Vesuvio: Attracting Weird Motherfuckers Since 1948
This originally appeared in my Weeknighter column for 7×7.
North Beach has a certain magic to it. The neon lights and the strip show barkers blend with the San Francisco night and the smell of garlic, creating something old school and current, ancient and timely. On the right evening, with the right amount of intoxicants, you can almost believe for a second that you’re part of something bigger than you are; that you’re continuing in the steps of the art and writing and culture and madness that San Francisco has always seemed to represent. If you can ignore the groups of lads driven mad by lap dances, you can land yourself in what I call the Holy Trinity of SF bars: Spec’s, Tosca, and Vesuvio. I’ve already written about the first two, so it’s only fair that Vesuvio gets its turn.
Walking into Vesuvio, it’s impossible to miss the influence that the Beats had on the place. Pictures of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Cassady, and more sit nestled between the art and ephemera that covers the walls. Bob Dylan is smoking with Gregory Corso. Charles Bukowski is being a dirty old man. This isn’t just some bullshit put up to rope in tourists for a San Francisco shake down though, Vesuvio is just doing what it does best: being a dope bar. Opened in 1948, it’s been attracting weird motherfuckers since before the Beats even existed and still does long after they’ve been gone. That said, its ties to that movement are inextricable.
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One of the most quintessential San Francisco experiences is buying a book at City Lights, going next door to Vesuvio, finding a spot upstairs in the window, and reading it while you have drink. There’s something romantic about the notion of that isn’t there? And that’s exactly what makes Vesuvio important. In a city that is currently trying to decide whether to hide from its past or run from its future, Vesuvio reminds us that the previously mentioned art, writing, culture, and madness, are more important to San Francisco’s identity than any tech boom will ever be. There’s not enough venture capital in the world to fund an app that William S. Burroughs hung out at. No one ever fell in love at a poetry reading at a start up incubator.
The earliest you can buy alcohol in San Francisco is 6 a.m. and Vesuvio is one of the few bars that opens at that time. The 6 a.m. crowd is a mixture of people getting off the graveyard shift, travelers not adjusted to the time zone, and of course the drunks who need to get their fix. Come to Vesuvio at 6 p.m. and you’ll find the same kind of people though. International accents mingle in the air with jazz music and the guy sitting next to you at the bar might be a millionaire or a bum. You never really know. Not that it matters anyway, he’s guaranteed to tell you a good story if you let him.
I’m sure Vesuvio has a happy hour. And it probably has nightly drink specials too. I’ve never bothered to find out. But I can tell you that the bartenders are equally sweet and surly, the drinks are stiff, the customers are fascinating, the art is interesting, and the vibe is somewhere between an old man dive bar and a Parisian café. As far as I’m concerned that’s worth more than all the tech stock in Silicon Valley. If you want me, I’ll be upstairs in the window reading a book.