I get the impression that for Faubourg Marigny residents near the corner of St. Roch and Royal streets, there's always a next time at Schiro's. If not for meatloaf, then for chips, a pint of beer or a load of whites. When the restaurant winds down and the bartender pulls out the Pledge, traffic remains continuous along the path of animated papier mache sculptures between front door and grocery aisle. One evening in succession, I saw young women with bedhead straggle in for Cokes, a man in Harley regalia grabbing some Pepperidge Farms, and another one with a tattooed forehead buying a single banana. A remarkable percentage of customers stop by the restaurant's front table to chat with Schiro's management and its rotating posse.
In the grocery business under various ownerships since 1899, Schiro's is a genuine Marigny antique. It's what would happen if the Verti Mart were crossed with Igor's. It's a commons for adult coeds with all the prerequisites for a neighborhood monopoly: washing machines, an ATM, piano in the corner, video poker, lost dog notices, Ben & Jerry's and a happy hour.
Which brings up a sore spot. The one Friday we braved rush-hour traffic for the seafood happy hour advertised in the restaurant and confirmed the previous day by phone, there was no seafood and little explanation. With an awning fending off the rain, spinning fans above and WWOZ lightening the step of passing dog walkers, we designed our own happy hour menu of spinach and artichoke dip served with mostly stale blue corn chips, and a dilute gumbo of shredded chicken and andouille. Housemade poppers stuffed with snow-white cream cheese and fresh, red chiles rescued the "happy" in happy hour.
Here's another excerpt from Schiro's idiosyncratic sense of scheduling:
Me: "It's not nine o'clock yet. Could you please unlock this door so I can get my laundry?"
Employee leaning against the prematurely locked laundromat door: "When I finish what I'm doin'." (Translation: "After my cigarette.")
Proving that indifference does not preclude friendliness, let me add that service at Schiro's was inordinately friendly. I was "doll," "darlin'' and "love" much more than I deserved; when no one else noticed my new hairdo, a server did. If I lived nearby, I might have bummed a smoke and fetched my laundry later.
It might strike you that I haven't mentioned the food much yet. Confession: I tend to procrastinate life's less-enjoyable duties. A few months ago, Schiro's switched from a short-lived Middle Eastern menu to "Traditional New Orleans Creole and Italian." While the continental shift doesn't seem to be affecting business, most of the food I tried was undergoing acclimatization problems.
I tried to sample a broad spectrum of the menu, but the same flavors continually reappeared, particularly wild rice with an odd plastic aftertaste and decent but too-frequent tomato sauce. These two, plus unchewably overcooked chicken, comprised a jambalaya trying too hard to break the mold. Wild rice also accompanied the catfish Marigny entree, while tomato sauce and ammoniated crawfish tails topped the fillet. (The pecan-crusted fish was a flaky masterpiece, and sauteed vegetables were crisp and summery.)
Tomato sauce materialized again, cold, on a meatball po-boy composed of what I assume was meatloaf leftover from the special I had ordered two nights before. My server maintained that the leathery slabs of meat with distinct corners were slices of actual meatballs, but it's been a short decade since I last studied geometry. That night, compacted bread pudding was just bready and sweet.
Yeasty dinner rolls were on the right track, as was a grilled chicken breast club croissant I hope will join Schiro's regular menu. Zippy vinaigrette swimming with dried herbs and fennel seed made a respectable salad out of iceberg lettuce.
One stellar meal confirmed my suspicions that problems in the kitchen largely were due to laziness. Someone back there knows how to cook. The informant was a uniformly golden-fried crabcake with the circumference of one bologna slice and the thickness of about eight. Squeezed between halves of a soft bun, it oozed a creamy, crab filling that crunched with celery, bell pepper and onion but was otherwise unhindered by usual breadcrumb-type fillers. A mound of puffed, impossibly habit-forming waffle fries accompanied the sandwich. I asked around whether the potatoes were cut in-house but got enough answers to short-circuit an Ouija board.
It doesn't matter. No one will boycott a 102-year-old, funky neighborhood lair because the killer fries come from a frozen bag, and I would never suggest it. But if the kitchen hopes to live up to Schiro's elder status, it has some growing up to do.