Farewell, Schiller’s, I Love and Hate You So Much
I’ll start from the end of the story, the part where I’m standing on the corner of Norfolk and Rivington. It’s the middle of August, and the sky is cloudless and blue. It hasn’t been too hot, and people are talking about summer coming to an end soon. Everything feels terrible. I’m hungover, and I’m giving one last look inside the place that taught me about brunch before it closes for good. Whenever I have moments like this, I start hearing the last part of “Under Pressure” in my head, the end where David Bowie takes over and starts singing about love being such an old fashioned word and this being our last dance. I look in at the “Oysters Bar” sign inside, the two regulars whose faces I swear I recognize from 2004, and “Liquor Bar” spelled out in black tile beneath my feet. I think about how much I hated this place for no real reason at all, and also how I’m going to miss the hell out of it.
He doesn’t name it in Vanishing New York, but I assume Jeremiah Moss considered Schiller’s Liquor Bar—the bar and restaurant that closed last weekend after 14 years on the Lower East Side—to be part of the problem. It was one of the “bars, bars, and more bars” that came in with the tidal wave of gentrification that cleared out much of the character and characters that made the neighborhood unique. Schiller’s isn’t mentioned, but Keith McNally, who opened the place in 2003, is described at one point as a “neighborhood-changing restaurateur.” In a great book like Vanishing New York, that isn’t meant as a compliment.
When it first opened, I probably felt the same way as Moss. From my ancestors ending up there when they moved to New York to dreaming of seeing Sunday hardcore matinees at CBGB, I’ve always felt a special connection to the Lower East Side. So when a fellow server at a restaurant I worked at suggested we drink in the city and not back in Brooklyn, I was curious. When we ended up at Schiller’s, however, I was pissed. It’s places like Schiller’s that were destroying the neighborhood, I protested. When my colleague responded that we wouldn’t have to pay for drinks because she knew the bartender, and how it had become part of what my coworkers and I had dubbed “The Route” of free or very cheap drinks across the city from fellow industry people, I softened my stance a little.
I don’t remember much of what happened that evening. All I really know is that I must have convinced one of my friends who lived nearby to let me crash on his couch. I woke up and my head felt like every stereotypical description of a hangover. I took two Advil and tried to block the sun out of my eyes. I did it to myself, and I tried to tell myself I had no regrets. My host, however, was bright and chipper, and told me we were going to get breakfast. We were going back to Schiller’s. No better way to kill a hangover than by going back to the very place you got it from, he reasoned.
Even though his logic seemed flawed, I followed him down the stairs, out the door, and to an already packed Schiller’s, where we got a seat at the bar and ordered two bloody marys, then two more, and eventually got to breakfast. To my surprise, as somebody who has been bedridden for entire days from hangovers not nearly as bad as the one I’d been suffering from when I walked in the door, going back to the scene of the crime really was the cure.
That was my first actual brunch in New York City, and it became my tradition for the next five years: If I drank at Schiller’s, I’d have to go back and get breakfast there the next morning, hungover or not, whether I slept nearby or in another borough. The breakfast was never really that great, but that wasn’t the point; it did the trick. The bloody marys were nothing special, at least not unique enough to be included in the bar’s 2013 cocktail collection. What mattered was that drinking two burned up your hangover. It made everything feel a little better.
I ended the tradition at some point and turned my back on Schiller’s completely after a friend’s promise to help me get hired there didn’t pan out, and also because the neighborhood had become unbearable. All of my other favorite spots closed, and all of my friends moved to Brooklyn or to Los Angeles. “Weekends are for amateurs” turned into “The city is for amateurs” (even though I still don’t totally believe that). Cheap shot and a beer places with loud music turned into chill places with outside porches to drink rosé on; places where punk bands played turned into spots big enough to accommodate their baby strollers; the only thing that stayed the same was the craving for an egg and cheese. I was growing up, and a place like Schiller’s that I could have kept going to (especially when you consider the fact that I love some of McNally’s other places) became a part of my past. It was something from my dirtbag 20s that I put away along with owning and sleeping on a futon mattress sans frame and wearing vintage clothes without sending them to the washing machine first.
Then, pulled in by some feeling that I’d regret it if I didn’t say goodbye the old way, I made reservations for the last Saturday night, August 12, and brunch on the last Sunday morning. My wife (who spent plenty of nights there in her early NYC days as well) and I got there at 8:30 for burgers and champagne. We were out by 10. At midnight, I checked Instagram and saw that a few people who I only knew through social media anymore had ended up there. They looked like they were having fun.
The next morning, at 10, I was the first person through the door. I didn’t order avocado toast, but that’s what they brought me. It was fine. I was there for the bloody mary. I hadn’t stayed out until four or five in the morning like I used to, but my head felt like I had. The bartender, Dylan Cannon, had, in fact been out deep into the morning. “I got out of here at 6:45,” he told me. After two years of working at Schiller’s and hearing countless stories throughout the weeks leading up to the closing, the guy looked like he was in desperate need of a nap, but assured me that there will be “waterworks” when his last shift is over.
That’s the part where I left. I got a car to come pick me up, and took that one last look. I loved and hated this place so much, I thought to myself. Thankfully, I realized I loved it way more and hated it for trivial reasons before it was too late. Schiller’s was my first brunch spot. It was a place that was a means to an end: the end of the evening, and the end of my hangover.