lunch with his wife, Desiree Gruber, an executive producer of “Project Runway.” “You got the little guy with you?” Mr. McDonald asked, referring to the couple’s toddler son, Callum.
“No, he was fading,” the actor said. The two chatted, then settled on dinner plans.
It was Mr. McDonald’s ease with the cool crowd that formed a foundation for his career. Although he was raised in Phoenix, Mr. McDonald found himself running with a fashionable crew shortly after landing in New York, as an undergrad at Columbia in the late 1980s.
Through friends of his older sister, Mia, who had been a Ford model in the mid-’80s, he had gotten to know a coterie of tastemakers a decade or more his senior — André Balazs (who was then married to Katie Ford), Serge Becker, Eric Goode, the designer Campion Platt — on visits to the city. Eventually they adopted him as a kind of kid brother, and Mr. McDonald found himself taking long study breaks at the club M.K. or the white-hot restaurant 150 Wooster, surrounded by models.
One night, he recalls ending up at a table with Mike Tyson, Iman and Naomi Campbell at Florent at 5 a.m. “I always say, being naïve and being lucky was how it started,” Mr. McDonald said.
While Mr. Balazs and Mr. Platt labored to open the Mercer hotel — Chateau Marmont East — in the early ’90s, Mr. McDonald was looking for a foothold of his own. He found it in a small garage next to the hotel, which he and Mr. Platt converted into MercBar. There, he put into practice the lessons of his extracurricular upbringing — namely, seeding an upstart venue with the right people. You create a clubhouse for the members of Duran Duran, in other words, and the fashion crowd will follow.
He followed the same formula at Lever House, which he opened in 2003 with Josh Pickard and turned into a power-lunch spot for media figures like Martha Stewart and Mort Zuckerman. In similar fashion, Lure Fishbar has become the Michael’s for the downtown Web crowd. The reservation list for lunch last week included officers of Gawker Media, The Huffington Post, CollegeHumor and DailyCandy.
Mr. McDonald also learned the value of personal vision and style. Canteen, which predated Lure in the same space, was a high-flying “cafeteria” that he opened at the height of the ’90s boom, with an eye-popping design by Marc Newson that featured lots of oranges and browns in a retro-modern décor. And Lure Fishbar evokes a teak-walled yacht cabin that seems seaworthy enough to make one reach for a Dramamine.
Nevertheless, Mr. McDonald waves off the notion that you can sustain a business by catering to any single scene. “Nothing that is successful is one-dimensional,” he said. “People say, ‘What’s the crowd?’ The crowd is just busy, that’s what you want. What’s the crowd at Balthazar? It’s the greatest crowd ever, because it’s always crowded.”
Burger & Barrel was still filling up on a recent soggy Tuesday afternoon, its second week open for lunch. Before slipping on a black Prada raincoat and vanishing into the squall, Mr. McDonald paused to show off the restaurant’s interior: dark walnut paneling, mismatched vintage chairs and 1960s-style lamps that call to mind a Palm Springs diner from the Sinatra years.
Reinforcing the burger joint’s clubby vibe is a shelf of empty wine bottles, autographed by famous friends who’ve stopped by so far. It’s Mr. McDonald’s version of the celebrity portraits at Sardi’s. On one bottle of Bordeaux, you could almost make out the scribbles of Heidi Klum and Seal.
Such Mercer Street regulars were precisely whom he had in mind when he pounced on the space, following the shuttering of its previous occupant, Centovini, earlier this year. The building represented the northern flank of his empire, after all.
“I don’t want to see someone else, territorially speaking, get in on what I consider my home court,” he said. “Why would I let someone else sneak in?”