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In Defense of Schiller's Liquor Bar, One of New York's Great Restaurants

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A response to Pete Wells's takedown by Eater co-founder Lockhart Steele.

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Can a restaurant with generally mediocre food be one of the great New York City restaurants?

This question is sparked by a Twitter debate about Keith McNally's Rivington Street speakeasy, Schiller's Liquor Bar, started by Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. In a string of brutal tweets this morning, Wells detailed a recent dinner at Schiller's in exceedingly unpleasant terms. In what appears to be a coincidental piling on, the Infatuation Boys also drop by Schiller's this week and are not impressed with what they find.

I'll be the first to agree that the food at Schiller's isn't great. In fact, Infatuation's misty 2009-era nostalgia notwithstanding, the food hasn't been great since the doors opened back in 2003. If anything, it's better now than a decade ago; the burger got the obligatory LaFrieda beef upgrade a few years back, and the menu has kept up with the trends of the day, adding a kale salad, oysters, and the like over the years.

In a tweetstorm this morning, I suggested a playbook for navigating Schillers correctly, both in terms of when to go and what to order. This playbook was met with some incredulity:

Taken like that, I'd have to agree that Mr. Quattrone is correct. Here I could switch my argument to the obvious, that what makes Schiller's one of the great New York restaurants goes beyond what's on the plate. Indeed, to his credit, Wells acknowledges that cuisine is not everything in judging a restaurant in today's review of Cherche Midi, which began this latest dive down the McNally rabbit hole. Wells writes:

After a recent tour of all his restaurants, I think Mr. McNally’s great talent may be knowing which things are worth worrying about and which can get by with being just good enough. At Morandi, the main courses were almost impressive in their mediocrity, but the pasta was just swell, which may be all the place needs to keep its chairs full. The short-rib patty melt was the only good dish on a table full of disappointments at Schiller’s Liquor Bar, but I enjoyed myself more than I have at far better restaurants.

Presumably Wells enjoyed himself more because Schiller's is just a great room to be in. When I lived two blocks down from Schiller's for its first eight years of operation, I referred to the restaurant as my living room.

I don't make it back to Schiller's as often as I used to since moving down to the South Street Seaport in 2011, but I still make it back (three times so far in 2014, per Foursquare's Swarm app, each for brunch on a weekend). It was on a lazy Sunday a few weeks back that I took the above photo from the back corner table where my wife and I enjoyed a perfect playbook brunch at 11:30 a.m., long before the LES hordes awoke and descended. I can't remember feeling as blissed out on New York City any other time this year.

So the room is great; this is true at all McNally restaurants. But there's something about Schiller's that goes even further than that: it is imbued with the very soul of New York City. Richard Price understood this when he set his novel Lush Life at a restaurant so obviously based on Schiller's that the cover art features a photograph of Schiller's exterior. (It does of course tickle me as well that the McNally character is named Harry Steele.)

And, if you happened to catch the season premier of Saturday Night Live this past weekend, it's clear that Lorne Michaels and crew get it too. Immediately following the SNL title card, we now see this:

Vanessa Bayer is having a great time at Schiller's... because of course she is. Schiller's is one of the greatest places in New York City, and it's EVERYTHING about it that makes that so: The room. The vibe. Even the food — maybe because of the food — and the very fact that you have to know how to navigate the menu, knowing that oysters are most definitely not the move, but the sizzling garlic shrimp is. (My only addendum to my Twitter playbook: the sandwich specials at lunch on weekdays are often terrific.)

Can a restaurant with generally mediocre food be one of the great New York City restaurants?

I submit that it can. Schiller's Liquor Bar — now and forever.

All Coverage of Schiller's [ENY]

Schiller's Liquor Bar

131 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002 (212) 260-4555 Visit Website