(2) Vesuvio – Background


“Vesuvio has never been just a bar. It’s true that booze sales pay the bills but the place is also an art gallery, a museum, a living room for those of us in cramped apartments, a community meeting place, a support group headquarters, a literary Mecca, a mandatory stop on a tourist’s agenda, and a place to try and get laid.” – Robert Celli

Exterior of Vesuvio (bottom, right business on the corner), c. 1949.

Vesuvio is a bilevel saloon that seats 120 people and is located at 255 Columbus Avenue, on the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley in North Beach, San Francisco. Vesuvio’s statuesque building, which originally was a one-story structure that dates back to 1913, is known as the Cavalli Building, former site of the A. Cavalli & Co. bookstore. Architect Italo Zanolini, who was responsible for several other architectural gems in the area, designed it using plaster on pressed tin in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

This iconic area is as equally known for its seedy rebellious past – strip clubs, longshoremen, ex-GIs, artists – as it is for its sophisticated architecture, espresso cafes, and Italian ancestry. The second owner of Vesuvio, Henri Lenoir, opened its doors as a saloon in 1948. Vesuvio Café was previously a restaurant that had gone out of business. Since buying the building initially left Lenoir short on funds, he never changed the name; changing the name would have required spending more money on replacement signage, exterior decor, etcetera; hence the “Café” part of Vesuvio’s name today.


Henri Lenoir, employees and customers, date unknown.

A painter himself, Lenoir wanted to establish a place that would support his circle of friends who had an interest in the visual arts and were “Bohemian” in attitude. They surrounded themselves with other artists, listened to the Jazz musicians who played regularly in the neighborhood, sat in on readings by the “alternative-style” writers who were drawn to the area by City Lights Books next door, and ate eclectic, international food at all of the cheap restaurants nearby. These restaurants were run by recent immigrants to the United States who literally fed this band of “miscreants’” desire to try out new and “exotic” things that were considered strange to the majority of American society at the time.


Xmas card photo. (Left to right) customers Tony La Paz, Jim Bell. Waitresses Maya Dhillon, Alice Holden, Suzanne Mazursky, Lyn, and Adriana. Bartenders Bruce Weiss, Ron Leon, David Wood, Burnie Priest. Henri Lenoir and Calso the cat on Maya's motorcycle, 1960s.

Modern Context:

Today, Vesuvio still upholds this counterculture tradition even if the world around it is moving forward and the population profile of the area reorganizes. The bar is an actively used space in a popular, trendy urban area in a world-renowned, cosmopolitan city. The area is densely populated and local officials expect residential tenancy to increase in the future. The demographics of North Beach have changed drastically over time and those shifts may indirectly affect Vesuvio. What was once low-rent housing for artists and young people has shifted to over-priced apartments for wealthy business people, or rent-controlled apartments for elderly residents. Amid this odd combination of upheaval and stagnation, Vesuvio has tried to keep its original mantra of accepting those who were under-represented or unwelcome in “regular” bars while making some adjustments to cater to the new, more gentrified clientele.


View looking out of Vesuvio's windows onto corner of Columbus and Broadway Avenues, 2011. Photo courtesy of CoDiFi.

Click on this link for a look at the PDF file of our complete Interpretive Plan for Vesuvio.


Posted on May 11, 2011, in Anthro136k-spring2011-UC-Berkeley, Anthro136kSp11, Microhistories, Vesuvio-Bar-San-Francisco and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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