(Warning: this posting assumes a pretty detailed knowledge of bars and restaurants
on New York’s Lower East Side. If you don’t either live here or frequently visit
Below 14th, large chunks
of it might well make very little sense.)
Keith ventures where Brian failed. The opening of Schiller’s
Liquor Bar marks the second attempted McNally assault on the Lower East
Side. The first was Brian’s Smith,
on First Street, which closed ignominiously not long after opening. It was replaced
by Starfoods, which replaced the glitz with grot and was rewarded with enormous
popularity. Keith seems to have learned his lesson: he’s set the bar for Schiller’s
extremely low. Main courses hover around the $15 level, and the wine is cheap,
in tumblers. You can order Cheap, Decent or Good: $4, $5 and $6 a glass respectively,
or $12, $15 and $17 a carafe.
Schiller’s website does the ironic slumming thing: it calls Keith McNally a
"beauty salon expert" and proclaims itself a "low life bar and
restaurant". Evidently, low life includes the likes of Anna Wintour and
Nicole Kidman, both of whom were spotted there in its first week. And there’s
nothing low life about the space, a gorgeous former pharmacy on Rivington Street
which has been decked out in trademark McNally mirrors and tiles. Anybody who
likes the front room at Pastis will feel immediately at home here.
however, is almost aggressively unambitious. McNally might be attempting a move
away from the French bistro feel of Balthazar or Lucky Strike, but he’s replaced
it with nothing: the only interesting things on the list are the rotating daily
specials, which the kitchen hasn’t got around to actually cooking yet. ("We’ve
only been open for a week," apologises the cute and friendly waitress.)
The choice at Schiller’s is basically what you’d expect on a post-midnight bar
menu anywhere else: burgers, steak frites, a toasted cheese sandwich. Um, sorry,
a Welsh Rarebit. See? It’s not a French bistro: if it were, it would offer a
croque monsieur instead.
All of these things are done very well: after setting the bar low, McNally
then clears it with oodles of room to spare. But beyond the initial rush of
gawkers coming to check out the hot new restaurant, there’s nothing to bring
anybody from outside the neighborhood back for a return visit. Unless you live
here, the Lower East Side is on nobody’s way anywhere, and the number of nightlife
options you might want to try out before or afterwards is definitely limited
compared to what’s available in, say, a three-block radius of Pasits. Personally,
I’m over the moon that there’s a local place to get an excellent burger at 2am,
but that’s not the sort of thing which is going to turn the corner of Norfolk
and Rivington into the hot new buzzy spot.
McNally’s made a mistake with the exterior design of the restaurant, which
sits on the ground floor of one of the grottier Lower East Side tenement buildings.
Schiller’s sister restaurants,
even when they opened, had a feeling that they’d been there for years: the antiqued
mirrors, the old-fashioned menu items, the way they largely blended into their
surroundings gave the spaces the feel of the comfy leather armchairs at Pravda.
There’s a timeless quality to somewhere like Lucky Strike: it really could have
been opened at any time in the last 60 years.
With Schiller’s, however, McNally has tarted up the tenement out of all recognition,
plastering the outside in white subway tile and slapping on a couple of extremely
bright neon signs. They’re not cute retro neon like at Odeon, either: they’re
in-your-face shine-all-the-way-to-Houston-Street neon of an intensity utterly
unprecedented on the Lower East Side. Katz’s this place ain’t.
Inside, on the other hand, Schiller’s is a warm and friendly place to sit in,
and will become even more so if and when the weather ever clears up, the French
doors get pulled back and the restaurant starts spilling out on to the pavement.
The newspaper racks already feature the requisite European imports, and I’m
sure that Schiller’s will be a welcome addition to such places as Cafe Lebowitz,
Teany and Paul’s Boutique for those of us looking for a pleasant place to while
away a large chunk of afternoon with a coffee and maybe a friend. I certainly
didn’t feel rushed in the slightest as I sat at a corner table working my way
through a seemingly endless Philip Gourevitch piece on North Korea in the New
Yorker. Schiller’s is not a huge restaurant in the way that Balthazar is, and
the way the tables are curved around the bar means that even when you’re the
only diner in the place you feel cozy rather than alone.
As for the evening crowd, I’m pretty sure that Schiller’s is going to be a
bar first and restaurant second, rather like Salt Bar or Essex – or Pravda,
for that matter. The small tables are perfect for small groups meeting up for
drinks, the bar is well stocked, and if people fancy some garlic shrimp with
their cocktails they can always order it.
My guess is that Schiller’s is not going to do all that much for Rivington
Street, but that it’s going to do wonders for Norfolk. The block between Rivington
and Delancey now has Schiller’s, Tonic and Lansky Lounge, and is going to get
another restaurant very soon. Luise, the grotty coffee shop opposite Schiller’s,
has already revamped itself into something cool and sleek, and there’s another
excellent coffee place a few doors down the street on the east side. With WD-50
already feeling stale, I have a feeling that Norfolk is going to be the new
Clinton. And for those of us who like to sit quietly in the back garden of 1492,
that’s no bad thing at all.