February 26, 2015

San Francisco's Vesuvio Cafe

Vesuvio Cafe sign

photo by: Konrad Glogowski, Flickr

Vesuvio Café was founded in 1948.

Writer Henry Miller once wrote to Jack Kerouac, saying that he enjoyed The Dharma Bums and would like to meet the younger author in person. Kerouac agreed, and they arranged to meet one night in 1960 in Big Sur, along California’s central coast.

But the night of the meeting, Kerouac never made it out of San Francisco. Instead, he spent his evening at Vesuvio Café.

It’s easy to see how Kerouac -- or anyone, really -- could while away so many hours in this North Beach saloon. It’s a welcoming neighborhood bar, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. The walls are covered in art (much of it by local artists), and seating is plentiful. Enjoy the action up close at the downstairs bar, or perch at the balcony on the second floor and watch it from above.

Vesuvio Cafe overhead view of interior

photo by: Daniel Canestaro, Flickr

The overhead view at Vesuvio Café.

Vesuvio Café was established in 1948 by an art-lover named Henri Lenoir who was looking to create a bohemian gathering spot. Go there today, and you’ll see that he more than succeeded.

Housed in a 1913 Italian Renaissance Revival building, Vesuvio Café became a popular hangout for members of the Beat Generation, including Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who opened the famous City Lights Bookstore next door in 1953.

For years, it’s hosted writers, poets, artists, musicians, and others looking for a stiff drink. Its original Beat-era Bohemian spirit is still very much alive; little has changed there in the last six decades.

Vesuvio Cafe exterior alley art

photo by: Justin Baugh, Flickr

An exterior view of Vesuvio Café, as seen from Jack Kerouac Alley.

And that spirit continues outside its wooden doors. The pedestrian-only alley next to the bar, connecting Columbus Avenue and Grant Avenue, was renamed Jack Kerouac Alley thanks to efforts by Ferlinghetti in the 1980s. It underwent a transformation in 2007, and the once-dingy thoroughfare now has decorative streetlights, plaques with poetry and quotes from literature, murals, and art by local artists.

Vesuvio Cafe letter from Virginia Woolf

photo by: Digital Archaeology, Flickr

The literary-themed decor of Vesuvio Café.

Grab a book, take a seat at the bar, and bask in the literary history of this historic San Francisco haunt. Here’s what you need to know before you go:

Location: 255 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Friday; 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday.

You’ll Have: A Bohemian Coffee: strong coffee with brandy, amaretto, and a twist of lemon

Best Yelp Reviews: “A charming bar that stubbornly defies time and holds it own with character. … It's a history lesson just perusing the storied walls. It feels like few things have changed since it opened and hence the charm.”

“Come to Vesuvio if you want to drink a cocktail of history and nostalgia, with a twist of Kerouac appreciation.”

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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