The Square with Style : During the Holidays-or Any Time-the Area Around Union Square Is What Downtowns Ought to Be
Downtown San Francisco is for all seasons, but none so briskly exciting as the winter holidays, when Union Square lights up, suggesting a turn-of-the-century glow.
That San Francisco is a terrific place to visit is not a major revelation, I realize, given a recent Conde Nast Traveler magazine poll where readers chose it as their favorite city in the entire world, outscoring London, Rome and Paris. But this time of year, “Baghdad by the Bay,” as legendary columnist Herb Caen dubbed it long ago, really comes into its own. Particularly its urban core around Union Square.
Sure, visitors experience the clean crisp air, startling views, great restaurants, fine hotels and cultural diversity year-round. What’s special about the holidays is that San Francisco is one of those few American cities that still has an inviting downtown. If you’re a shopping mall junkie, stop reading now. But for those of us who grew up when the holidays meant bundled-up pedestrians sweeping past Salvation Army bell ringers, popping into pubs and peering into elaborately decorated windows on public streets, this is the place to be.
I don’t want to get too corny about the season, which can be a terrific drag on family tranquillity and other requirements of sanity. But when I was a kid, it was great going downtown to Manhattan with my parents this time of the year, when the tree in Rockefeller Center was lit up, Christmas carolers sang on street corners and people did seem, amazingly enough despite the crowd crunch, to be of good cheer and nobler thought.
I tried going back to New York last year to show my two young sons how wonderful it was, and it wasn’t. Our car almost got towed, the street life felt nasty, the hotel cost a fortune (including various unannounced taxes) and a corned beef sandwich at a hole-in-the-wall deli cost as much as a duck-sausage pizza from Wolfgang Puck.
So this year, for Thanksgiving, we went up to San Francisco and did nothing but hang out in the environs of Union Square, which derived its name from the rallies held 130 years ago in support of California joining the Union.
And by unanimous vote, including that of very picky 10- and 12-year-olds, we’re going back between Christmas and New Year’s for more.
Downtown San Francisco, roughly a 10-block radius around Union Square, is my kind of Manhattan as it used to be--big-city life that’s very user-friendly. This time of year, the street jazz musicians, jewelry vendors and mimes are in best form, and the department stores--including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue--that ring the square’s perimeter are trying to outdo each other with the most elaborate window displays. Gump’s is still the biggest crowd pleaser, with adoptable puppies and kittens displayed in their window lairs, decked out as if they are royalty. The venerable Gump’s, with its unique collection of jade and rare art objects imported from around the world, was once referred to by Sally Stanford, the town’s infamous former madam, as “the Metropolitan Museum with cash registers.”
There are also many snooty boutiques all around the Union Square area, including Tiffany, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Laura Ashley, Cartier, Polo/Ralph Lauren and Jeanne Marc, a San Francisco design team whose boutique is, unfortunately for the family finances, my wife’s favorite. For sturdier tastes, there’s a six-floor Eddie Bauer plus old standards such as Brooks Brothers, Alfred Dunhill and F.A.O. Schwarz (which draws more adults than children to its elaborate holiday displays).
Union Square itself is one of those lively urban mini-parks with sufficient benches for observing the passing pigeon and people parades, but underneath is also a vast underground parking structure. One of the main attractions of downtown San Francisco is that you can book a hotel room and not be bothered with a car. If you drive up from Southern California, leave your car at the Square and explore the city by foot. Southwest of the Square you’ll find the theater district; cross Market Street south to reach the new Convention Center, and head east to the Financial District, where yuppie stockbrokers and the homeless co-exist. Any direction you take from the Square should prove interesting--although perhaps a bit too interesting late at night, when panhandling and prostitution near Market can rival some blocks on the Sunset Strip.
Chinatown to the northeast, on the other hand, is inviting almost 24 hours a day. Even in the wee hours you can grab a cab and find quite a few good Chinese restaurants still open. During the day, Chinatown is an easy and exciting walk. Further north, a healthy walking distance (or catch a bus), is North Beach with its Italian restaurants and sense of a Bohemian quarter anchored by the City Lights Bookstore at Columbus Avenue and Broadway, backing up onto Jack Kerouac Alley.
For those who want to perform a San Francisco ritual, back at Union Square you can hop a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf or to the snooty Mark Hopkins, Stanford Court and Fairmont hotels up on Nob--or, as Caen calls it, “Snob"--Hill.
I much prefer staying closer to Union Square, where the quality of lodging is as good--if not better--than elsewhere in the city. Downtown has its high-priced old grande dames such as the (Westin) St. Francis, right on the Square, and the recently restored Sheraton Palace, southeast at Market and New Montgomery. On the other end of the scale, there’s one of the more interesting Holiday Inns, which features a Sherlock Holmes Bar--a replica of the famous detective’s study--inspired by the fact that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is believed to have stayed in the vicinity. But for my money, the dozens of boutique hotels provide the perfect combination of comfort, service and reasonable prices.
Gentrification has gone wild around Union Square, where once-decrepit hotels have recently been gutted, refurbished and given an individual style of their own. Nothing is wrong with the St. Francis, which despite ownership changes and periodic remodeling still squats imperiously on one corner of Union Square, ensuring since 1904 that all is well.
Even if you can’t afford its $160-and-up rates, drop in for wine or tea, hors d’oeuvres or lunch at the Compass Rose lounge; it’s as good as being at the Plaza in Manhattan. Taking a break from shopping, lounging in the sofas and overstuffed chairs while enjoying high tea and listening to beautiful piano music is about as good as it gets. (Be sure to try the egg-drop crab and shrimp soup.)
Rather than being put off by the children’s presence in such an elegant setting, our friendly waiter Cleve urged them after lunch to take one of the tower elevators to the 32nd floor for a grand view of the city. “Children love it,” Cleve promised. And they did, after being whooshed to the top in the all-glass, outside capsule to a perfect bird’s-eye view of the Financial District and the bay beyond.
Thanks to an interesting little guidebook called “The Literary World of San Francisco and its Environs,” by Don Herron, I learned that the St. Francis was the inspiration for the St. Mark Hotel in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Also, according to Herron, it was in 1943 over lunch in the hotel’s Mural Room that Ernest Hemingway talked Ingrid Bergman into starring in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
There are, of course, other fine hotels around the Square: the Grand Hyatt, the Handlery and the famous (Four Seasons) Clift, the latter of which should have considerable appeal to people who relish the restraint of dress codes. Generally in San Francisco, “West L.A. casual” dress is acceptable, but the Clift still requires jackets and ties in the dining room.
A block away, you can stand in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, which is cited in the Herron book as the inspiration for the line from Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “Molach, whose eyes are a thousand blind windows, Molach, whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs.” See if it hits you that way.
The rich literary and artistic history of the Square area is recorded in a series of plaques to those who lived there, including Robert Louis Stevenson (608 Bush St.), Isadora Duncan (501 Taylor) and Bret Harte (Taylor and Post).
These days, a writer or a family on a tight budget would do well to stay in a motel out on Lombard Street and take a bus to enjoy downtown San Francisco. But for those with some--and it doesn’t have to be that much--money to burn, this is the place. Many of the refurbished hotels are moderately priced by big-city standards; the trick is to pick one that provides an adequate level of service.
It is understandable why people will choose a chain or large hotel--to avoid the risk of experimenting with the unknown. But in the Union Square area, you can have the best of both worlds by staying at one of nine hotels run by the Kimco company.
Kimco is the brainchild of a former investment banker named Bill Kimpton, whose firm designs and manages a string of boutique hotels in California, Washington and Oregon. The good news for guests is that Kimco has high standards and sets the right tone and level of service. Each of these hotels has a distinctly different personality, and all have a restaurant in or adjacent to the hotel, a few of which are esteemed. In the afternoons at all 12 San Francisco hotels (nine near Union Square), complimentary wine and cheese are served in hospitable surroundings. The largest and lowest-priced is the 9-story Carlton ($92 per room, $79 on Kimco hotels’ reduced “Winterfest” rates, based on room availability until March 15; breakfast/parking included). The Carlton is the farthest from the Square (four blocks), but its top-floor rooms afford fine views.
Most expensive is the Prescott (rooms start at $155, but the “Winterfest” rate is $109), a 167-room hotel with decor I took to be modeled after an English club setting. The Prescott strikes me as being ideal for grown-up USC types: an efficient and very pleasant gateway to San Francisco fun. During my Thanksgiving visit, it was full of purposefully cheerful people who all seemed to be talking about their last vacation in Hawaii. The hotel features comfortable common lounge areas and the excellent concierge services of Danielle Bennion and Isela Cueva, who cheerfully made all of our theater, ballet and dinner reservations (even running out to pick up the tickets at one theater that wouldn’t leave them at will call on short notice). And it would be hard to beat the room service provided by Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio restaurant, located inside the hotel.
Whereas the Prescott was quite proper and you worried about what you wore to the lobby, Kimco’s Juliana Hotel ($114; “Winterfest,” $89) suggests an unpretentious European inn. It was originally touted by a friend who suggested I not write about it for fear it would be “discovered.” Sorry, the hotel is too nice to keep secret. We’ve stayed in a junior suite and a deluxe suite for less than the published price by inquiring while making reservations if any discount rates were available. But even without a discount, the suites ($135/$145) are a bargain for San Francisco since they are comfortable for a family of four. The rooms may be small, but they are light, cheerful and beautifully decorated. One can spend hours in the homey lobby sitting in front of the fireplace reading, or sipping wine and visiting with friends in the evening. Connected to the main hotel building is Vinoteca, which features healthy, hearty breakfasts in an area off the lobby and fine Italian dinners in the main bistro-type dining room. The Juliana is conveniently located three blocks from Union Square and a block from the cable car stop.
Kimco’s newest, trendiest addition is the youthful, uninhibited Triton ($125; $89 “Winterfest” rate), which opened in November and is blessed by being right at the entrance to Chinatown. Inspired by the hip, New Wave design of the Royalton in New York, one can imagine rock musicians, writers, architects and designers rather than business executives staying here. Perhaps they would prefer the paintings, murals and artwork of contemporary San Francisco artists, and custom-designed furniture in sleek geometric shapes. I found it a bit edgy and will go back next time to the more relaxed Juliana. But our suite at the Triton had a whirlpool tub with built-in television and adjustable lighting and I assume that those traveling without kids might find it romantic. The clothes and conversation of the wine-and-cheese crowd in the lobby one night seemed to fit in perfectly with the striking royal blue carpet, colorful mural that cascades over the wall and ceiling, and pillars of gold, teal and purple--decor so startling that passers-by stop in the street to stare through the showcase windows.
Another trendy new hotel that is not part of the Kimco chain is the Hotel Diva on Geary. Although it has a good word-of-mouth reputation, when we stayed there in October our suite was cramped and very dark, even with the lights on. There must have been a number of complaints because the desk clerk assured us that an expert was being brought in to re-do lighting in some of the rooms. One nice thing about the Diva is its location in the center of the small theater district, opposite the Curran Theater and next door to the famous David’s delicatessen, a favorite of theater folk over the decades.
A word of warning: While the neighborhood around David’s and the Diva is hopping at night, it is overrun with hookers. Eyeing our children on a ride in from the airport one night, a taxi driver cautioned us that the neighborhood around the Diva might not be the best location near Union Square.
But any apprehension on their part was wiped away in a second when, right next to the Diva, they spied a branch of California Pizza Kitchen. What a cruel joke--good pizza in San Francisco coming from L.A. What’s next, sourdough bread from the Pioneer Boulangerie in Santa Monica?
Union Square Style
Where to stay:
Rates for the following Kimco hotels are standard rates. Call individual hotels for availability of lower “Winterfest” prices.
Carlton, 1075 Sutter St., (800) 227-4496 or (415) 673-0242; $92 single/double. Juliana, 590 Bush St., (800) 382-8800 or (415) 392-2540; $114 single/double. Prescott, 545 Post St. (one block from Union Square), (800) 283-7322 or (415) 563-0303; from $155 single/double. Triton, 342 Grant Ave., (800) 433-6611 or (415) 394-0500; $125 single/double, suites $165-$195.
Other hotels: Diva, 440 Geary St. (about 1 mile from Union Square), (800) 553-1900 or (415) 885-0200; double rooms $119-$139. White Swan Inn, 845 Bush St. (2 1/2 blocks from Union Square), (415) 775-1755; double rooms $145-$160, breakfast included. This hotel, which features working fireplaces, has a loyal following.
For the best rates at all San Francisco hotels, call San Francisco Reservations: (800) 677-1550.
Where to eat: San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen likes Aqua for seafood (252 California St., 415-956-9662; expensive), Campton Place Restaurant (340 Stockton St., 415-781-5155; very expensive) for elegant California cuisine, and Le Central (453 Bush St., 415-391-2233; moderate), a bistro with classic cassoulet, for hanging out with local politicos and celebrities.
For inexpensve Italian food in the Union Square area, try Milano’s Italian Kitchen (341 Sutter St., 415-291-8022), where the polenta was as good as I’ve had anywhere and the bill for four was under $40.
For more information: Contact the Visitors Information Center, 900 Market St., San Francisco 94102, (415) 391-2000.