What could be more starkly different from the somber coffee shops of today with their earnest and wired denizens than the beatnik coffeehouses of the 1950s? Could Starbucks be anything but square to the beat generation?
The classic coffeehouses of the beatnik era were sites for conversation, poetry readings, folk music, improvisational jazz, stand-up comedy à la Mort Sahl, and experimental theater. In an era driven by the conformist quest for success and button-down normalcy they sheltered misfits, art, and European culture in settings decorated in moody “opium-den style” or stained-glass/marble/wrought iron “junkyard posh” assembled from the detritus of American cities then being dismantled.
Along with beats, coffeehouses were attractive to teens as well as curiosity seekers and wannabees. (See Dupo IL high school coffeehouse photo.) Authorities had an almost obsessive dislike of coffeehouses and their patrons. Even church basement coffeehouses came under attack. A John Birch Society member lectured youths at a YMCA coffeehouse in a Chicago suburb about how dissolute their gathering place was (“You can’t tell the difference between boys and girls”).
Although the word beatnik came into usage around 1958 (inspired partly by Sputnik), the phenomenon of dropping out of the “rat race” to lead an existentialist, non-consumerist life was part of the aftermath of World War II akin to the “Lost Generation” after World War I. The first coffeehouses sprang up in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s, but the beats weren’t averse to hanging out in cafeterias either — their “Paris sidewalk restaurant thing of the time.” When coffeehouses began levying cover charges for performances, beatniks tended to drop out of them too.
The heyday of the coffeehouse was the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Few did much cooking so they weren’t restaurants in the true sense, but many of them offered light food such as salami sandwiches (on exotic Italian bread) and cheesecake, along with “Espresso Romano,” the most expensive coffee ever seen in the U.S. up til then. Of course the charge for coffee was more a rent payment than anything else since patrons sat around for hours while consuming very little. Other then-unfamiliar food offerings included cannolis at La Gabbia (The Birdcage) in Queens, Swiss cuisine at Alberto’s in Westwood CA, Irish stew at Coffee ’n’ Confusion in D.C., les fromages at Café Oblique in Chicago, “Suffering Bastard Sundaes” at The Bizarre in Greenwich Village, and snacks such as chocolate-covered ants and caterpillars at the Green Spider in Denver.
Coffeehouses went in for oddball names such as above and also the Hungry i in San Francisco, Cosmo Alley in Hollywood, Fickle Pickle and College of Complexes in Chicago, The Cup of Socrates in Detroit, Café Wha in Greenwich Village, House of Fencing Masters in New Orleans, Laughing Buddha in St. Louis’s Gaslight Square, and Café Mediterraneum in Berkeley.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009