January 06, 2011

The Artists' Bar

If you want to find out what’s going on in the San Francisco Art World don’t go to the galleries — go to the bars. That’s where all the artists are. I know because I drank a lot when I lived there. It was easy to do because anywhere you could swing a dead cat — bam — you’d hit a bar! In North Beach alone you have Kennedy’s, Specs, Vesuvio, Mr. Bing’s, Tosca, Grant & Green, the Saloon, Savoy Tivoly, Gino & Carlo, 15 Romolo, O’Reilly’s, Sweetie’s, Hawaii West, Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store, and that’s just half the places I can remember.

Now I know some of you might say “Oh what a shocking admission of guilt he’s just made!” but rest assured, I am a quiet drunk, not the loud kind like others you may know. Besides, way too much emphasis is placed on career and not the act of  creation or the environment where ideas have a chance to get tossed around among friends. Art school is just one place where that happens. It’s worth noting that there are a multitude of art worlds that coexist everywhere at the same time and that being wealthy and famous (or infamous) is not the only way to measure success. Indeed, from the Precita Eyes Mural Program to the Mission Cultural Center to the 826 Valencia Writers Workshops and all the other nonprofits that contribute to the arts in San Francisco, & the hundreds of people that contribute, volunteer, and sacrifice — those people aren’t doing it to be part of the “One True Art World,” they are doing it to give meaning to their lives and to their children’s lives. And for better or for worse, bars and cafes are some of the few socially acceptable places where one can sit down and talk for hours without being chased away by some scary authority figure.

There’s one bar in North Beach, Vesuvio Cafe, that’s especially known for its great atmosphere and its employees, who all seem to have some kind of art background. The owners, Chris and Janet Clyde, both speak French and tend to hire creative types. Take a casual look around and you’ll see all manner of artwork plastered over every available surface — even down in the bathroom. The walls are beautifully yellowed from over half a century of people smoking cigarettes, cigars, and god knows what else. The place is also sporadically decorated with stained glass, which means the light in the space is really changing all the time. It’s an environment conducive to long discussions about art, the universe and, with City Lights Books next door, literature.

So it’s not surprising when I’d go there on a random night and see Sean Penn or poet Anne Waldman imbibing some concoction. Alternately, because they open at 6 a.m., exhausted strippers from the nearby strip joints like the Garden of Eden or the Hungry I can sometimes be found sipping martinis after a long night, their mascara all runny, smelling of lotion and sweat with just a hint of old perfume. And then just as randomly the place will be still and empty.

But when I went I’d often see gallerists, curators, and museum people. Some nights it’d be all poets and other nights it’d be all painters and on yet other nights it’d be a mix of all of them. But if you’ve had a drink there during the past six years there’s a good chance you were served by David Marc Grant, one of the artist bartenders there. This February will be the sixth year of his life spent bartending. Because Vesuvio is a creative space and a bar and it appears to be its own art world unto itself, I was interested in hearing a bit about what it’s like being an artist in that art world and what it’s like working in such an environment. So I called him up.

Comments (7)

  • You certainly remind me that art is everywhere. Admittedly, I’m more of a cafe (versus bar) person but you have me wanting to go to bars and drink (soda) and see art and people watch. Nice write-up on an interesting topic!

  • love it chris- nice to hear about a continuing community of artists. and great to see you here. where are you these days and what are you up to?

  • Wolo (Baron Wolff Erhardt Anton George Trutzschler von Falkenstein) painted the cute creatures holding beer steins in the entrance. The late puppeteer/newspaper caricaturist/children’s book illustrator did murals throughout the Bay Area including the now defunct Hippo Hamburgers. He lived in North Beach 1930s-80s and for a time ran a portrait studio on Grant called Happy Things.

  • This was quite entertaining!

  • Melissa Sue says:

    You spelled Specs wrong.

  • Meg Shiffler says:

    I love this post! Thanks so much for taking the time to make the video and interview a wonderful artist getting by in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. The Vesuvio is an institution and it’s so nice to hear that drinking there supports our creative community. Bottoms-up!

See all responses (7)
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