It exudes an air of history—an elusive hint of many incarnations. Half hidden behind a curtain of eucalyptus, the Ché started life as the fledgling campus’ one and only burger joint, and through the years continued to reinvent itself as a leftist gathering hole, a haven of caffeinated culture, a hippie-vegan eatery, and a destination for a variegated menu of rock bands.
Nearly three decades later, the lineup and menu have changed, but UCSD’s Ché Café remains a monument to the cultural fringe of San Diego.
The three wooden structures on the southern edge of Revelle College that today house the Ché Café were accumulating grunge long before UCSD was even founded. Constructed in 1922 on U.S. Army land that is now Thornton Hospital, the buildings did not reach their current location until 1966, when the University carted them across campus and spent $15,000 in registration-fee money to establish the first student center. Originally named the Coffee Hut, this new University-operated dining facility became a popular lunch destination for professors and graduate students. The menu even featured a hamburger named after the renowned chemist and Nobel laureate Harold Urey, who was a regular patron.
But in the evenings, the Coffee Hut was attracting a different crowd. In 1970, the A.S. Council presented a night of “groovy x-rated trash flicks” and 15-cent hot dogs. Similar events followed and, over time, undergraduates realized that the space was essentially theirs to use—if they knew the right people and pulled the right strings. By the late ’70s, the Student Organization for Alternative Programming (SOAP) was throwing John Belushi-inspired toga keggers that were financed by beer companies, and featured live swing bands.Meanwhile, the Hut’s political pulse was edging leftward.“It became a place where the more militant students were comfortable,” says Ernest Mort, who served as resident dean of Revelle College from 1972 to 1998 and frequented the restaurant.
At any rate, it didn’t take long for UCSD students to develop a firm conviction that they had a stake in the Hut, both socially and financially. Therefore, they were offended in May 1979, when Chancellor William McElroy responded to the café’s $53,000 debt by proposing to convert the space into a faculty club. After months of protest by A.S. councilmembers, the future of the Hut finally landed in the hands of the Student Center Board (the precursor of today’s University Centers Advisory Board), which set out to revive the business as a nonprofit under the name of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ché Guevara.
Established in 1980 as a vegan eatery, all-ages performance venue and leftist sanctuary, the Ché Café joined the General Store, Food Co-op, Recycling Co-op and Groundwork Books as the fifth co-operative on campus. With help from a cadre of both student and non-student volunteers, the 14 core members served everything from chili to pita pizza to fresh beet juice. They hosted poetry readings, art exhibits and live music and orchestrated numerous political demonstrations.
“The co-ops were living laboratories,” recalls Scott Kessler, Muir ’84, who sat on the Student Center Board at the time. “It was all about the co-operative structure—egalitarianism. We were activists, and that was one of our activist expressions.”
The next decade would put the vegan egalitarians’ tolerance to the test. UCSD students and local scenesters took the Ché’s grassroots, do-it-yourself mission to heart, and the café came to mean something different for everyone. In 1983, guitarist and bassist Matthew Rothenberg, Muir ’85, conspired with a group of fellow musicians to stake out the Ché as a platform for abrasive punk rock. He formed the UCSD Musicians’ Club, taking advantage of the University’s PA equipment and gaining access to lecture halls and gyms to rehearse with his newly-formed band, Noise 292. Wearing a leather jacket at the Ché, Rothenberg says, wasn’t always easy.
“Back when we were doing this, it wasn’t so clear that we were friendly. The co-op folks were, frankly, a little appalled by us, and there were some comic moments when we would have the San Diego skinheads there and really scare people. Things were a lot more segregated back in those days, and I think the idea that a hippie, vegetarian coffee house would play host to crazy people banging on 40-gallon oil drums and overdriving their guitars was a pretty weird concept.”
But there was no taming Noise 292—described by one musical cohort as “tribal,” “violent” and “ear-punishing”—let alone the explosion of other psychedelic, garage, mod, and noise bands that would dominate the Ché stage throughout the 80s. (These included the Answers, Hair Theatre and Manual Scan, to name a few.) According to most accounts, the crossbred punk-hippie aesthetic actually made sense after a while, and the Ché began to earn a name all the way up the West Coast as a hot spot for underground shows. And since then, big-name acts have included Green Day, Nirvana and Blonde Redhead.
“There was always a sort of new, young kind of hippie thing—all sorts of weird brown rice, and white guys with dreadlocks,” says La Mesa bassist and vocalist Mike Stax, who played with the Crawdaddys and the Tell-Tale Hearts between 1980 and 1987. “But it was cool. They were at the forefront of that whole thing. I didn’t realize at the time what a special place the Ché was.”He says the Ché stood out from the dozens of other San Diego music venues of the era, since the clock was never ticking and there was no hierarchy of bands.
“Sometimes we would be opening; sometimes we would be the top of the bill,” he recalls. “There was less ego stuff going on there.”
When it comes to dealing with the campus administration, however, members of the Ché collective have developed a notoriously stubborn reputation. Matthew Xavier, Revelle ’84, who managed the Student Center from 1993 to 2002, says working with the Ché was incredibly challenging.
“The hardest thing was gaining trust with them, because they inherently distrusted any administrator,” he says. “That was just their philosophy: ‘The administration screwed us before; they’ll screw us again.’”
For years, he explained, a substantial number of co-op members—at the Ché and beyond—have been convinced that the University is determined to shut the café down.
“The truth is that the administrators I worked with never wanted that to happen,” says Xavier. “They wanted to have a diverse group of student organizations. However, there were instances when the folks at the Ché crossed boundaries, and in those cases the University had to do something.”
One such instance came in the summer of 2000, when the University received a series of calls from parents reporting acts of violence against their teenagers at the Ché. At the time, the venue was uninsured, and when the University demanded that Ché members purchase insurance, they refused.
“They didn’t want to make money, because that was too corporate America,” Xavier recalls. “But they didn’t realize that you have to make money to fix things, to keep things clean.”
After administrators changed the door locks and threatened to close the venue altogether, several devoted volunteers staged an overnight sit-in.
“I honestly thought that would be the end of the Ché,” says Spencer Gooch, a core member since 1999. But Ché members finally relented and signed a revised MOU that required insurance for the venue. The insurance issue resurfaced again in early 2009, when the venue was forced to close for three months after missing a payment and temporarily losing coverage. Added to that, the café’s appliances are outdated, the floors unsightly and much of the furniture broken. And yet none of this has diminished student participation and support. The Ché is once again featuring bands at least once a week—and a vegan food menu. “There’s enough room for people to come in and try new things,” says Gooch. “The Ché has a dynamic sense of place. Anyone can become a member, and it is always changing.”
In UCSD’s neighborhood of architectural centerpieces and cutting-edge labs, the Ché is a misﬁt, a throwback, a ghost. But as dusty as it is, the venue stands as a charming antidote to polished sterility—the anti-Price Center, if you will.
As you pass by that curtain of eucalyptus, you can almost hear the voices beckoning you to listen up, and boldly step inside.
—Jesse Alm, Sixth ’11, was the editorial intern for at | UCSD magazine September 2008 to June 2009.