Cornelia Street Café to Close

Shuttering its doors on Jan. 2. Photo: Jason Cohen
Legendary Greenwich Village artists’ spot had a long and colorful run
By Jason Cohen

For more than four decades, the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village has been home to musicians and artists. Sadly, it will be shuttering its doors in 2019.

The café, located at 29 Cornelia Street, will be closing Jan. 2. It was started in 1977 by three people in the arts: Robin Hirsch, an English actor, Charles McKenna, an Irish-American actor and Raphaela Pivetta, an Italian-Argentinian-Canadian visual artist. Hirsch, the last remaining partner, said he never imagined it would be in business this long.

“The three of us, who were all artists, started a little one room café with a toaster oven,” Hirsch recalled. “Because we were artists, all kinds of other artists sort of naturally gravitated towards us. It was on a very small scale embedded in the history of what Greenwich Village had always been about.”

Hirsch joked that he wasn’t sure how they would pay $450 rent, but quickly that was an afterthought.

“When we opened and signed the lease at $450 a month I was scared to death,” he said. “I didn’t know how we would raise that money.”

After three and a half years the café expanded into the space next door. The additional space allowed them to introduce their “breakfast theater,” where artists would read from neglected playwrights. There were also puppet shows, poetry readings and on Monday nights, songwriters would perform songs that were written that week only.

In fact, those Monday night sessions spawned 500 new songs, which and led to an album appropriately titled, “Cornelia Street: The Songwriters Exchange,” which was also the first and only non-jazz album put out by the now-defunct jazz label, Stash Records.

The buzz in the community only continued to grow in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Musicians and artists flocked there locally, nationally and worldwide. Senator Eugene McCarthy spoke there, Eve Ensler launched “The Vagina Monologues” and Philippe Petit (“Man on Wire”) strung a wire from the tree outside the café and danced across it juggling.

Those artists along with comedians such as John Oliver and Amy Schumer have performed in what is known as the Cornelia Street Underground, where there are 700 shows annually.

Hirsch recalled how when they first opened, they would steam their eggs on a cappuccino machine and had a toaster oven that was always breaking. As word about the café spread, more space was required. In time they took over the back room, renovated the basement and built a kitchen.

“Eventually we had to break down and get a kitchen,” Hirsch explained. “It was scary because you have to hire people for real wages.”

The café also became known for its food and wine. Hirsch describes it as an American bistro with moderate prices. Some of its good items include the meatballs, Polish sausage and 35 wines.

“It’s not just the food,” he said. “It’s not just the drink. It’s that we have been home for countless artists and it’s a community.”

Hirsch said he began to see the writing on the wall during the past few years when five of the 10 restaurants on Cornelia closed. In addition, his chef of 17 years recently left to open his own place and the rent is now 84 times what it was when it opened. Hirsch explained that when his 30-year lease expired in 2007, the new landlords, who bought the building around 2002, were anxiously waiting to jack up the price. Today, the rent has ballooned to about $40,000 a month, according to Hirsch.

“It is the rent that determines everything,” he said. “When new landlords took over, I knew I couldn’t sustain.”

So he gave the landlord notice about a year ago and quickly word began to spread in the community. Hirsch, whose family barely escaped Nazi Germany, never in his wildest dreams pictured owning a café for 41 years in the Village.

“It’s very hard to wrap my head around it,” he said. “I’m not completely sure this is happening.”