Thanks to its prosperous economy, a thriving cultural scene and a prime location within easy driving distance of mountains, wine country and the ocean, San Francisco draws about 20 million leisure visitors per year. And yet I have long been frustrated by my inability to recommend a worthwhile boutique property to Hideaway Report readers.
I currently suggest the Four Seasons and St. Regis — 277 and 260 rooms, respectively — which are within a three-minute walk of each other. Though they are predictably elegant and comfortable hotels, they do not truly embody the qualities that make San Francisco unique. On my most recent trip, however, I stayed at three contrasting properties that did at least provide an authentic sense of place.
Wanting to be close to the recently renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), I booked a room at the iconic 556-room Palace Hotel, conveniently located in a district south of Market Street and a 10-minute walk from Union Square and 15 minutes by foot from the Ferry Building. When it opened in 1875, this grande dame offered unprecedented luxury and was the place to see and be seen for the political figures and celebrities of the time. It is now the oldest surviving hotel in San Francisco. Following a recent multimillion-dollar makeover, it reopened in late 2015 with completely refurbished rooms featuring new flooring and a fresh color scheme of midnight blue, plum, cream and charcoal. Though the revamp added contemporary amenities to the accommodations, many original design elements have been preserved, including intricate wrought-iron windows and solid oak entry doors ornamented with brass monogrammed knobs.
Our spacious and comfortable Corner Deluxe Suite came with a living area that included a dining table for six, a couch and large windows affording dramatic city views. Separated from the living room by a sliding door, the spacious bedroom was awash with natural light and provided a king-size bed, clean-lined mahogany furnishings, elegant crown moldings, chrome accents and conveniently placed outlets. The marble bath, however, was disappointing, being tiny and with barely enough space for a single vanity and a glass walk-in shower. Apparently, small baths are a drawback chiefly confined to corner rooms and suites; elsewhere they are adequate. While this was a surprising inconvenience, the staff were friendly, and room service arrived 15 minutes before the estimated time.
The most impressive feature of the hotel is the dramatic Garden Court restaurant and lounge, which was designated a city landmark in 1969. Originally purposed as a circular carriage entry, the lavish three-story Parisian-inspired atrium features a stained-glass dome, marble colonnades, mirrored doors and gilded sconces. The restaurant serves a lavish breakfast buffet, its “City Brunch” and high tea. Elsewhere, the clublike Pied Piper Bar & Grill provides a casual dining option in a wood-paneled dining room highlighted by a spectacular Maxfield Parrish painting. Other amenities include a fitness center that has floor-to-ceiling windows and which faces a skylit indoor swimming pool. Overall, the millions lavished on the Palace have brought the property into the modern age without sacrificing the feeling of bygone grandeur and timeless grace.
The fresh, contemporary in-room style; naturally lit swimming pool; Garden Court restaurant’s intricately adorned atrium.
Extremely small bath; lack of fine-dining restaurant for dinner.
SF City Guides offers free historical walking tours of the Palace Hotel and its surrounding neighborhood.
Having received positive reports about the Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square, we headed to this urban waterfront “private residence club.” Located in a brick building (the former Ghirardelli Chocolate factory) atop Ghirardelli Square, and a short walk from Fisherman’s Wharf, this property offers overnight accommodations as well as fractional home ownership programs. Each room provides luxury amenities including Bosch washer/dryers, Sub-Zero wine fridges and kitchenettes with microwave ovens. Open-plan dining spaces flow into comfortable living areas with gas fireplaces, and some accommodations have semi-private outdoor terraces. Personal shopper and butler services can be arranged, and complimentary car service is offered within a two-mile radius.
Our 850-square-foot one-bedroom Residence had hand-grooved maple floors and exposed brick walls, and the design was minimalist with predominantly chocolate-brown furnishings. As soon as we put down our bags, we were drawn to the picture windows where we admired the scenic bay views. Alas, when looking for seating in the room from which to further enjoy the sights, our options were only a worn teal velvet chair with stains and an uncomfortable, musty couch appointed with faded purple pillows and which was unhelpfully facing the fireplace. Despite our hopes for a pleasing bedroom, it immediately struck us as undistinguished. The only decorations in the room were three small photographs set above the bed; other than that, the walls were unadorned and the tabletops were bare. Although the king-size bed was comfortable, the brown leather headboard was frayed, and, on our way to the bath, we encountered an unsettling stain on the carpet. While spacious and softly lit, the bath was not well designed. Towels were set directly on the marble vanity counter, far from the marble rainfall shower, and there were large empty areas that felt like they were missing shelves or furniture.
The complimentary breakfast buffet was also underwhelming. The options were limited, the egg wraps were not replenished and Mrs. Harper’s bagel was stale. However, there was a spacious terrace adjoining the breakfast room that proved to be a pleasant place to eat. There is no on-site restaurant for lunch or dinner, but room service arrives from nearby restaurants in Ghirardelli Square. The hotel has a 24-hour fitness room available for guests.
The Fairmont Heritage Place might conceivably be of interest to families who are looking for above-average amenities with an exceptional view of Alcatraz, Angel Island and Sausalito, or it might prove adequate for those seeking proximity to local attractions such as the museums and farmers’ market at Fort Mason, the Marina District with its excellent restaurants and the bike/pedestrian paths that run between the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. Otherwise it is not recommended.
The well-equipped kitchen; high-pressure marble rainfall shower; beautiful bay views.
Lackluster design; a tired room with stained furniture and floor; a second-rate breakfast buffet.
Complimentary house car service can be had within a two-mile radius.
Mrs. Harper and I checked out a day early and switched to The Battery hotel, where we had a very different experience. Set in a private members-only club in the Financial District, where hotel guests are considered resident members during their stay and have complimentary access to all facilities, The Battery proved to be a fine boutique property. The 58,000-square-foot building was formerly a marble-cutting factory and now encompasses an expansive bar/lounge, 14 guest accommodations, a large fitness area and a spa that has a steam room, a sauna and an oversized hot tub. A brick-walled restaurant overseen by chef Nicolai Lipscomb features a rustic-chic décor with tall wood columns, comfortable studded chairs, oval mirrors and some rather grand framed portraits. Though the seasonal menu is extensive, there are several better dining options nearby, including Quince, Piperade and Boulevard.
The interior design of The Battery features baroque candelabras, a suspended steel-and-glass staircase, well-curated modern art and a mix of antique and modern furnishings. A dimly lit library contains a seating area with a nautical theme and shelves stocked with books that are recommended by members. Guest and member privacy is protected with a strict no-photo policy, and cellphone use is not permitted in public areas, though there are private call booths tucked into corners throughout the hotel.
To reach our stylish Deluxe Room on the third floor, we rode a dramatic glass elevator overlooking an enclosed garden lounge. The graciously appointed accommodations sported a handsome décor with hardwood floors, light gray walls, a soft leather chair and a comfortable bed backed by a tan headboard. A corner bar was well-stocked with high-end liquors and locally sourced snacks. The bath came with a frosted-glass walk-in shower and a separate freestanding eggshell soaking tub. A booklet in the room highlighted the rotating exhibitions and featured events at the hotel.
A 6,200-square-foot rooftop penthouse includes a living room with floor-to-ceiling windows, a fireplace, a Jacuzzi, a kitchen and a patio that itself features a 14-seat outdoor dining table and panoramic views of the Transamerica Pyramid and the Bay Bridge. Though the staff seemed a little too pleased with themselves at times, overall the service was courteous, efficient and helpful. I highly recommend joining the weekly tour, which provides an informative run-through of the current art exhibition as well as the history of the building. In many ways, The Battery proved to be the San Francisco hideaway that I have been searching for all these years.
Delicious breakfast; accommodating staff; expansive penthouse with scenic rooftop patio; rotating art exhibits.
Dimly lit library unsuitable for reading; downstairs lobby-lounge can be a bit “scene-y” after 10 p.m.
The chic Musto Bar is a speakeasy hidden behind a bookcase and accessed by a secret lever.