In Hungry Concierge, we travel the world to spot hotels that operate with their guests’ food and drink needs squarely in mind — hotels, both big and small, that are located in neighborhoods rich with bar and restaurant options. Because there’s nothing worse than having your trip derailed by crummy room service.
For my third trip to San Francisco in three months, I wanted to stay somewhere a little more interesting and, frankly, more fun than the typical brand-name corporate accommodations. Enter the artistic Clift Hotel, located in the heart of Union Square, a bustling downtown neighborhood known for its namesake park, mix of high-low retail, hotels and, of course, top-notch dining.
The Clift is a historic property, and the abridged version goes something like this: 2015 marks the hotel’s centennial, as it originally opened in 1915. With the addition of the legendary Redwood Room in 1933 — rumor has it all the dark wood paneling was sourced from a 2,000-year-old redwood tree — the Clift quickly became a social fixture for the city’s elite and literati. Fast forward to 1999: The Morgans Hotel Group acquired the building and, with the help of legendary designer Philippe Starck and hotel impresario Ian Schrager, injected a shot of much-needed style and energy back into the withering property. The Clift reopened to critical acclaim in 2001. Perhaps the most surprising bit? Thanks to a smart mix of eclectic yet timeless furnishings and design elements, the hotel is just as vibrant and alluring to locals and out-of-owners alike since reopening 14 years ago.
The service is professional and polished, but far from stuffy. Check-in was a total breeze, even though I showed up hours before the standard time. And the rumors are true: If a larger room is available and you behave like a properly raised human (you know what I mean) at the front desk, you could very well be rewarded with a complimentary upgrade to a nicer room.
While a lot of hotel lobbies have a tendency to feel, well, lobby-ish, the Clift breaks from the mold by decking out its common area with some seriously slick design. The result is a space that actually feels like a hip hangout and gallery, complete with furnishings by some big-name artists and designers. For example: you can’t help but want to climb up and into Philippe Starck’s Big Arm chair, or sink yourself into Michael Haillard’s Horn Sofa, which happens to be next to Salvador Dalí’s Leda Low coffee table. Even on the balmiest San Francisco day, you’ll find yourself compelled to linger around Gerard Garouste’s giant bronze fireplace.
Meanwhile, inside the hotel’s legendary Redwood Room, take advantage of the daily “Decompression Hour,” offering a gently priced menu of craft beers and spirited cocktails, as well as savory snacks like mini bacon dogs and blistered shishito peppers. Pro tip: Order the Kennebec Fries, which don’t appear on the happy-hour menu. The price might seem a little steep at $12, but gosh, are they glorious. The fat, golden, perfectly crispy slabs were so good that I ordered them two nights in a row.
The Rooms: The hotel’s 372 rooms and suites are chic, sleek, and most importantly, comfortable. It’s impossible not to have a blissful night’s sleep in the English sycamore sleigh beds designed by Starck, dressed in crisp, white 300-thread-count percale bedding and down duvets. If you want to chill for a moment, plop yourself down into the Starck-designed wheelbarrow chair (inspired by the California Gold Rush) with the custom merino wool throw. Scrub yourself to a whole new level of clean with the deluxe-sized apothecary treats from Malin + Goetz and a bracingly strong shower head. The soft, soothing palette of ivory and gray is accented by strategic pops of lavender and orange in the acrylic table and chairs. (Starck’s goal was for guests to imagine the striking colors of a classic California sunset.)
The Look: Starck and Schrager made sure you can’t leave the Clift without thinking about its look. From the custom-designed pieces in the provocative lobby to the thoughtful use of color (especially purple, which is linked with decompression), the hotel was meant to get noticed and talked about. Admittedly, the overall design can be a little challenging for the conservative crowd. But that’s part of what I find so charming and alluring about the Clift. It’s not for everyone, and that’s just fine by me.
The Neighborhood: Nearby, at the recently opened Liholiho Yacht Club, critics and enthusiastic eaters alike are flipping for chef Ravi Kapur’s Hawaiian- and Asian-inspired bites, like tuna poke and twice-cooked pineapple pork belly. Intrepid tipplers should beeline to Benjamin Cooper, which just might be the city’s coolest new bar. Led by Brian Felley and Mo Hodges, this unmarked, second-floor cocktail hideaway, located just a block away from the Clift, pairs well-crafted cocktails — I recommend letting Brian and Mo work their magic by ordering a “bartender’s choice” — with a pristine oyster program. The service is friendly and nearly faultless, and everyone (including the staff) always seems to be having boatloads of fun. The neighborhood of Nob Hill is also a short stroll away, and home to more solid eating and drinking options. Ryoko’s (619 Taylor Street) turns out top-notch sushi — the restaurant gets bonus points for marinating all of its mackerel in-house — in a super-casual, raucous, basement-like den. (There are even live DJs spinning Thursdays through Saturdays.) If you’re seeking a slightly more refined ambience, there’s Osso Steakhouse. Discreetly tucked away on the ground floor of a landmark residential building, the glamorous Art Deco–inspired restaurant is all about re-creating a classic steakhouse experience, with a bone-in filet mignon as its specialty chop.
Regardless of where you’re staying, no visit to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to the Fairmont’s Tonga Room, just a short walk away. Opened in 1945, it’s one of the oldest tiki bars in America and still packs in the crowds (make sure to book a reservation). Once you arrive, it won’t take long before you fall under its bewitching spell. Whether it’s the floating cover band, rain showers, or stiff and sweet rum drinks, you’ll soon be (like every other person in the room) beaming from ear to ear and swaying back and forth.
Clift San Francisco
495 Geary St., San Francisco
Rooms start at $359 per night