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Storied: San Francisco

Nov 9, 2023

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.

And check back Tuesday for Part 3, when we’ll meet longtime Vesuvio bartender and Whacky Wednesdays creator Joanna Lioce.

Photography by Jeff Hunt