The coffee shop hang, a quintessential European custom, is a dying fad in this country. Where once writers and intellectuals came to talk about the world’s problems and joys and ingest caffeine, we now do actual — and often independent — work. Calls are made, emails are sent and replied to, and profiles are stalked. In Greenwich Village, where coffee shops and music flourished in the 1960s with the likes of Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, there is still one place that remains a coffee hangout: Caffe Dante (79 MacDougal Street, 212-982-5275).
Opened in 1915 by an Italian immigrant whose name has been lost, Caffe Dante, had, until this past year, changed little over the last 99 years. A few blocks south of the now overcrowded section of MacDougal Street, the Caffe sits on one of the most picturesque blocks just south of Washington Square Park, with shops and restaurants on one side and lilac and red colored apartment buildings on the other.
This year, the Caffe closed for three months for some remodeling and updating. Aesthetically, what used to be full of character and warmth has been turned into those restaurants that advertise never-ending salad bowls. And by trying to spruce it up, ownership spruced it down, but, luckily, not all the way.
Caffe Dante used to be a place to grab an good espresso, some gelato, or a bowl of berries and cream (always fresh strawberries with fresh whipped cream). It was kitschy, it was a place to take your parents or even a first date, and it was great. Eating inside, huddled around tables in wicker chairs, or outside on the sidewalk, you felt that Bob Dylan (who lived just across the street when he moved to NYC) or one of his cohorts could actually swing by for some coffee and conversation. People weren’t coming for the food, they were coming to get a taste of a real place, one that remained steadfast for years. The menus were old and the service was brisk in an endearing way. It used to be a great place for out-of-towners, who’d walk in and feel like they were in on a special secret. It was old New York; it was the best of New York.
But in an all-too-familiar New York plot twist, the 15-year lease was suddenly raised from $11,000 to $18,500. Not sure what to do, Mario Flotta (who has been the owner since 1972) and his son Anthony decided to spruce the place up. They added a fuller menu, including Neapolitan Style pizza and a large selection of paninis, put in a wine bar, added some banquette seating and, in the process, lost some of the true soul of the restaurant. Even the photos of celebrities have been reframed in discounted grey frames.
But even though it has changed, and the vibe has diminished, and you no longer feel connected to the restaurant’s past (the menu now says to ask your server for the Wi-Fi password), Dante is still worth a visit, not least because longtime regulars remain.
“One time we came out here and Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn were out here having coffee, just like in the movie,” said Ben Davis, who’s been a regular for over 30 years.
“Its still the best cafe in the city,” said Ben’s friend and co-regular, Griggs Irving, sitting outside drinking coffee and working his way through a pack of cigarettes. “The only thing I don’t like about the remodel are these awful new chairs and tables. I saw the same ones at Burger King not too long ago.”
And with the revamp, the food has improved.
The always special Dante lasagna was one of the best looking specimen of layered pasta and ricotta cheese I have seen, and it came topped with deliciously crispy parmesan cheese. One gripe: At $11, the dish was reasonably priced, but a $2 surcharge was tacked on to have the meal served with with tomato sauce. Why not just charge $13?
I’d also recommend the above average caesar salad (fairly priced at $6 and the dressing came at no extra charge) and the desserts, for which the cafe is known. Caffe Dante still turns out classic homemade tiramisu, cannolis, and an assortment of pies. Be sure to order the espresso and Sambuca. A little sharp espresso served with some anise-flavored liqueur will surely get you going to your next stop, full, buzzed, and caffeinated.
So although it may have sinfully changed with the times, Caffe Dante is still worth repeated visits. Go before the winter once again swallows us whole; walk down and grab a table outside, ignore the model-home lighting inside, and enjoy this still nice block of MacDougal. With some espresso and the Sunday paper in hand, it’s nice to feel like you’re a part of old New York, Wi-Fi or no.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 14, 2014