The best bar in America is in San Francisco. Why we need Vesuvio.

San Francisco is a city built by eccentrics, artists and adventurers, and nowhere encapsulates that spirit of wanderlust more than Vesuvio Cafe, the historic cocktail bar that’s been watching over North Beach for over 70 years.

“I like to think of Vesuvio as the little boat that keeps cutting through the water,” owner Janet Clyde told me.

Clyde first started working the bar in 1979, when the little alley that runs between it and City Lights bookstore, connecting North Beach and Chinatown, was still called “Adler.”

“It means a lot to me that it means so much to so many people, it keeps me in this.”

She’s right, and it means a lot to me, too. It’s the only bar I’ve ever referred to as the “best bar in America,” and I stand by the hyperbole.

My fawning over Vesuvio is rooted in fond memories of when I discovered this city. On my first visit to San Francisco from the U.K. in 2004, me and  three other young British Kerouac-wannabe visitors, in the midst of a 6,000-mile six-week road trip around the country, spent four nights in a row on 255 Columbus Avenue. Sure, there were other bars and neighborhoods to go visit, but we just wanted to step back through those doors.

We soaked up the city and the whiskey sours and watched life in North Beach pass by from the balcony windows after buying Beat paperbacks from City Lights next door. Is there more of a cliche than reading “Howl” while drinking a Kerouac cocktail on Vesuvio’s balcony? There is not, but we didn’t care.

On our fourth day, we smoked cigarettes with a man with a magnificent beard in the alley outside who told us he had a campground down the coast and we should come visit. A week later — without even a phone number let alone Google Maps — we somehow made it there and camped with him on the Big Sur river. It was one of those magical adventures that all started at that little bar on Columbus.

But Vesuvio is so much more than one writer’s hazy memories; it’s the heart and soul of San Francisco.

Stepping inside feels like walking into the bowels of a pirate ship adorned with decades of history and loving kitsch, from the giant wicker chair where soused poets read their verses, to the stained glass windows, to the antique “Beware of pickpockets and loose women” sign under Jack’s portrait, to the steep steep bathroom staircase that dives unsteadily into the depths of North Beach as the upper deck’s balcony spirals around you.

It’s truly majestic.

The bar and City Lights together form the hub of the city’s literary history and a global mecca for bohemian writing.

Henri Lenoir, 1960

Henri Lenoir, 1960


Founded in 1948 by artist Henri Lenoir, Vesuvio predates Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookshop by five years. The Examiner once described Lenoir as “the last of the Bohemians.” He was by all accounts a true eccentric, described in his final days by the paper as “as naughty and as haughty as you want him to be, dapper as ever in his omnipresent black beret and seersucker suit.”

Lenoir’s Vesuvio soon became a legendary literary hangout for radicals and poets and eccentrics, years before hippies made their way to the Summer of Love. The bar’s alchemy imbibed some of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan frequently drank at the cafe. (Ginsberg wrote about Vesuvio in the 1954 poem “In Vesuvio’s Waiting for Sheila.”)

Robbie Robertson, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg outside Vesuvio in 1972

Robbie Robertson, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg outside Vesuvio in 1972


On one infamous evening in 1960, Jack Kerouac — already entering his sad, booze-soaked final years — arranged to visit writer Henry Miller in Big Sur. Instead of making his way down the coast, he spent the night drinking in Vesuvio’s, calling Miller through the night from the bar’s payphone to apologize for choosing that little corner of San Francisco over the rest of the world, as so many do. The scene was immortalized in one of Kerouac’s last great novels, “Big Sur.”

Adler Alley would be officially named after Jack in 1988.

Lenoir was still hanging around North Beach when Clyde started working behind the bar at Vesuvio in 1979.

In 1997, with the help of the city’s Small Business Association, Clyde bought the cafe and building with another family, at the same time Ferlinghetti gained ownership over City Light’s long-term rental. The move was a concerted effort to protect the institutions from the corporatization of San Francisco, something that was already a major concern years before tech moved in.

Kerouac Alley, San Francisco, January 2021

Kerouac Alley, San Francisco, January 2021

Andrew Chamings

While it’s still part Beat shrine, the bar’s clientele have always been a true mix of San Franciscans, from beret-wearing philosophers to working class Italian families to FiDi bros waiting for Broadway strip clubs to open their doors, to regulars who have seen the people, but not the bar, change over its seven decades.

Vesuvio may be most notable for its balcony that circles the bar. Clyde tells me that in the ’90s, owners of a restaurant and bar chain in Oregon made a surprise visit.

“They were analyzing us, they came by shopping for a ‘Vesuvio,’ like what makes this place?” A few months later she heard of interior balconies showing up in a chain of “historic” bars on the West Coast.

To her horror, a tourist once told Clyde that the bar looked like a Buca di Beppo. “Oh no, it can’t look like a Buca di Beppo!” she said, but realized that while trends come and go, Vesuvio stays the same.

Beyond its literary bona fides, the cafe has a real sense of humor.

Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave., San Francisco

Vesuvio Cafe, 255 Columbus Ave., San Francisco


On entering, the words above the doorway read, “We are itching to get away from Portland, Oregon!” Clyde tells me that this is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a century ago when Portland suffered numerous flea infestations, causing many to travel south to wait out the epidemic in San Francisco.

“It’s a child’s paradise, but you have to be 21 to get in,” Clyde laughs. “Years ago, kids would be occasionally let in during the day, so long as they got out by five.”

Clyde believes that what makes the bar special is that it was made by a group of artists, not business people, realizing their vision and having fun.

“The bohemians filled this place with surrealism, a sense of humor, whimsy and lightness, and I love them for it,” she says. “It was how they entertained themselves, they didn’t have phones to stare at back then. While some bars were full of these gruff chess-playing businessmen, these guys had this wild sense of humor and creativity.”

Henri Lenoir, 1963

Henri Lenoir, 1963


Clyde’s “little boat” has been cutting through some stormy waters of late. Through most of 2020, as a business that didn’t serve food (despite the “cafe” in the name), the bar was forced to shut its doors because of COVID-19 mandates.

In October, they found a creative solution and partnered with Bulgara’s Rotisserie and Grill, enabling them to feed and imbibe patrons outside the bar on Kerouac Alley, until the second shutdown hit in December.

While Vesuvio’s current situation is a battle, it’s not as dire as many city bars, largely due to the purchase of the building by the management in the ’90s.

Clyde is currently assessing if they can continue to operate in the alley, now outdoor dining has reopened in San Francisco. “We just want to open safely; we don’t want to contribute to the spread of this thing.”

Before the pandemic, Clyde says that high school class literary tours sometimes came by Kerouac Alley to discuss the bar, and she’d go out and talk to the kids.

“I’d tell them that they can make a Vesuvio, too! The people who made this place harnessed their artistic vision, that’s what created this, they made it their own. I asked the kids what their vision is and tell them that they can build it,” she says.

Owner Janet Clyde and Leo Riegler, circa 1993

Owner Janet Clyde and Leo Riegler, circa 1993


“I received a thank-you note saying, ‘I can’t wait to be 21 so I can hang out in there,’” she laughs, “but it’s just a little cocktail bar, we’re not running the Pentagon here.”

It is just a little cocktail bar, but little cocktail bars are maybe more important than ever after a year that saw the permanent closure of more than 100 bars and restaurants in the city.

There aren’t many greater San Francisco moments than walking out of its doors at dusk onto Columbus with a little whiskey sour buzz, watching the light fall over the Sentinel building under the Transamerica Pyramid, and breathing in the city before grabbing  a slice from Golden Boy Pizza.

In this cold dark February of 2021, those doors are still shuttered, and beautiful but bleak poetry now covers the windows. The last poem on the Columbus-facing window is an iconic one written by a man who in his day held court inside the bar, Dylan Thomas.

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

My favorite bar in America has heeded his words for 73 years.

It’s North Beach Month at SFGATE. We’ll be diving deep into the neighborhood for the entirety of February as part of a new series where we’ll be highlighting a different corner of San Francisco every month this year. Catch up on last month’s stories here.