For all of San Francisco’s reputed “come-on-people-now-smile-on-your-brother” philosophy, the geography of the city tells a different story, with the wealthiest neighborhoods (in fact, five of the country’s richest) and often prettiest architecture perched atop hills in places like Sea Cliff, Balboa Terrace, and Presidio Heights.
Sweatily trundling my suitcase up yet another one, Nob Hill, I reached the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco in a manner quite different from the usual guests, who step out of sleek black cars under the canopied grand entrance of the acropolitan 17-columned white marble building, built in 1909 by Metropolitan Life after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the company’s offices and records.
Inside the front door, past top-hatted and vested doormen, yet more marble spreads out in varying shades, grades, and milkiness across the floor and climbs the walls and supporting columns, all polished to mirror-like gloss.
Straight ahead, the slate grey main lounge mixes gold Art-Deco lighting fixtures, shaped like upside-down wedding cakes, with Romanesque arches fixed with matching mirrors. Judging by the thick beams of sunlight (when meteorologically available) pouring through the floor-to-ceiling windows , the electric bulbs don’t get much use until evening—much like the bar at the far end.
A left turn inside the entrance takes you into the hotel’s main restaurant, Parallel 37, which, like so many other luxury hotels in the state, serves “globally-inspired California cuisine.” However, the skill demonstrated by Chef Michael Rotondo clearly exceeds most, especially in dishes like sweet corn soup with pandan cake and kaffir lime; duck with figs, gnocchi, and braised red cabbage; and 32-day dry aged rib eye with mole, oxtail fritter, and caramelized peanuts—all exceptionally delicious, albeit more delicate than hearty in taste and richness. The best place to survey the restaurant’s culinary skills is at the semi-enclosed, wine barrel-stave chef’s table, which has views into the kitchen through a window and pairs well with five- and eight-course tasting menus, each complemented with West Coast and European wines.
Although it’s tempting to dive right in, it’s probably best to wait until after check-in, which takes place to the right of the entrance. Beyond leads the corridor to the 336 guest rooms, including 60 suites and two presidential. Club level begins at the 8th floor and requires a special access key. Although the additional $150-200 charge may seem a lot (although probably not for the average Ritz guest), the continual buffet style meals, snacks, and drinks served during the day may actually provide a savings, considering the cost of dining in San Francisco.
My Room, 904 (starting at $659 per night), was on the floor above. Past the bathroom to the right and coffee and tea stand on the left just inside the door, the main area opens up to surprising spaciousness, divided between a work and entertainment space; with desk, arm chair, and TV; and the bed area beyond. The light gray brocade carpet and yellow curtains and walls do instill a tranquil and modest regal tone but perhaps not any particular design savvy. However, that little matters once you sink into the eminently soft bed with 400-thread-count, combed cotton Frette linens; down comforter; feather bed; and duvet. Indeed, it actually becomes hard to enjoy for any length of time, as sleep almost immediately overtakes consciousness. Likewise, the following morning usually sees a battle between the comfort of the bed, your grumbling stomach, and the beckoning sights of San Francisco outside the windows, compelling you to rise.
Luckily, some immediate tonic can be found in the sectioned Italian marble-slathered bathroom (slippery when wet!), especially in the adult-sized bathtub and separate shower, stocked with generous helpings of Asprey bath products and Kohler Performance “rain” shower heads. For a more thorough cleansing, head down to the basement fitness center and spa locker rooms, which come equipped with steam rooms emitting enough powerful bursts of heat to induce your pores into working overtime. However, it’s recommended to save that until evening, as the effects are decidedly narcoleptic.
As with any Ritz, the quality of service and material at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco never really come into question. Indeed, every aspect is managed with the professionalism and ability that only the world’s pickiest (and prickliest) people could find fault with. Yes, the more traditional nature of Ritz hospitality rarely bowls you over with out-of-the-box design and concepts, but that’s not the goal. Besides, for me, where the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco shines brightest is in the attitude of the staff. Although clearly not in the same economic and social ilk as the usual guests, I’m never made to feel like an outsider or sub-par. Indeed the smiles throughout the building were just as wide and bright for me as anyone else. Perhaps that’s the true definition of “putting on the Ritz.”
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco
All photos by Mike Dunphy