Hanging Out in Rockford: California dreaming: Vesuvio, the bar

Elise, my beautiful waitress, is a modern-day child of the ’60s. Elise reads Kerouac and Keasey. Elise wants us to get her something, anything, from the City Lights bookstore, the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where all the writers used to hang out. Summer and I drive back down to the city. We drive back down 101 because it is straight and faster. We drive across the Golden Gate bridge and into the northern part of the city. Summer is navigating again. We use our cell phones to find the address. Summer navigates, and before long we are parked across the street from the City Lights.

We walk inside the front door of the bookstore. There is an entrance alcove. On the sales counter is a bumper sticker and a book, both titled Howell. Howell is a book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg. The bumper sticker is the same as the cover of the book. I buy both. Summer needs to use the restroom, but they don’t have a public restroom, so we head back outside to look for a bar. We can have a drink, and Summer can use the rest facilities.

Right next door, there is a bar. Right across the alley, the Jack Kerouac alley, although I don’t know this now, but I find out later online. We walk into the bar, the bar next door to the City Lights, and I have an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I have been here before. It was in this bar that the young man picked up Lynn’s roommate about 30 years ago. I know it was 30 years ago because I was turning 30, and now I am 60. What act of providence brought me here, brought me back to my youth?

We sit in the bar, the bar where Neil Cassady, the real-life Dean Moriarity of Jack Kerouac’s writings, stopped for a poetry reading in 1960 when he was to meet Henry Miller later in the evening. Miller wanted to meet the new, young writer. He called Miller on and off throughout the evening, saying he was on his way. He never kept his appointment. Back in Rockford, Jimmy Green and I were running the Windsor Lake Go-Kart track. The bucktoothed but beautiful, busty 15-year-old redhead was introducing us to Kerouac. It was 1960, and Vietnam was just getting under way.

But now it is today, and now Summer and I are having drinks at the place where all the famous writers used to hang out, the famous bar right across Kerouac alley. We sit and have drinks, and look at this wonderful old bar that has such history, the bar that has been here for 50 years, the bar that was only 20 years old the first time I came here, the bar named Vesuvio. Then, we try to go back to the City Lights, but we have lost our parking space because it is reserved for the restaurant across the street after a certain time. We decide to go back to our hotel.

Back at the hotel, we get cleaned up and changed for the evening. Summer says with a gleam in her eye that she is ready for a cocktail. She thinks she is leaving me behind, but I am full of energy, and we go back down to the hotel bar for martinis. Mario is bartending again. By now, we are part of the scene, at least for this weekend. Summer looks utterly fantastic. She has her hair down, and I am the envy of all the men. We get a little tipsy, and before you know it, it is time to head to Zuni Café for dinner.

When I first started in the restaurant business, I was fresh from California. I imitated the things I had seen out there. I had imported beer in a help-yourself-cooler. I served wine by the glass. I was into fresh food, freshly made. My descriptions of the menu items were long, complicated and overdone. As I matured, I grew tired of the nonsense. I simplified my descriptions. I let the food do the talking. When I opened Norte in Rockton, I bought an oven from Alan Scott in Petaluma-Marshal, Calif. I came out to look at the oven. I was delighted to see that the California scene had progressed in the same manner: simple descriptions and simple presentation, the food at the center, the food most important. Tonight would be a revelation.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the May 31-June 6, 2006, issue

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