LET'S EAT OUT: Part 2...Vanessi's

Another city and another restaurant that no longer exists. Vanessi’s was a familiar name when I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, though I never ate there.

It was part of mid-century San Francisco and a staple of North Beach. For me, North Beach has always been the most interesting part of the city. Most of the hip places from the '50s and '60s are long gone. I haven’t been there in years.

To see a photo of the outside of the original Vanessi’s click here.
In 1936, Silvio Zorzi opened the happening Italian restaurant Vanessi's on Broadway. Counter-side seating around the open kitchen was one of Vanessi's trademarks, as were specialty dishes such as the Chicken Cacciatore and Spaghetti Cabonara. Though Vanessi's was a major hotspot on Broadway for years, in the 1980s new owners moved the restaurant to California Street in Nob Hill. Sadly, slow business in that location led to the restaurant’s abrupt closure in 1997. (SOURCE: San Francisco Restaurants.com)
I also found this interesting piece about Paul Robeson trying to eat at Vanessi’s in 1940. Hard to believe in a town known for its openness and inclusiveness a man would be turned away because of his color.
Wherever he spoke, whenever he was quoted, his theme was about segregation, discrimination, the theme of being put in the position of second-class citizen. After all, here is a man who was twice named All-American in football. An all-around athlete and student at Rutgers University. Then a degree from Columbia Law School. Then famed as actor and singer. He could play the leading role in Othello—and yet he still was a man even up until the 1950s who couldn't go into a restaurant or into the same hotel with other members of the same company.

This became a public issue in 1940. After a concert, he and a group went to Vanessi's, one of the better restaurants in North Beach, in the Italian area of San Francisco. It was a mix of several whites and Negroes including John Pittman, a black newspaperman. I knew Pittman at Berkeley, at the university. He had very light skin and was allowed to walk right into Vanessi's and then the man at the door—the head waiter—said, "That guy in back of you can't come in." He pointed up to Robeson who was probably three heads taller. The group walked out and sued Vanessi's. It became a front-page scandal. Consider the public recognition of Robeson on the one hand, and the insulting behavior on the other hand—all because
of his color! The group sued Vanessi's but nothing came of it. I've been listening to Robeson's speeches in the last few recordings I'd made where he'd spoken. More and more he emphasized a link among people whom the white race considers inferior or second-class or third world. A common bond shared by people who have been put upon by their society or other societies. People of different color or religion. Third-world people. Shearer: Did he actually use the term "third world"? (SOURCE: calisphere)
Surprisingly for a restaurant with so much history I'm not finding much worth looking at other than this photo of customers in 1952.

What's there today? A slick chrome and black marble bar.

You can judge which place will be historically memorable.

And is it me or does this building look like a smiling face that could tell a few tales about what goes on inside?


  1. thanks for sharing this..great photos..loved the one you linked to..most importantly,I found your information about Paul Robeson very interesting..so sad,wasn't it.

  2. Robeson was a first class man who was treated less than first class. And if you've never heard is voice you've missed out on a lot. Amazing voice.

  3. Extraordinary place, story and what a voice!