Arts & Culture
10:12 pm
Mon August 5, 2013

David Amram remembers the San Remo Cafe & Bar in Greenwich Village

I always look forward to emails arriving from my old friend, fellow horn player David Amram. I recently sent him a video interview I did with him a few years ago. That prompted his always gracious thank you and then this account of the San Remo Cafe and Bar in Greewich Village:

l.to r., Phil Hartman, owner of Two Boots, located at the site of the old San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village, Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and David Amram
Credit David Amram

 July 29, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation had an honoring ceremony celebrating the San Remo Cafe and Bar.

In the late 1940s and 50s, the San Remo was the premiere haunt for the literary and artistic set. Some of the regulars included Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Frank O'Hara, Judith Malina, Jackson Pollock, James Baldwin, Charles Mingus, myself and Gore Vidal. Several of these artists first met here, and many immortalized the San Remo in their writings.

The old San Remo was a small family owned bistro where some of America's finest artists of all genres met, communed and were welcomed by all the other patrons.

There were no "A" tables, and ego-mania, narcissism and snobbery was neither encouraged nor tolerated. It was a classic neighborhood small place that was pure New York. It was a beloved port of call for many of us.

After I spoke, following the unveiling of the plaque honoring the site and the history of the old San Remo Cafe, I went to have a cup of green tea at the beautiful coffee house on the corner where the old dingy bar once stood, before it was torn down and replaced with the current more elegant interior.

As I drank my tea, surrounded by well dressed preppy types, all working away on their laptops, I had some great deja vu moments in this sparkling new incarnation, now a place with everyone sitting quietly cyberspacing away, or speaking in hushed tones, with almost no New York accents that I could hear...

I flashed back and remembered the raucous growls and shouts which were a symphony of the sounds of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, all filling the night time bar room, blasting through the clouds of choking tobacco smoke, accompanied by the aroma of beer, whisky and perfume, all provided by the fabulous collection of assorted bar flies (including myself 58 years ago (!!!!) in 1955), when I first made NYC my home and went to the San Remo for a few glasses of wine with Charles Mingus, my band leader, after our gig at the old Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street.

There were always loud arguments about the value of any and every athlete who had performed in NYC, how today's current crop were just a bunch of bums, endless monologues about failed relationships and dead end marriages, pleas and assorted rejections to the panhandlers and free loaders trying to get a free drink, cab drivers telling stories of their latest nightmare customers, off duty neighborhood waiters, waitresses and bartenders dispensing the latest gossip, poets, authors, painters , sculptors and NYU students discussing the good old days of the village (usually decades before they themselves were born) when Edna St Vincent Millay and Eugene O'Neil were hot young writers, and the golden days of the 19th Century when O. Henry, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman roamed these same streets.

And if you dr0pped by in the early afternoon, you could get a free crash course in Neapolitano and Siciliano dialects, the styles of Italian which were spoken by the neighborhood dwellers who came to greet one another before the evening crush. These old timers seemed to tolerate all the outsiders and assorted nut-cases that made the Village so unpredictable and so much fun. And these same old timers often would help out someone who looked insecure, lost or hungry, as long as some basic good manners were exhibited.

The San Remo, a quintessential funky neighbor bar and cafe, was one of the many refuges in the Asphalt Jungle of post World War ll New York. Like everyone else, artists felt at home there. Since almost everyone in the Village was an outsider, this became a common bond that made you eventually feel at home, and the strong Italian-American family feeling made everything seem to balance. That spirit is still here today, even with harder economic times, real estate booms, and outrageous rents.

So all who groan and moan and moan about the good old days can take heart. This event, created by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, reminds us all that no matter how hard times might be today, the fact that a great bunch of people banded together to honor what happened sixty years ago is a sign that the good old days are NOW!!!!  

-David Amram