All I can really remember about being 15 years old is drinking cappuccinos at Caffé Trieste and reading Communist lit at City Lights Books in San Francisco with my disillusioned comrade. We traversed the streets of North Beach, condemning materialism and questioning the meaning of the tangible world. And although we both warmed up to society as time went on, Ginsberg’s poetry still strikes a chord in me.
What is it about beatnik lit that keeps inspiring teens to rebel, idealistic college kids to protest, and bums and poets to find common ground? Generation after generation, On The Road seems to top every 15-year-old dreamer’s list of favorite books, even though “cats” have become “dudes,” “dig it” now means “hella tight,” and “tea” is now called “weed.” The lure of freedom, wild imagination, and breaking societal norms continues to resonate across generational lines.
The beginning of 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of beatnik William S. Burroughs’ linguistically revolutionary novel Naked Lunch. And while the Beats blew most of their money on liquor and Benzedrine rather than on food, their intellectual legacy lives on in the cafes and eateries they frequented. Trieste in North Beach, Los Angeles’s Venice West Café in Venice Beach and a number of coffee shops, bars and taverns in New York City are among the venues tied together by a lasting legacy of Beat patronage.
Our very own Columbia University is where the Beat Generation was born. Novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg met while studying at Columbia. They soon joined up with the crazy and creative Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, editor Lucien Carr, and novelist John Clellon Holmes. The crew frequented The West End, a bar familiar to Columbia students as the Cuban restaurant Havana Central. Although Havana Central now draws diners with saffron rice, camarones, and mango salsa, the owners of the chain left the space’s interior more or less unchanged and kept The West End in its name to preserve its historic past. With aged dark wooden booths and period décor, the restaurant has retained a significant distinctly Beat character that the Castro-sympathizing Ginsberg would probably approve of.
The countercultural spark that began in Morningside Heights quickly migrated downtown, where the core group of beatniks documented their escapades in their equally tumultuous freestyle writing. Bridget Murnaghan, poet and close friend of Ginsberg and poet Gregory Corso, as well as a regular at many of their hangouts in the ’50s, still remembers the era of the Beats fondly. The crew met up every night at a long-gone bar named San Remo at the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker, she says. From there they would hop the streets of Greenwich Village. Murnaghan reminisces about the Beats’ eating and drinking habits, saying, “We used to go from bar to bar every night. The White Horse was in for awhile. Poets are very strange people, though, and that’s what it was like.”
The White Horse Tavern is perhaps still your best bet if you want to absorb some beat energy while consuming a hearty meal. This historic Hudson Street venue serves decent greasy food—your standard juicy burger and delicious, thick French fries—while maintaining a respectable roster of ales. Like many former Beat hot spots, a creative-but-self-destructive atmosphere lingers in the White Horse. This is the bar where Dylan Thomas supposedly died after beating his previous record of 18 whiskeys in one night. Other famous former locals included Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan. A waitress at the White Horse who refuses to be named explains the importance she feels the tavern holds: “It’s history. And New York is a place that’s constantly in flux. The fact that people came in here 40 years ago and say it hasn’t changed—it’s a really unique experience.”
If you want to follow in the footsteps of the White Horse’s creative predecessors, Murnaghan recommends the hamburger. “Hamburgers were very bohemian. It used to be spaghetti—that was the bohemian food. Then all of a sudden it was hamburgers. Everyone ate hamburgers,” she says.
Riviera Café, near the Christopher Street subway station, is another purported beat hangout. This slightly more diner-friendly venue features old black-and-white photos of past patrons, along with period music—Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell—and a sports bar downstairs. Its outdoor seating area is covered during the winter, making for a warm way to enjoy New York-style sidewalk dining during the colder months.
In Greenwich Village, The Back Fence, a longstanding bar frequented by the original Beats, holds poetry readings every Sunday from 3-5 p.m.—totally open-mic, with the only prerequisite being that performers can’t be stoned. An iconic joint since the 1940s, The Back Fence retains its signature offbeat nature with sawdust-covered floors, darkreddish lighting and a beer-stained, slightly sticky walnut interior. Although the stage is small, the venue fits a surprising number of tables.
Murnaghan, organizer of The Back Fence’s weekly poetry readings, considers them to be some of the last remnants of beat culture alive in the city today. “I run it because I’m a poet. I run it the way a poet would want it run. There’s a feature poet, and the rest of it is open ... It’s as honest as you can get in a world like today. And it’s bohemian as you can get in a world like today. I’m a big believer in bohemia.” If you’re not into the spoken-word scene, The Back Fence also hosts live music on Monday through Saturday nights.
The nearby Café Reggio, also on Bleeker Street, provides a slightly classier but still classic Beatnik experience. It’s the perfect place to tap into your inner Ginsberg and rant about the “best minds of my generation” over a cappuccino. The coffee is strong enough to propel good writing, and also historic: Reggio features one of the oldest espresso machines on display, along with an eclectic array of antique wall decorations, including statues, paintings, and clocks.
In the constantly opening-and-closing, restaurant-eat-bar New York food scene, former Beat hang-outs seem to be a staple of the city—consistently off-beat and slightly sketchy, but rich with an air of past creative epiphanies. It’s no wonder aspiring writers and bongo players return to these venues. While new restaurants and bars boast chic design, tasteful color, and “unique” decors, places like The Back Fence hold true history. As Murnagham says about that restaurant, “It’s a neighborhood bar, and that neighborhood happens to be Greenwich Village. That’s the difference between it and some of these big-shot bars. I like my bosses because they keep it that way.” It’s almost as if the freestyle poetry of past generations is ingrained into these venues’ aged wood interiors in a way that the clean lines and funky colors of newer venues could never imitate.
THREE DRINK RECIPES JACK KEROUAC WOULD HAVE LOVED
It’s no coincidence that the Beat legacy lives on in cafés and bars: the Beats loved coffee and alcohol more than anything. In fact, On the Road was written in one go while Kerouac was on a continuous coffee and Benzedrine high. We searched for recipes that combine booze and beans to find three coffee drinks that nourish the poet in all of us.
Cappuccino con Vov
A classic San Francisco drink that began at the historic Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Shop Café in the early ’70s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the California crew would have loved drinking this foam, espresso, and Italian egg liqueur concoction.
Mix brandy, amaretto, coffee, and a squeeze of lemon for this drink featured at the historic Vesuvio Café, another San Francisco spot.
Relive Kerouac’s famous On the Road trip to Tijuana with this concoction, or take your own epic vacation. Mix black coffee, coffee liqueur, vanilla, and a pinch of cinnamon in a mug and top with whipped cream.