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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES The Trencherman

The Trencherman: A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

I’ve long held that there’s an inverse relationship between the quality of coffee and the vibrancy of where it’s served. Caffe Reggio is proof point one. There has never been a better time for high-quality coffee in the South Village. In the pocket bound by Sixth Avenue and Broadway and Macdougal and Houston, the blocks are littered with third-wave espresso bars like Joe Coffee and Think Coffee and Third Rail and Stumptown. From behind the battlements of La Marzocco machines, baristas pull single-origin shots, filling the pre-warmed porcelain demitasses with intricate latte art patterns made with your choice of oat, soy, whole, or skim milk. In a carefully imitated simulacra of Scandinavia or Seattle, one sips the finest shade-grown fair-trade Ethiopian beans $5 can buy.

And yet, there is no worse time for coffeehouses in the Village. To walk past any of the latter day coffee shops is to peek inside the hive farm of capitalism. Man and machine peer at each other as equals, connected like anglerfish, one fueled by the city grid and the other by macchiati. The air is stuffy with email and commerce but bereft of conversation. But a coffeehouse — a true coffeehouse as opposed to a coffee shop, as Nancy Groce, senior folk life specialist at the Library of Congress tells me — is an open space, a place to exchange ideas, to foment movements. Everything from Lloyd’s of London to the French Revolution was planned in a coffeehouse. But where are the revolutions being plotted today? Where is the poetry writ?

Allen Ginsberg (left, with beard) and Gregory Corso (center) at the Five Spot Cafe in 1964.

The ghost of Gregory Corso haunts the small and unsteady marble-topped tables of Caffe Reggio on Macdougal Street. The youngest of the Beats — and the only Greenwich Village native of the lot — sits in the oldest of the coffee shops, grousing from the corner table, beneath a plaster bust of Mozart and the original Pavoni espresso machine from 1927, a stainless-steel colossus from which protrude decorative bronze figures of cherubim riding chimera. He raises his voice, just as he did with Allen Ginsberg, another Reggio habitué, to declaim. But this time it isn’t iambs about radiant brains and apple deaf that spill forth from his spectral maw but invective. “Stop laying your Village nostalgia on me!” the late poet howls, “Drag your mind from the gutter of years gone.”

He’s shouting at me through the years as I search for the coffeehouses of yore, those hotbeds of bad coffee and counterculture, where Dylan and Van Ronk and all the others found their voices, where from the smoke-filled seats, the Voice’s voices of Norman Mailer and Seymour Krim were once raised. But I’m having a hard time hearing them. Most of the old places are long gone, many upcycled to house some NYU function. Others have just fucked off into condos. The Gaslight is a cocktail bar. Cafe Wha? has become just another dive with live music and nachos called Whachos. The original location of Gerde’s Folk City is at least the Hebrew Union College which, as far as these things go, might be a mitzvah.

Clockwise from left: Cafe Wha? circa 1970; A menu for Caffe Reggio from 1959; the same coffeehouse from the street; Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly Place.

It’s hard to hear the ghosts of the past at Reggio anyway. They blast Brahms at maniacally high levels, imbuing all that transpires within its sepia-toned walls, hung heavy with brooding Renaissance paintings, with pathos. All the small tables are occupied. At 10 p.m., cappuccinos predominate, which makes sense, as one of Reggio’s claims to fame is that they served the first cappuccino in America. Though it may be the first, it is far from the best. Leave the microfoam and the rosettes to the bourgeoisie. These are frothy formless things with a dash of cinnamon on top. The best part about them are the ancient orange-and-white cups they come in with Caffe Reggio written on the side. They don’t make burnt ochre like that anymore. 

Caffe Reggio, a Village staple since 1927.

Through the piano chords snatches of conversation can be caught with a well-attuned ear. And it should be, for eavesdropping is rewarded here. An angel-headed skin-and-bones guy has folded his legs criss-cross applesauce and sits opposite a much younger woman. Daughter, lover, student, friend, who knows? They sip their coffees and she tells him of a recent spiritual journey she took with a shaman in Edison, NJ. “Cosmic,” he says. Next to them, a pair of aesthetes, the only two to have braved the Reggio’s savory offerings, drink glasses of Sangiovese, stab penne flecked with pesto — one of the six pastas for $12 on offer — and chat, in French, about a recent cello concerto. The both of them wear shawl-collared sweaters, characters in a literary memoir as yet to be written. I stab into my tiramisu, a sodden square shoved haphazardly into a glass sundae dish. The periphery is thawed, sweet and yielding, but the center is still frozen. I chew on an icy ladyfinger and I hear Corso’s cackle in my ear. “That’s what you get!” he laughs, “for wanting time to stand still!”

A few blocks down Macdougal, another of the old boys is still buzzing. Like Caffe Reggio or Monte’s or Carbone né Rocco’s, Caffe Dante is a holdout from when the Village was Italian, a survivor not just of Corso’s generation but of his parents’ generation, too. After the paesanos cleared out, it too was once filled with the uproar of poets and prophets. And now it is filled again. I’m old enough to remember when Caffe Dante was what it was, an old bakery with a shell-game of desserts. There were like fifteen on the menu but there only seemed to be five ever available. It was a crap shoot but at least it was a place you could sit.

No room for “espresso”: The recently-upgraded Caffe Dante

In 2015, Caffe Dante reopened with new ownership, a new chef and a heavy focus on handmade pasta and artisanal cocktails. Both are superlative. Under the direction of Australian bartender Naren Young, Dante was just named 16th of the 50 Best Bars in the world. The cocktail list is treated with appropriate gravitas. It is handed over by bearded men with tattooed hands atop a heavy brass clipboard. The offerings are appropriately arcane, expensive, and expansive. The food — from a quivering sphere of burrata chaperoned by figs to handmade orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe to a garlicky skillet of chicken parm, tranches of breast under a duvet of cheese — is top-notch. The cocktail list favors the negroni, of which there are a dozen variations, including Unlikely Negroni, a negroni with all sorts of far-out shit in it like pineapple shrub, chili, and banana.

Dante, as it is now known, is certain of what it is. It has a purpose and a mission. With that comes both an excellence absent from Reggio and a momentum, too. It is the familiar hustle of commerce, of turns, of running a restaurant. We know this rhythm, recognize it, from all aspects of our life. Time cuts through space, and space feels tight. So we cram into coffee shops to burn through emails and approach the Dantean gates pregnant with expectation and purpose.

Sitting at the bar at Dante, I stare into my quickly draining Old Fashioned and think, you and me both, buddy, you and me both. I bemoan that I’ll never run into Corso or Ginsberg or Dylan, and if I’m sitting next to the next generation’s bards, they ain’t talking to me here. But then I hear voice, not the bartender’s. “How’s that chicken parm?” it asks. It’s a neighbor. His name is Bob. He’s an accountant from Encinitas, California, in town to clear up the estate of his mother-in-law. “It’s pretty good,” I tell him. We talk about mutual funds and real estate for a spell, how houses in Encinitas that look over the sea cost millions more than those that don’t. “People just want to look out into space,” he says. We both gaze at the bottled spirits behind the bar and sit in silence. It isn’t quite poetry but perhaps it’s close enough.

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David Lee Roth and Kanye West Get Creative in 2012

David Lee Roth’s persona might be that of a particularly lusty vaudevillian, ready to crack a joke, but he held court for more than a few serious moments during Thursday night’s Van Halen show at the improbably small Café Wha?

There was the introduction of his 92-year-old uncle, Manny Roth (the MacDougal Street venue’s original proprietor), during which Roth recalled the first time he descended the stairs to the cave-like space some 50 years ago; then, the part where he outlined the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles’s clubs during a bit about his band’s repertoire of covers made me wonder if there’s some alternate-universe Roth who’s getting great buzz on ratemyprofessor.com. And then there was the point where he looked back on his days as a paramedic: Back in the ’00s, he traded tour buses for New York City’s ambulances, traveling to the Bronx and Bed-Stuy as he treated people in need.

During this particular tangent—which was set off by Roth wondering if anyone in the industry-heavy audience could introduce him to Lady Gaga—the frontman, still flamboyant despite being clad in overalls and a Dutch Boy cap, outlined his inspiration for heading to EMT school instead of traveling the reality-show path trod by too many of his peers. “Artist to artist . . . haven’t you ever wondered about some of these buildings, and some of these projects, and some of these places we drive past every day, and you wonder: ‘What’s behind that door? Man, what’s going on in there? What’s up on the roof over there?'” he asked. “As an artist, everything you see—everybody that you know—winds up in your voice.”

Lofty stuff from a man who once crowed, “I dropped my pen-cil!” as a come-on—in the pummeling-yet-flirty “Hot for Teacher,” one of the chestnuts pulled out during the Café Wha? gig—but not entirely surprising. After all, being an entertainer worthy of one’s box-office receipts involves cultivating a certain amount of empathy for the people paying the cover charges; the audience Thursday night was filled with seen-it-all types who were bowled over not just by the fact that one of the rock era’s biggest bands was shredding through its biggest songs while standing maybe 20 feet tops away from them, but also by the charisma that emanated from the stage.

The night before Van Halen’s gig, one of the few current pop stars whose notoriety matches that of Roth at his MTV-saturating peak, and one who’s ever mindful of his own artistic voice—Kanye West—took to his Twitter account for a series of 140-character salvos over the course of a few hours that, in part, outlined his vision for his post–Watch the Throne future. He confessed that despite the boasts on his collaborative album with Jay-Z, he hadn’t bought any new jewelry or cars because he instead wanted to pursue his artistic dreams, which included the formation of a new company.

DONDA—all-caps, named after West’s mother—will be the company where West and his collaborators “help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel . . . dream of, create, advertise, and produce products driven equally by emotional want and utilitarian need.” It will eventually employ a laundry list of creative and professional types that include “architects, graphic designers, directors, musicians, producers, AnRs, writers, publicists, social media experts, app guys, managers, car designers, clothing designers, DJs, video game designers, publishers, tech guys, lawyers, bankers, nutritionists, doctors, scientists, teachers”—so serious was he about finding members of these professions that he even tweeted an e-mail address where interested parties could sign up.

Much has been made of the demise of the record industry and the attendant shrinking of the stars who populate it. But there are still outsized personalities in the music world, and there’s definitely a hunger to view certain people as stars in a positive light and not just in the point-and-laugh way popularized by TMZ and twilight-of-fame reality shows. Police and barricades cordoned the streets around Café Wha? on Thursday night to handle the crowds angling for a glimpse of Roth and his bandmates. Hours earlier, West had about 5.8 million people following him on Twitter, and his sketched-out business plan was amplified by both the reams of media coverage it received and the people on Twitter who were real-time reacting to its incremental broadcast.

On the flip side, the shrinking of the sphere allows for less room for excess and lost weekends spent overindulging in the spoils of stardom to the detriment of one’s art—because to be frank, they might not be there for long, if at all. West’s disavowal of spending money on the finer things in life might have sounded a bit disingenuous (this is a guy, after all, who tooled around in a deconstructed $350,000 car for a music video with Jay-Z last year), but when coupled with the outlining of his artistic vision, it was striking.

The ferocity with which Van Halen attacked their instruments on Thursday night made me flash back to the taut, three-hour Guns N’ Roses show I saw last year; Axl Rose might have showed up late, but damned if he wasn’t a pro who seemed to be enjoying himself. Van Halen’s show on Thursday night felt the same way, and chalking all of that up adrenaline rush to the small setting is probably incorrect.

“I want to put creatives in a room together with like minds that are all waaaay doper than me,” West tweeted at one point during his DONDA pitch. Perhaps he and Roth should have a chat?