SideWalk Cafe is an East Village landmark that, in addition to serving as a popular neighborhood dining spot, bar and burger joint, is recognized as an important venue for emerging singer-songwriters and other performing artists. Closed briefly in 2011 for a facelift, Sidewalk recently re-opened after extensive renovations that have reestablished it as a warm and welcoming home away from home for its customers.
In the mid-1980s, when SideWalk opened at the corner of 6th Street and Avenue A, the East Village was caught in a swirl of societal cross-currents. On one hand, it pulsed with dynamic creative energy as adventurous galleries and performance spaces sprung up in storefronts and repurposed buildings – on the other hand there was also a tumultuous and edgy quality to the area. Sprawling eastward from Broadway, across St. Mark’s Place, past Tompkins Square Park to the wilderness of Avenue D, the neighborhood accommodated artists, squatters, transients, NYU students, Ukrainian and Polish families, Latino immigrants, old-time New Yorkers, newly arrived young professionals, and more than a few users and dealers of illicit substances.
It was into this mix that SideWalk Cafe first opened its doors in 1985. With its broad menu, approachable pricing and late hours, SideWalk served as a hub for the neighborhood. Its customers were drawn from the community of young artists and professionals who continued to move to the area, as well as visitors from other parts of the city out to enjoy the East Village nightlife. At first the restaurant inhabited a small dining room directly at the corner of 6th and A. It soon expanded to the space next door that had been Sophie’s Bar, and finally grew into a back room that was formed from other neighboring spaces. In temperate months SideWalk’s outdoor café seating takes center stage, creating the perfect venue for any meal and the best outdoor brunch in NYC.
Music at SideWalk Cafe
SideWalk had featured live music from its early days, but it wasn’t until late 1993, when the restaurant formed a partnership with Lach, the ringleader of the Antifolk movement, that it built a reputation as an incubator of exciting new talent. Antifolk was an East Village songwriting movement started in the mid-1980s by Lach and a group of fellow artists whose raucous style made them unwelcome in other open mic sessions at local folk clubs. In response to the more mainstream New York Folk Festival, they started their own festival, the Antifolk Festival, an event which has occurred bi-annually ever since. They also created a regular open mic session, the Antihoot, that moved from spot to spot until it finally settled at SideWalk Cafe. Performers like Beck and Michelle Shocked were among those who performed regularly in the early days of the Antifolk scene.
Lach’s movement, based in the back room of SideWalk, took root quickly and has flourished ever since. Centered around the often epic Monday night open mic sessions, the scene has supported and nourished several generations of artists. The special creative energy of SideWalk was quickly recognized and preserved in compilation recordings that probably do more to address the perennial question “What is Antifolk?” than any written explanation could. Even to this day the artists at the heart of the scene often provide differing points of view on that explanation, and many feel that it characterizes a community of creative talents rather than a particular style. After steering the SideWalk music scene for nearly 20 years, in 2009 Lach passed the baton to Ben Krieger, a regular at the club who continues to run it today with the same spirit of quirky creativity that has always characterized it. In 2012 SideWalk Café is still “the home of Antifolk” and the SideWalk Open Stage is still widely regarded as New York’s biggest and most well known, if not longest-running, open mic.
Among the successful and visible performers and groups who have emerged from the SideWalk scene are artists like Regina Spektor, Moldy Peaches (Adam Green and Kimya Dawson), Jeffrey Lewis, Nellie McKay, Langhorne Slim, Nicole Atkins, and Darwin Deez. Many such SideWalk alumni maintain their connection to the club, and it is not unusual for them to stop in to try new material, attend friends’ performances, or to just hang out.
Aside from these obvious success stories SideWalk is beloved by its artists because of the connected, welcoming, and supportive community at its heart. SideWalk provides an, environment where creative ideas of all types can flourish and it has led to the formation of many bands, writing collaborations, record companies, artists’ collectives, fanzines, blogs, marriages, and even children. SideWalk artists like Prewar Yardsale, Steve Espinola, Toby Goodshank, Randi Russo, Jon Berger, Phoebe Kreutz, Cockroach, Barry Bliss, and Debe Dalton, to name just a few of thousands, have contributed and continue to contribute to the rich texture of its lineage.
SideWalk offers music, comedy and other performances seven nights a week, with no cover charge and to this day, Mondays are still always open mic.