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Cafe Wha? Origin of The Name

Updated: April 19, 2024

This post is about the Cafe Wha, a music venue in Greenwich Village where some of the most famous rock bands, folk musicians and comedians got there start. 



Cafe Wha? is right in the heart of Greenwich Village.  Use our Google map for directions to Cafe Wha?

By subway:

  • Take the A, B, C, D, E, F, M trains to the West 4th Street Station
  • Take the 1 train to the Christopher St./Sheridan Square Station
  • The New Jersey PATH train to Christopher St./9th St. station.  

If you are not familiar with using the NYC subway system you should check out the following posts:


Cafe Wha? is a must-see for anyone interested in the Greenwich Village scene of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Jimi Hendrix was discovered here. Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bruce Springsteen often played here. Comedians Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Cosby performed at Cafe Wha?.

Perhaps the most important moment in rock music's history occurred here in January 1961 when, on his first night in NYC, a young Bob Zimmerman played a set of Woody Guthrie songs at Café Wha? Check out our self-guided tour of Bob Dylan's Greenwich Village.

The importance of Cafe Wha? in the music scene over many decades cannot be overstated. That is why we stop here on our pay-what-you-wish guided walking tour of Greenwich Village.  

On this tour, your guide stops outside Cafe Wha? and will talk more about its history and some of the incredible musicians and comedians who got their big break here.

If you cant join us for a live tour or prefer to explore on your own, our GPS audio tour of Greenwich Village can be used at any time of day or night.

We also have a free self-guided tour of Greenwich Village that includes a stop at Cafe Wha?

 TIP:  To see more rock and roll locales, check out the highly-rated "Rock Junket" Rock n' Roll Tour.


A house band now plays several nights a week, with guest performers interspersed on the calendar.

The Café Wha? Band is billed as “The Best Damn Band in New York City.”

Why not see some music in a place that history was made?

For other nightlife in NYC see our post on Things to Do at Night in NYC.

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Cafe Wha? was originally a coffee house by Manny Roth (uncle of Van Halen's David Lee Roth) in the 1950s. According to Manny, if you pumped people full of enough caffeine from the cappuccino machine, they did not miss the beer.

According to David Lee Roth, when the café was open by his uncle, it was operating without a name. Manny would ask patrons what he should call the place and people all had different ideas.




But the name — says David Lee on a video that can be found on the Café Wha? website — comes from an exclamation made famous by his Russian Jewish grandmother.

With her broken English, Manny’s mother would growl “Wha?” when at a loss for a comment or answer.

Hence, the name “Café Wha?”

As with all things, this area changed over the years. The club was sold by Manny in 1968, featuring for a while ethnic music. But in 1987, it was brought back to its original music format. 

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By Tour Guide Renee Rewiski

About The Author

Courtney Shapiro

Courtney is a lifelong New Yorker in love with the city’s history, culture and food. She's a world travel as well and enjoys sharing her travel expertise with others. She joined Free Tours by Foot in 2011, first as a guide and then as a writer. She still leads tours on a part-time basis. READ MORE...
Updated: April 19th, 2024
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