Photography by Jeff Hunt and Michelle Kilfeather
This episode is six years overdue.
That's because Storied: SF got started in a booth upstairs at one of our favorite spots in all The City: Vesuvio Café. In Part 1, we sit down in that same booth where it all began in 2017 to chat with Vesuvio co-owner Janet Clyde.
We begin with a talk about what a great place for bars San Francisco is. Janet brings up touristic spots we love, as I had joined my wife for Irish coffees at the Buena Vista just before our recording in North Beach.
Then Janet begins to lay out the history of Vesuvio. The location was originally an Italian bookstore called Cavalli Books, which moved first to the current City Lights spot, and then over to Stockton Street. Then, probably in the 1930s or early '40s, a woman known as Mrs. Mannetti opened Vesuvio as a restaurant. In 1948, Henry Lenoir bought the place from her and turned it into a bar.
Lenoir was a Swiss/French bon vivant. He ran it as Vesuvio through the end of the 40s and into the 50s. But by the early '60s, with the Korean War, the place changed as society changed, and Henri wasn’t feeling this generational shift at all. He sold the place to Ron Fein, who brought on Leo Riegler to run the bar.
Riegler had run Coffee Gallery on Grant, which served beer and wine only. He was an Austrian bon vivant, and he came to Vesuvio and overhauled the bar. Ron Fein hired Shawn O’Shaughnessy to give the place the look and feel we're all familiar with to this day.
O'Shaughnessy was inspired by Japanese art, aliens, and other worlds. Janet talks about the “I’m itching to get away from Portland, Oregon” sign, which hangs over the entrance to Vesuvio and which O'Shaughnessy derived from a postcard.
We then shift the conversation a little to talk about Vesuvio and the Beat Movement. The bookstore across the alley became City Lights in 1954 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti took over. And that brought writers into the bar. Before that, according to Janet, Vesuvio was a Bohemian hang, really a cross-section of San Francisco. People who worked at the nearby Pacific Exchange (later known as the Pacific Stock Exchange), insurance salespeople, advertisers ... Janet describes the place as “suits and ties having a really good time …”
When she arrived, in the late 1970s, the area was home to punk clubs, strip joints, bars, restaurants. Janet had hitchhiked from LA with the intention of landing in Seattle. She was born in Missouri but raised near Cape Canaveral, Florida. She left her family there and moved to LA but never really dug it much.
A trip north in 1978 changed her life forever.
In Part 2, we hear how Janet got a job cocktail waitressing at The Mab, that infamous old punk club on Broadway near Vesuvio. Mab owner Ness Aquino hired her for that and she dug it. She had been to many shows in LA when she lived there and loved the scene. She lived in the Basque Hotel at 15 Romolo, made good money, and stuff was cheap back in the late '70s.
Janet describes herself as a lightweight, which meant she couldn’t really hang out as late as most people around her. Eventually, she wanted to do more than cocktail, so she got a job bartending at Coffee Gallery on Grant … on the 6 a.m. shift, no less. The manager of Vesuvio saw her opening Coffee Gallery one day and asked her to open for them instead. This was 1979.
In addition to her 6 a.m. shift at Vesuvio, Janet worked a few other jobs. Then she started working more at Vesuvio and liking it more and more. Early morning patrons, many of them merchant seamen, often comprised the “Dawn Patrol,” guys coming in from nearby SROs that didn’t have heat. Cocktailing was hard, and it got old fast, so she switched back to bartending.
As we learned in Part 1, the Feins had taken over at Vesuvio around 1967 or 1968, and they brought in Shawn O’Shaughnessy around that time to establish the aesthetic of the place. Janet tells us that the place feels mostly the same today, though they’ve added stuff here and there over the years.
At this point in the conversation, we take a sidebar to talk about Ron Fein’s aesthetic and discipline. His intention was always to keep the joint looking and feeling more or less consistent, employing a discipline not to chase trends to that end.
Ron’s son and daughter eventually became more involved. But seeing an opportunity and acting on it, Janet and her family have co-owned Vesuvio with Fein family since 1997. She invokes the saying, “Sweep the floor to own the store.” Janet has also been Vesuvio’s principal manager since ’97.
The conversation shifts to talk of the pandemic, which she says was “almost an extinction event” for the bar. But Janet believes that Vesuvio was small enough to get control over the situation. She’s quick to point to federal, state, and even local help, describing it as “invaluable.” It was The City’s government that came through in letting them operate outside in the alley.
And that leads us to Whacky Wednesdays (a bit of a tease of next week’s episodes … stay tuned). Janet says the shows have been so much fun, but she of course wishes they had more space in Jack Kerouac Alley. They really helped to raise spirits during early days of the pandemic. In 2021, not much else was going on by way of live events. But more of that in Part 3 next week.
We end Part 2 with my asking Janet what it means to her to be part of a San Francisco institution like Vesuvio. Listen in for her answer, which I loved.
In Part 3, we meet Vesuvio bartender Joanna Lioce. Originally from Newport, RI, where her dad was a rock critic, the family moved to LA when he got a job with the Times down there. They landed in Orange County, in fact, a place Joanna left as soon as she could.
In fact, the day after she graduated high school, Joanna went to Europe. While she was away, her dad got a job at the San Jose Mercury News and her mom, a pediatric nurse, worked as a public-health official in Berkeley. Joanna was in Europe shortly before Sept. 11, and though she had planned to stay overseas longer, the event made her wonder … but mom said “don’t come home.”
On a family trip to Ireland when Joanna was 8, she had decided that she wanted to be a bartender. Now it was 2002, and she dropped her bag at a hostel and got a bartending job at O’Shay’s Merchant, a pub across the street from the Brazen Head in Dublin. She stayed in Dublin until Christmas, then returned to SoCal, where she had fronted a Riot Grrrrl band called Julia Warhola. But by now, several band members had started doing heroin, so she quit the band and moved to the Bay Area where her family was.
Joanna first went to school in the Peralta System in the East Bay, then she got into SF State, where she eventually got her degree. She also finished college at Cambridge in England to study Shakespeare. While going to SF State, she moved to the Mission, specifically 18th and Linda near the Women’s Building. She found the place through a Craigslist ad and ending up with six roommates, none of whom she knew previously. Her room set her back only $400, but she wasn’t feeling it.
From the Mission, Joanna moved to Lower Haight. And 13 years ago, she settled in to her place on Nob Hill, where she lives today.
She had a job, hosting then bartending, at Stinking Rose in North Beach. She liked it all right, but when her boss gave credit for a makeover of the bar that she had done to a male co-worker, she knew she had to leave. She gave her two weeks’ notice and went for a drink at Vesuvio. While there, a bartender she had befriended offered her the job. She was 21. It was 2003. She’s been working at Vesuvio ever since.
Part 4 starts off with me and Joanna doing the math trying to figure out how long she's worked at Vesuvio. Turns out it's right around 20 years.
She started out as a waitress. The woman who was supposed to train her ended up not showing up that day, and Joanna really didn’t know what she was doing. But she winged it. A customer saw her inexperience and helped her out with some sage advice.
The conversation moves on to cover many of the ins and outs of serving vs. bartending. She says that, back in the day, yelling matches happened at Vesuvio sometimes, but that it's much mellower these days.
Then we get to the pandemic and their eventual closure. Vesuvio was Joanna’s only job at the time, one that had her working five days a week. She says that many regulars, folks who live alone, weren’t sure what to do when the bar had to shut down. Like many of us, they thought it would be only a week.
So Joanna borrowed her parents’ car and drove up to Cloverdale to spend what she figured would be a short time with friends. She ended up staying there for four months.
Vesuvio reopened in late 2020, but closed again in December after a positive case from one of its staff. In January 2021, they opened for good. And when they did, Joanna says it was like starting over.
Now we get around to chatting about Wacky Wednesdays, the music shows in Kerouac Alley which effectively (and finally) prompted us to do an episode on one of our favorite spots in The City.
Joanna gives context to the situation that inspired her to create the music events. Bars weren’t busy. Things were weird. Everyone felt anxious. “Let’s do something fun,” she thought.
She had run an art fair in the alley pre-pandemic, for which she scheduled bands and vendors. She used that idea as a base for what became Wacky Wednesdays. She asked friends's bands to play. They said yes. She approached the bar about paying bands. They said yes. (These days, Vesuvio has sponsors for the events.)
In 2023, there were 13 shows and 29 bands. They're currently on hiatus for the winter, but will start up again next June.
It turns out that Chad, a bartender at Vesuvio, as well as some others she knows, knew how to do sound. The shows would be free—no tickets—and bands are OK to cancel if need be.
The shows were a hit right away. In fact, someone is making a zine about them and they've gotten good press.
Joanna assures us that Wacky Wednesdays are coming back in the summer of 2024 and says she already has a wishlist of bands she'll try to book for the alley. For more info, follow Joanna or Vesuvio on Instagram. Or just do yourself a favor and go meet a buddy for drink at the coolest bar in The City. Once they start again, calendars will appear at Vesuvio.
For more on the history of Vesuvio, read this article on Found SF.
This podcast was recorded at Vesuvio Café in North Beach in October 2023.