The Suite and Sweet Life of San Francisco

Written by | Travel

Travel to the City by the Bay in Style

For many of us, a San Francisco life chapter is almost a prerequisite to LGBTQ+ adulthood. Until you live in San Francisco, at least for a while, it feels like you’ve missed everyone’s favorite college elective. You might even lose your gay card without a sojourn in San Francisco.

Back when I first lived in San Francisco, the city was often depicted as Oz. One of the most popular postcards showed Dorothy and her friends following the yellow brick road to the skyline of San Francisco. The message was clear: San Francisco was the Emerald City where everyone was fierce and fabulous and rainbow horses were the norm. The City – always rendered in uppercase for those who resided there – was perceived as such a gay mecca that some politicians from that era castigated it as “the land of fruits and nuts,” an epithet that San Francisco turned on its head and wholeheartedly embraced.

And like the protagonists of the HBO television series Looking, sometimes you need to return to your alma mater, the scene of your youthful indiscretions – and see what you’ve been missing.

As any student of history knows, San Francisco has overcome adversity before. Less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire reduced much of The City to rubble and ash, San Francisco welcomed the world to celebrate its rebirth with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Learning to pivot and strategize in the face of disaster has become a global narrative during the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco responded with a citywide COVID-19 Prevention & Enhanced Cleaning Guidelines which ensures that hospitality businesses adhere to approved cleaning and safety protocols. Nearly 26 million people visited San Francisco in 2019, with more than three million international visitors – and all visitors to San Francisco are invited to honor and respect the city’s Safe Travel Pledge.

To welcome and assist visitors, San Francisco Travel launched a marketing campaign with the theme “Our Gate is Open.” The citywide initiative includes a fleet of Welcome Ambassadors dressed in bright orange hats and jackets who offer advice on transit options, tourist attractions, restaurants, and shopping.

In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco faced a similar dilemma: how to bring people safely back to Oz. In response, the visionary hotel proprietor Frederick C. Clift advertised his brand-new, 300-room hotel, The Clift, as The City’s first “fire and earthquake proof” hotel. Should anyone have doubted his claim, Clift perched himself atop the hotel in a spacious penthouse apartment with sweeping panoramic city views.

For more than a century, the Clift has stood as a symbol of San Francisco’s resurrection and welcoming hospitality. One year during Folsom Street Fair, my husband and I checked into the hotel when Asia de Cuba was located just off the Redwood Room – and that weekend, the hotel’s dining room was home to more leather and boots than a Harley Davidson club.

Now known as The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel, they recently completed a two-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of all its public spaces, guest rooms and suites. The soaring two-story lobby leads into the new Living Room with seating for cocktails or meetings, while the hotel’s iconic oversized French fauteuil (with its knowing wink on the underside) has been reupholstered and repositioned alongside Fredericks, the hotel’s new eatery and café named for Mr. Clift.

For those who love classic speakeasy cocktails, the hotel’s beloved Redwood Room retains its Art Deco charms. Paneled in redwood from a single tree, the Prohibition-era room features newly restored paintings by Gustav Klimt and a bar carved from an 800-year-old redwood tree. It is the kind of room that makes you forget all your troubles, especially when sipping the hotel’s signature “Mr. Clift” cocktail.

And speaking of, Frederick Clift’s penthouse apartment has been transformed into the Spanish Suite, a sophisticated aerie with an expansive terrace, fireplace, and space enough for 125 guests. The city and bay vistas of the entire Bay Area offer a breathtaking backdrop for wedding ceremonies – just in case you get a bit juiced in the Redwood Room and pop the question. Hey, it happens. In the years before same-sex marriage was the law of the land, my now-hubby and I got hitched in San Francisco’s City Hall – our first government-sanctioned certificate.

And since we’re talking nuptials, the Clift’s newly renovated suites are larger than many city apartments and come outfitted with Staycast TV streaming service, Keurig coffee makers, rainfall showerheads, and signature Sonesta bedding. In-room Pelotons are also available, should you feel the urge to exercise. Sumptuously furnished and immaculate, the suites are so lovely that you might imagine them as your own San Francisco pied-à-terre. And for those who are always in the mood for love, the hotel’s Pop the Bubbly package can be enjoyed throughout the year.

In the title essay of her collection The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969 with the implication that the California Dream had shattered in the aftermath of the Manson murders. Nonetheless, the massive migration of LGBTQ+ people to San Francisco continued, and today, San Francisco holds the highest percentage of LGBTQ+ people of any city in the United States.

Maybe it’s the food. According to the latest Michelin Guide, the Bay Area has once again claimed the top spot with the highest concentration of three-star restaurants in the States, as well as the most Michelin-starred restaurants in California. Furthermore, more than sixty area restaurants have been awarded Michelin’s Bib Gourmand designation for restaurants offering “great food and value.”

Located just off Union Square, the Clift is but a short stroll from One Market where Chef Mark Dommen helms the kitchen. In response to the pandemic, Dommen and his partner opened Mark ‘n Mikes offering Jewish deli comfort food – a concept that proved so popular that it’s now served on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

But if you are looking to be where the magic happens, then claim a ringside seat at the Chef’s Counter at One Market where Dommen and his crackerjack crew showcase the best of California bounty at the open exhibition kitchen with its wood-fired grill and rotisserie. Just as a tip, loaded latkes pair well with the Monkey Business cocktail. And there is no better butterscotch pudding in the state of California. When Pride weekend rolls around in June, remember that One Market is located near the parade kick-off at the base of Market Street.

When you are ready to burn off your gastronomic indulgences, head to Golden Gate Park. With more than one thousand acres and nearly 700 of them forested, the park is larger than Manhattan’s Central Park and includes 100 acres of meadows, 33 acres of lakes, 10 public gardens, two museums, and a greenhouse (but no partridge in a pear tree, last I looked). Or you might consider the 17-mile Crosstown Trail which connects San Francisco’s neighborhoods on a diagonal pathway across The City. San Francisco’s 49 square miles also include the nation’s most visited national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area which encompasses the 1,500-acre Presidio of San Francisco and the brand-new Presidio Tunnel Tops which offers 14 acres of new national parkland.

Of course, the more you walk, the more you’ve earned the right to park yourself in another restaurant. In the 1920s, novelist Dashiell Hammett used to work through the mornings in the Flood Building and then head next door for lunch (and a whiskey) at John’s Grill. Hammett made mention of John’s in his 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon and the bond between Hammett and John’s is marked with a commemorative plaque above the door of the restaurant, as well as a 150-lb. bronze falcon perched on the second-floor bar.

Opened in 1908, two years after the earthquake and fire, John’s Grill has been serving seafood and steaks to the city’s politicians and celebrities for more than a century. As owner John Konstin attests, the restaurant is a labor of love, inherited from his parents, and The City returns the favor as evidenced by the framed photographs lining the restaurant’s walls. And if you squint long enough at your martini, you’ll see the spirit of Sam Spade.

Some people claim that San Francisco has changed, which is often a complaint expressed by those who rhapsodize about their youth and the world as it was then. The truth is, all cities change, but if you are yearning for that classic San Francisco neighborhood, then head up to Nob Hill where the “nabobs” of the Gilded Age built their mansions at the peak of California Street. When the 1906 earthquake decimated that rarefied enclave, only two structures survived the fires: the Flood mansion (now the Pacific-Union Club) and the newly completed Fairmont Hotel. Built in honor of US Senator James Graham Fair by his two daughters, the hotel reopened its doors less than a year later in 1907 – primarily due to the brilliance of American architect and engineer Julia Morgan who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete.

During the course of its century-long reign atop Nob Hill, the Fairmont San Francisco has hosted so many US presidents that it’s often referred to as the “White House of the West.” There is a resemblance between the two buildings, especially when facing the hotel’s porte cochère which leads into a palatial white marble lobby of massive columns and grand staircases. Take the stairs. The Fairmont is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and those staircases are made for exits and entrances. Plus, that sense of arrival is particularly pleasing when entering one of the hotel’s signature Fairmont Balcony Suites.

With two pairs of French doors that open onto a filigreed terrace large enough for candlelit dinner parties, the Fairmont Balcony Suites are beloved by guests for their jaw-dropping views of the Bay. Few sights are more mesmerizing than watching the fog roll in and blanket the city, especially if you’ve got Tony Bennett singing in your head. That statue by the front entrance is in honor of Tony Bennett’s long association with the hotel in which he debuted his signature tune “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the Venetian Room in 1961.

When my husband and I found the doors open to the Venetian Room, how could I resist?  How could I not climb onstage where Tony and Diana Ross and countless other legends have performed? How could we not photograph the moment for posterity?  Plus, we were a little loopy from our evening at Tonga, the hotel’s tiki bar.

Yes, a tiki bar – and I know what you’re thinking, but even a tiki bar cynic could be converted after a night at Tonga. Since its opening in 1945, Tonga has become a San Francisco tradition as cherished as the cable cars. Housed in what was once the hotel’s indoor swimming pool, the Fairmont Plunge became a lagoon designed by an MGM set director, complete with an island band on a thatch-covered barge.

Once the tropical rainstorm commences, the crowd goes wild as the Island Groove Band warms up, and the gung-ho atmosphere quickly becomes irresistible, especially under the influence of drinks notable for their potency.  You, too, might find yourself tap-dancing onstage in the Venetian Room.

Fortunately, the Fairmont Balcony Suites feature an elegant parlor with separate bedroom and marble bath – in other words, a welcome sanctuary after a long night out. Morning coffee on the terrace overlooking the hotel’s gardens and apiary is wonderfully therapeutic, as is breakfast at Laurel Court. With its pastoral murals and Ionic columns, the ornately-domed restaurant summons reveries of Versailles – although that might be a tiki-bar hallucination.

When the sun is shining in San Francisco, there’s no good reason not to continue the party, regardless of the hour. Take a cable car down Nob Hill for a restorative wander through Yerba Buena Gardens. When you’re ready to eat again – because, after all, this is the best eating town in the US – make haste and head over to Bluestem Restaurant & Market.

Bluestem’s founders Adam and Stacy are the unofficial mayors of the neighborhood, and their California-cool brasserie serves as a lively commissary for locals, thanks to large part to the couple’s infectious ebullience.

Of course, there is also that cast-iron cornbread, served with honey butter or vanilla ice cream, whichever your preference. With a focus on sustainable local food, Bluestem’s curated market offers some of the best Bay Area comestibles. On Pride weekend, Bluestem hosts an annual Pride party on their rooftop terrace as the parade marches up Market Street. And should the night before haunt you still, there’s no better cure-all than Bluestem’s famous Honolulu Hangover Cake.

And that’s San Francisco for you, that bit of sweetness that lingers on the palate.

Last modified: April 11, 2022