Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café


I wish I could explain the Vesuvio’s holiday cards, but I can’t. Maybe it’s enough to know that the Café was a beatnik gathering spot in San Francisco.

The café was founded in 1949 by Henry Lenoir, who wore a beret and undoubtedly preferred to spell his first name as Henri. I’m guessing he’s the aging cherub on the left on the 1956 postcard above. I couldn’t find much about him other than that he was born in Massachusetts around 1904. The son of a Swiss university professor, he was a college graduate at a time when that was fairly unusual. In 1940, before he opened the café, he worked as a salesman in a San Francisco department store that I like to think was the Emporium. He was an art lover who enjoyed the company of beats and hipsters.

I don’t know if the Vesuvio served much food. It seemed to be more of a drinking than an eating place back in the days when Henry presided behind the bar. A sign in the window advertised “booths for psychiatrists” and a “Gay ‘90s Color Television” flashed old photos of women clad in bloomers. In the late 1950s it was on the North Beach circuit for beatniks who made the rounds from the Vesuvio to the Coexistence Bagel Shop and a nameless bar called “the place.” No doubt they stopped in at the City Lights bookstore too; Henry lived upstairs.

XmasVesuvio1964It was the day of the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, and the Anxious Asp (where the restroom was papered with pages from the Kinsey Report). “The place” and the Coexistence, considered the birthplaces and headquarters of the San Francisco beats, were both gone by early 1961. But, although Henry sold the Vesuvio in 1970, it continues even today. Of course it isn’t the same. Given that Beatnik dens became tourist sites almost overnight, it already wasn’t the same in 1964 when the card with the 5 nude mannequins and one real woman modestly dressed in a long-sleeve leotard was produced.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under Offbeat places

16 responses to “Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café

  1. Pierre Brandelius

    Used to drink Mead at Vesuvio. The bottle read, “The fermented honey of angry bees.”

  2. One of my first stops in San Fran was City Lights, XMas ’77. I was escaping Eugene, OR, so the “We are itching to get away from Portland, Oregon,” banner over Vesuvio’s entrance cracked me up in a cosmic way. That morning I bought a slip-cover edition of “Coney Island…” and the clerk asked if I’d like it signed by Ferlinghetti? “Sure.” “Well, come back after 5 and it’ll be done.” I returned at the appointed hour and asked for the book, but was dismayed to see it hadn’t been signed. That clerk asked, “Would you like me to sign it?” And just as I was responding, “No, I don’t want a forgery,” I realized it was the man himself who was putting me on.

  3. Anonymous

    always a great read…thanks Jan…and don’t forget specs’
    … aka Adler’s Museum…

  4. Lyn

    I was a waitress in Vesuvios in the 60’s. Henri was extremely kind to me and asked me to make him a dreadful school dinner as he used to get in boarding school. I can’t remember any food there. I am in a mad Christmas photo on the wall. The place is a shadow of its former vibrant self.
    I catalogued his vast postcard collection while I was there.
    Lyn from Wales

  5. Pingback: Beatnik Aria on Soundcloud | mostly music

  6. Jim

    Happy holidays, Jan!

    Keep up the great stories-


  7. And above the entrance to the cafe is the phrase “We are itching to get away from Portland Oregon.” We were visiting Reed College (Portland, Oregon) hipsters of the 1960s had to go the Cafe Vesuvio after paying homage at City Lights, to get full value for for our outing in what we called “The City.” They had that exotic coffee drink, cappuccino.

    • Anonymous

      Reed has probably many connections to the San Francisco Renaissance but surely the most famous is the fact that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder (now 83) attended there in the late 1940’s. Today that inscription in the cafe really isn’t apposite because Portland is a pretty hip place..


  8. Gary Gillman

    A nerve centre for the Beat Generation and like-minded spirits for many years, Vesuvio. Houseboats, Sausalito, the Place, the Bagel Shop, Mill Valley, Embarcadero, Ferlinghetti’s bookstore (he is still living) and North Beach, the Haight a little later, all spelled a certain scene, memorialized in some fine works by Jack Kerouac and other writers of the San Francisco Renaissance. The funny thing is, that spirit is still there, it came from the city and the area and world attention turned finally to other things but the same feeling is still there very much. Thanks for this excellent information on Vesuvio and those strange images whose main theme seems pure whimsy but who knows. Then too whimsy was part of the ethos animating the cultural scene there. (Very interesting history to it, it goes back to the 1940’s and Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth and many others, e.g. Jack London before them).


  9. majskyking

    Just thought of another…Alice’s Restaurant in Los Angeles.

    Two pieces if graffiti (circa 1962) noted on the wall in the men’s room:

    “Edith Head gives great costume.”, and,

    “My mother made me a homosexual.”

    “If I give her the fabric, will she make me one too?”

    Don’t shoot the messenger..I only report the facts.

  10. majskyking

    A case of premature “sendalation” re last message.

    My office was on Market…I used to frequent The House of Shields on New Montgomery. No women until after five p.m. and then must be escorted by a man.

    The Hungry I and The Purple Onion were both on Ginger’sand my list of places to go in The City.

    The Redwood Room called to mind The Oak Room (private club and part of The Gourmet Room) at the Disneyland Hotel…I worked at a radio station which broadcast from the D-land Hotel and often frequented The Oak Room…the years? 1957-58.

    I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

    I truly dig this site!!

    I have a work in progress…restaurants that are no longer here in Newport Beach or Corona del Mar…it’s on my bucket list to complete.

    Appears that the restaurant business is a “death wish” except for very few.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Bob King Newport Beach

  11. majskyking

    Ah…The Redwood Room.

    My first wife and I lived on a houseboat in Sausalito in 1962-63….what cool fun…Beatniks, Sterling Hayden, bongo drums emanating from other houseboats at all hours, Spike Africa, the distinctive aroma of marijuana wafting through the Gate 5 area and geese cackling from the living deck of Juanita’s Galley. The scene? A young married couple, in love, great jobs and a houseboat in Sausalito that at one time belonged to Spreckel and one of his mistresses. Almost Heaven.

    West on Bridgeway, The Trident restaurant, owned by the Kingston Trio.

    A little further west, The Valhalla, owned by Sally Sanford, one-time Madame a done-time Sausalito’s mayor.

    Of course, there was always The Bar With No Name…close to the Plaza Hotel.

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