Having fueled the careers of many individuals in the Beat, Folk, and Rock ‘n‘ Roll generations, Café Wha? is a must see for anyone interested in the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s, and ’60s. Because of its contribution to the music and culture of the time, it is a regular stop on the Greenwich Village Tour of Free Tours by Foot. You may also be interested in a guided tour on the rock and roll history of Greenwich Village.
Started in the 1950s as a coffee house by Manny Roth — uncle of David Lee Roth. According to Manny, if you pumped people full of enough caffeine from the cappuccino machine, they did not miss the beer. In January 1961, Bob Dylan came to New York City to see Woody Guthrie. On his first night in town, Dylan played a set of Guthrie songs at Café Wha? Jimi Hendrix was discovered here; Peter, Paul & Mary (Mary Travers was a waitress here) and Bruce Springsteen often played here, as did comedians Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. On the MacDougal Street front is a list of performers names, from Lou Reed, to Kool and the Gang, and even The Lovin Spoonful.
According to David Lee Roth, when the café was open by his uncle, it was operating without a name. Manny would ask patrons what he should call the place and people all had different ideas. But the name — says David Lee on a video that can be found on the Café Wha? website — comes from an exclamation made famous by his Russian Jewish grandmother. With her broken English, Manny’s mother would growl “Wha?” when at a loss for a comment or answer. Hence, the name “Café Wha?”
David Lee Roth of Van Halen tells of his early memories of Cafe Wha?
Located in the heart of the Village scene, Café Wha? is on the corner of MacDougal across from the Minetta Tavern, up the street from The Gaslight Café — regular haunts of Dylan, Dave VanRonk, Joan Baez— and down the street from the home of Pete Seeger and around the corner from the former Gerdes Folk City….
As with all things, this area changed over the years. The club was sold by Manny in 1968, featuring for a while ethnic music. But in 1987, it was brought back to its original music format. A house band now plays several nights a week, with guest performers interspersed on the calendar. The Café Wha? Band is billed as “The Best Damn Band in New York City.”
To reach Café Wha?, take the A, C, E, or B, D, F or M trains to West 4th Street. Exit the subway station at West 3rd Street and go East (up the slight hill) on West 3rd to MacDougal. Make a right and Café Wha? is on next corner. Use our Google map for directions to Cafe Wha?
By Tour Guide Renee Rewiski