Vesuvio Café is more an artist collective that spawned a dive bar rather than the other way around, the ethos for the space embedded into the bar the moment it was founded in 1948 by Henri Lenoir. The Beat Generation would quickly take hold of the San Francisco icon, the list of visitors a roll call of that era’s luminaries including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan and the artist most closely associated with Vesuvio, Jack Kerouac. Famously, Kerouac snubbed a planned meeting with Henry Miller to instead spend the night drinking at Vesuvio, an event captured in his novel Big Sur. The link with Kerouac is so strong here that the alley that runs along Vesuvio Café was renamed from “Adler” to “Jack Kerouac Alley” in 1988.
If there were any confusion as to the vibe within San Francisco’s Vesuvio Café, the wooden sign above the front door provides a strong indication. On it, a person holding a martini glass squats naked over a barrel, a red liquid coming from a spigot at the bottom. Inside, the space is everything an artist-driven dive bar should be, an explosion of artwork distributed throughout the space. Almost every inch of Vesuvio is embellished in some way, no small feat considering an interior balcony creates a second story to the proceedings within.
With amazing foresight, the city of San Francisco stepped in to ensure that Vesuvio Café and nearby City Lights Bookstore persisted through the city’s rampant redevelopment. Jack Kerouac Alley was converted to pedestrian-only access, enabling precisely the kind of bohemian atmosphere in and around the dive bar originally envisioned by Lenoir. Countless murals adorn the exterior of the building and rotating art shows routinely use Vesuvio Café as backdrop.