Jen Pelka is the owner of San Francisco Champagne bar The Riddler — which was very much Schiller’s-inspired — and Magnum PR. She lived in New York for ten years before moving to the West Coast. News came out this week that Schiller’s Liquor Bar will close in August.
Holy shit. All of my friends are freaking the fuck out. I'm getting non-stop text messages: Did you hear? About Schiller's? Schiller's is dead. Schiller's. Is. Dead. Schiller's is dead. Or dying. Schiller's is dying, and we have to go and pay our last respects. I'm at an airport bar in Philadelphia's Terminal A on my way back to San Francisco just 13 days before from my wedding, and I am seriously considering changing my flight so that I can visit Schiller's, one of the dearest friends of my lifetime, before the lights go out. I double down on my Pinot Grigio.
I have heard of this phenomenon of seriously mourning the death of a place in New York, but none of my places have ever gone away. Sure, bodegas came and went over the years, and restaurants I liked have closed, but none of my places has ever met this final fate. In his "Here is New York," E.B. White wrote that there are three New Yorks: The New York of the person born here, who takes it for granted, of the commuter, who buzzes in and out, and of the third kind, the kind I was, the person who comes to New York in quest of something. "The greatest is the last," he wrote, "the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts of New York's high-strung disposition. . . its incomparable achievements." For me and my friends in the early 2000s, Schiller's was the refuge that filled our glasses and fed our souls when we were fighting for our dreams while bouncing rent checks.
Schiller's was in stumbling distance from my first post-college apartment on Ridge and Rivington, a far-east part of the Lower East Side that in 2004 was so out there that cabs would often refuse to drop us off at home for fear of our personal safety. My crew loved Schiller's so much that we would go so frequently (often five nights a week) that the doorman Dean (now the owner of the beloved Jack's Wife Freda) would welcome me with literally open arms and yell "Jenny from the Block!"
We'd walk in, and David or Akiva or that model guy with the long hair from New Zealand (or, in the later years, the really jacked version of Matt Damon) would clear whatever renters were squatting at the three seats we owned at the bar, and pop open our first gratis bottle of prosecco for the night. We'd hold court, flirt, entertain, take some smoke breaks, occasionally fight, more often find someone to make out with, drink some more, dream, gossip, dream some more, tip the bartender $50 on our $0 bill, and click-and-clack the few blocks back to our beds before waking back up and heading back out to our jobs and our lives and the real-life actualization of our actual dreams.
For kids with Champagne taste on a complimentary Prosecco budget, Schiller's was where it all began.
Schiller's was where I fell in love with the sparkle of sparkling wine: that heady, giddy sensation that turns any old day into a celebration, the glow that it gives to your cheeks, the gutsiness that comes after a few glasses.
Schiller's was where I learned how magical and comforting and possible it is to have a real-life Cheers: for all those nights, as the song goes, when you've got no lights. When the check is in the mail. Where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came.
Schiller's was where I planned the engagement party for my first to-be-married friends: It was the start and the finish of a scavenger hunt that took us around the Lower East Side, slicing fish behind the counter at Russ & Daughters, and running in heels on the treadmill of that dumpy gym above McDonald's after Double Downs.
Later, when I was older, Schiller's was where I wrote my first book proposal, sucking up their free Wi-Fi over garlic shrimp and Diet Cokes. The book didn't land, but goddamnit at least I tried.
Many years later, Schiller's is the reason I opened The Riddler, a Champagne bar, that I now own in San Francisco. It's why our sign out front reads "Champagne Bar," a wink to the literal advertising behind Schiller's famous "Liquor Bar" announcement. It's why we comp bottles for our favorite guests. It's why we light our space with yellowed milk glass bulbs. It's why our tables and labels read "hello, old friend" -- a siren call to anyone who wants to settle in at our bar and feel welcomed home.
Schiller's was the reason I ever got into the restaurant racket to begin with. It's were I met a guy at the bar who happened to be the sous chef of Daniel. When I found out that he was a chef, I asked him for a Saturday cooking gig while I worked at a hedge fund during the week. He told me to call him the next week, and I did, and through the sound of clanging pots and pans he shouted, "Black pants, black shoes, white shirt, bring your knives." Like that, the dream became reality, and as they say, the rest is history.
Meanwhile, back at the Philadelphia airport, I decide it's time to head back to San Francisco to marry the love of my life, to live my 20's-era dream of owning a Champagne bar, to remind my team to take care of our guests like we were taken care of in those early days of Schiller's. I had been in Philadelphia that weekend to see my younger brother graduate from Penn. He's heading to New York in a few short months to start his own life, to dream his own dreams.
Schiller's won't be there, but something else will be. And 13 years from now, his place will close, and he will cry, but not really, because he'll be living his own impossible dream born in those days. And New York will always be with him no matter where he is.