A July 2004 trip
to San Francisco by artsnletters
Quote: These hotels, listed roughly in ascending order of price, cover the gamut of character and cost, all within three blocks of Union Square: home to great theaters and shopping, a short walk from Chinatown and the financial district, and well-served by public transport, including the cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Although the actual square itself is nothing special, with its grand proximity to great theaters, the city’s finest shopping, and colorful Chinatown, it’s hard to beat. San Francisco’s parking shortage is notorious and impossible to exaggerate; if you’re staying at Union Square, you’re likely to find a car an expensive impediment for in-city travel. You can hop a cable car along Powell Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, Muni trolleys and buses to most of the rest of the city, and BART to many locations within and outside the city, including East Bay destinations such as Berkeley and Oakland.
A survey of ten hotels within three blocks of Union Square found an astoundingly wide range of prices-–-,800 per night--for an equally astounding range of decent to marvelous rooms. Here are capsule descriptions of these hotels, roughly in ascending order of price:
Hotels may be willing to include breakfast in your room rate. The more luxurious hotels often offer deep discounts when business travel is down: on weekends, in August, and over holidays. Be sure to check the internet and ask about deals when you reserve!
The Visitor’s Bureau is conveniently located at Hallidie Plaza, just outside the Powell Street BART station (to your left as you exit BART). Stop by to get a transit map and tourist information.
If you don’t have a transit pass, make sure you have a selection of small bills and coins, as ticket machines and drivers do not make change.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), San Francisco’s "metro" system, now goes from SFO airport to downtown (.95). Union Square is equidistant from the Powell and Montgomery stops; I’ve indicated which is best for each hotel. Ticket prices are based on distance traveled, .25-.00.
Muni trolleys and buses cost .25 per trip and permit free transfers or reverse trips for two hours – save your ticket. The historic cable cars cost . Passes good for all these are a great value: for one day, for three days, for seven days. A family may find taxis cheaper for short trips.
Avoid traveling during rush hour, when public transport is packed with locals.
Could this be true? A hotel with a fun and funky soul located just two blocks from Union Square, with rates way under $100? Indeed it is. Your first clue is the etched wooden sign, complete with lucky horseshoe, hung over the entrance to the Dakota Hotel: "Kick off your boots and stay awhile." At rates as low as $50 per night, nearly anyone can afford to do just that.
Here are some things the Dakota is not: plush, depressing, sleek, grim, formal. Here are some things you won’t find at the Dakota: a weight room, a concierge, uniformed personnel, a bellman, a stuffy attitude. What you will find is a young and cheerful staff, a clean and comfy place to lay your head in one of 40 basic rooms, and a short, short walk to your sightseeing destination or the public transportation to get you there.
The lobby is clean and simple. A large map of the world pinned to the wall testifies to the international character of the budget travelers who find their way here. The hotel shows its age in the most delightful ways: thick ridged mahogany moldings, 1920s light fixtures, and best of all, a gen-yoo-wine birdcage elevator, the kind with a sliding glass-paned door and then an inner folding metal gate, letting you watch the floors slide by as you ascend to the thrum and whine of the motor. True, as a method of transport it’s pretty slow, not so much once you’re in it, but when you’re waiting for it. The Dakota advises how to handle this on little signs affixed to the wall by the elevator on each floor: "EXERCISE. Use the stairs when possible. It’s good for you." The Dakota is what it is, with an insouciant shrug and a smile.
Don’t let the hallways, painted a startling shade of salmon pink, put you off. The rooms are a standard off-white and simply furnished, with firm and bouncy mattresses. The amenities are limited to a TV with remote control and a small fridge and microwave, to make those longer stays even more affordable. The bathroom is small and 1920s cute, with a small sink tucked into a corner of the room and a clawfoot tub. As the single-pane windows front on busy Post Street, be prepared for some traffic noise – light sleepers may want to bring earplugs.
Rates run between $50 and $99, depending on season and availability--expect to pay about $65.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 5, 2004
606 POST STREET
San Francisco, California 94109
As tony as the Union Square area is, it’s still possible to find a distinctive hotel at a very affordable price. The recently renovated Hotel des Arts (formerly the Alisa Hotel) is in transition to a European-style boutique budget hotel with a modern-art flair. Situated just across the street from the Chinatown Gate a mere three blocks from Union Square and looking deceptively small; it actually houses 51 rooms.
The lobby, located on the second floor up a steep narrow spiral staircase or reached by elevator, gives a taste of where this hotel is headed. It’s graced by several colorful modern paintings which give it both a polished and a spirited air. While the rooms have bare walls right now, as the remodel is completed each room will be outfitted with artwork. Rooms are already outfitted in boutique-hotel style, with gold and cream walls, new mattresses, and sleek, plump white bedding. While the furniture is modern-spartan, once the artwork is in, these will be quite inviting and hip rooms. Rooms in the front of the hotel have views of the Chinatown Gate.
If economy is paramount in your priorities, Hotel des Arts offers some rooms with shared bath down the hall for a positively paltry rate. While this is an unusual option in America, in Europe such hotels are quite common. It’s not much to give up if you want to stay in a somewhat upscale hotel but your budget won’t stretch that far. If you prefer to pay for your privacy, rooms with private bath will run you an additional $30 or so.
Complimentary tea, coffee, and continental breakfast is provided, and Le Central, a French brasserie, is located on the first floor. As might be expected of such a small hotel, the only other amenities are what you’ll find in your room. However, with Union Square and Chinatown close at hand, whatever you need is sure to be close at hand.
Depending on season and availability, double rooms are $49-$69 with shared bath, $79-$99 with private bath, and rooms with two double beds are $99-$119. Parking will set you back $20 per day in a nearby garage.
Note: This is a no-smoking hotel.
Hotel des Arts
447 Bush Street
San Francisco, California
Located three blocks from Union Square, the Mark Twain bills itself as the "affordable alternative" in an area which can be quite pricy. Of the hotels I visited, this was indeed the most reasonably priced of the more "standard" variety of accommodations and a good choice for families.
The Mark Twain, built in 1948, looks like a fairly conventional hotel, with its small, comfortable but not particularly elegant lobby, but it has a notorious history. In 1949, the police broke down the door of Room 203 to arrest Billie Holiday, the renowned jazz singer, as she attempted to flush $50 worth of heroin down the toilet. A plaque by the door commemorates the infamous incident. Its namesake, however, is the plainspoken American writer who lived in the city during the heady Gold Rush days.
At the moment, the Mark Twain is somewhat dated, still bearing the marks of its previous Ramada Inn membership, with rust-colored floral quilted bedspreads set off by butter-yellow walls with white trim. It will soon be beginning a three-phase renovation which will transform it into a boutique hotel emphasizing the Mark Twain connection by painting quotations of the author along the top of the walls and adding Mark Twain books and pictures to the décor. The quilts will be replaced with white down comforters and boutique-style linens.
Rooms were quiet and spacious and closets were very roomy; the king room I saw had an enormous closet. Window coverings are wide-slatted white shutters. Bathrooms were also good-sized and, if not luxurious, with their yellow-and-red checkered tile floors at least had some character. All rooms are outfitted with Nintendo, internet access, safes, and irons and ironing boards.
The hotel has a fitness center and a bar and offers concierge, laundry, and dry-cleaning services. The attached Sultan Restaurant serves excellent Indian food in the evening; an American breakfast is served in the morning. Breakfast may be included with your room; ask when you reserve.
Rooms cost $95-$125.
Executive Hotel Mark Twain
345 TAYLOR STREET
San Francisco, California 94102
This elegant gem of a hotel, built in 1914 and last renovated in 2002, seems smaller than it is, and that’s a good thing. A little slice of quasi-England just a block off Union Square, the tall green building houses 153 charming and comfortable rooms on nine floors in a variety of configurations: double, queen, king, twin, and double-double, in an environment that feels simultaneously cozy, personal and graceful.
The lobby is a revelation of Georgian grace, with beveled glass panes in the tall windows, yellow and gold walls, and long, long maroon drapes reaching to the green-and-gold carpeted floor. There’s a life-size portrait of a uniformed King George (it’s George IV, not George III against whom the Revolutionary War was fought). Classical music wafts through the airy, high-ceilinged room, making you long to linger. An incredibly narrow marble staircase spirals up beside the elevator, which is probably how you’ll choose to go up and down.
Rooms continue the elegant green-and-gold color scheme, with yellow walls and green-striped bed coverings set off by dark cherry-wood furniture. Bathrooms were on the small side but nicely outfitted with green and gold striped shower curtains. Only first floor rooms have air conditioning (take note if you are coming in summer), but all rooms have ceiling fans, and additional table fans are available upon request. All rooms have radios, TVs, Nintendo, safes, irons, hairdryers, and free DSL service. Kings and doubles also have coffee makers. Concierge, laundry, and dry-cleaning services are offered, and 24-hour room service is available through Lori’s Diner next door – very tasty 50s-style food.
There is a fairly rudimentary business center offering computer and internet access for $5 for 20 minutes, $10 for an hour. Offsite access to a fitness club is available for an extra charge. Breakfast (daily) and high tea (weekends only) is served in the wicker-furnished Windsor Café. A continental-style breakfast will set you back about $6, while you can have your tea a la carte or with the full panoply of sandwiches, salad and sweets for $18 per person. Winston’s Wine, Beer and Champagne Lounge is open nightly, with a curved marble-topped bar and a glass window of colored diamonds – you half expect to find a dartboard. On Thursday and Friday evenings, a jazz band plays in the bar.
Rooms range in cost from $89-$155, a lot of charm for a moderate cost.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 5, 2004
King George Hotel
334 MASON STREET
San Francisco, California 94102-1783
If you like the amenities and class of a large hotel, but you also long for the personal touch of a small hotel, then the family-owned and family-run Handlery Union Square Hotel is an excellent choice. Located only half a block from Union Square, this 377-room hotel has been in the Handlery family for three generations, and the fourth generation is currently in training. Jon Handlery, the hotel’s affable general manager (and also the newly installed Chairman of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau), is on site most days and can often be found roaming the halls or greeting guests in the lobby. Mr. Handlery believes "guests should leave feeling they got more than they paid for," and to that end, the recently renovated hotel offers rooms for both families and business travelers with a wide range of amenities and service by an enthusiastic and attentive staff.
The hotel has a rare (for San Francisco) heated outdoor pool, located in an attractive enclosed courtyard which blocks out the San Francisco winds. There is also a sauna, fitness center, gift shop, and barbershop (men only), and laundry, dry cleaning, babysitting, and room service are also available. A substantial percentage of the hotel’s clientele are international leisure travelers. To accommodate those traveling from abroad, the hotel has a multilingual staff and currency exchange service. The Daily Grill Bar and Restaurant on the first floor offers a good assortment of American-style meals, with breakfasts running about $8-$12 and lunches $9-$15. For dinner the menu broadens; pasta selections start at around $10, meal salads run about $14.50, and grilled entrees top out at $26 – quite reasonable in this neighborhood. As I passed through the restaurant, I saw folks happily tucking into generous, attractively presented portions.
The Historic Section, geared more to the leisure traveler, has somewhat smaller rooms with slighty dated decor. The Club Section, which is tailored for the business traveler, has the look of a boutique hotel. All rooms are well equipped with the usual range of high-class amenities, including wireless internet, bathrobes, and Nintendo. In addition, Club Section rooms come with the daily newspaper, two telephones, and an amusing electric shoe polisher, and most of these rooms have balconies with city views or overlooking the pool. Rooms are pleasingly outfitted in cream and beige, tending toward the formal but still cozy. In the Historic Section, room sizes can vary and some rooms have only a shower; if you want a tub or a more spacious room, be sure to mention this when you make your reservation.
Rooms in the Historic Section run $109-$159, with suites running $169-$235. In the Club Section, rooms range from $149-$189. For both classes of rooms, prices may be higher during high season and other times when demand is high.
Handlery Union Square Hotel
351 GEARY ST
San Francisco, California 94102
Two blocks from Union Square, the ultra-elegant, formal, and sophisticated Warwick Regis is ideally located for culture vultures just across the street from ACT and the Curran Theater, two of the major San Francisco theaters. The classy lobby, in coral, rust, and cream, is intimate and stylish in the best old-world tradition, with antique furnishings and an antique chandelier, while the uniformed staff is personable and professional.
The 74 rooms here are richly stunning and elegantly lit, with dark wood set off by green and maroon satin furnishings and antique armoires. Rooms have either canopied four-poster beds or beds with crown canopies hung from the wall. Junior and executive suites feature balconies over Geary Street, so you can watch the theater-goers in the evening; the four best suites have fireplaces as well. Bathrooms are well-lit and roomy, with black Italian marble surfaces topping bright white cabinetry and fixtures. Rooms are all fitted with minibars, TV, on-demand movies and Nintendo, safes, hairdryers, bathrobes, and umbrellas.
Concierge, laundry, valet, and round-the-clock room service are available. Morning newspapers are provided to all guests on weekdays. The hotel has arranged complimentary use of an off-site fitness center. The attached La Scene Café & Bar, serving American cuisine at breakfast and dinner, is Zagat-rated. If you’re looking for a nice meal before heading over to the theater, there’s a three-course prix fixe for $23. Alternatively, there are meal salads from $7-$14, sandwiches from $10-$17, pizza for $15, and a selection of entrees from $18.50-$22.50. Meals are available until midnight for those wishing to dine after the show
Rooms range from $149-$309. The high end suites are a particularly good deal.
Warwick Regis Hotel
490 GEARY ST
San Francisco, California 94102
Hotel | "Crowne Plaza Hotel"
The 403-room Crowne Plaza sits one block above Union Square on the street running along the uphill side. The Powell Street cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf runs along the perpendicular street, so you cannot do better for a location.
While the Crowne Plaza doesn’t offer as distinctive a personality as many of the other hotels listed here, it is a sleek hotel offering most any amenities you might like, the pinstriped staff is exceedingly ingratiating and professional, and the quality of the rooms and the amenities are beyond criticism. The public spaces have a rather dark, clubby feel, perhaps more to a businessman’s taste. Rooms are very nicely appointed in shades of apricot and maroon; many offer views over Union Square, across the city, or of the bay – the higher the floor, the better the view.
The hotel has a gift shop, business center, and fitness room (but no pool). All rooms have high-speed Internet service, and wireless service is available for a fee in all the public areas. Services available include concierge, laundry, and valet, and small pets are permitted with a deposit.
The hotel restaurant, Girasole, emphasizes Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, with a pretty hefty price tag. Breakfast, for example, appeared to run about $17, whether for eggs Benedict or pancakes. Meal salads at dinner time will run $12-$13, with pasta and risotto selections running about $15, but grill selections will likely run you $10 more. Café Fresco was more reasonable, with an excellent selection of baked breakfast goods, salads, panini, and rotisserie chicken and side dishes available. Note: you may be able to get breakfast included in the price of your room; be sure to ask when you make your reservation.
Standard king or double-double rooms run $159, while similar somewhat larger rooms with bay views run $189. There is also a junior suite with a king bed and a pull-out sofa for $225 or a large suite, with a separate bedroom and living room with minibar and Jacuzzi, for $450.
San Francisco Marriott Union Square
480 Sutter Street
San Francisco, California 94108
Hotel | "Hotel Nikko"
The sleek, Asian-accented Nikko, located two blocks from Union Square, is one of the premier hotels in San Francisco. It’s simultaneously modern, arty, and faintly Japanese. It’s also the home of renowned Anzu, a destination restaurant. The hotel is so understated from the outside, you could almost miss it, but the inside is most distinctive. The Nikko serves about 60% business clientele and 40% leisure, with 10% Japanese clientele. Despite the address, the main entrance to the hotel is actually on O’Farrell Street. This was the largest hotel I visited, with 532 rooms, including 22 suites.
The lobby is an enormous box lined in white marble, furnished with dark furniture and low beige marble tables, and garnished with an assortment of unusual lamps, lighting fixtures, and modern art. At the far end of the lobby, there’s an art gallery that furnishes the intriguing new paintings that hang in the hotel – most all are for sale. The lobby is also home to the professionally outfitted business center, well equipped to meet all the business traveler’s needs. The reception staff always includes a Japanese speaker. Wireless internet service is available in all the hotel’s public spaces.
Rooms are gleaming, elegant, and spacious, with modernist styling accented with subtle Japanese touches including Japanese-patterned artwork and bedspreads in dark blue and pale peach tones. Standard amenities include safes, minibars, coffee/tea facilities, irons, high speed internet service, in-room movies, and stereo and CD player. Bathrooms are warmly lit in pale peachy and cream tones; most include a separate tub and shower.
The hotel has a state-of-the-art fitness center and a large, beautiful pool located in an airy skylit atrium – on hot days, doors can be opened to the adjacent balcony to cool off the space. You can also have a shiatsu massage (extra charge). Concierge services are available.
The Nikko’s Anzu restaurant, located on the second floor, is highly regarded for its steaks and its sushi. The master sushi chef once worked for Japan’s royal family, so it’s safe to say he really knows what he’s doing. Only a few seats are available at the sushi bar, however, so if you are coming, be sure to reserve ahead. Another time when reservations are strongly advised is for Anzu’s Sunday buffet breakfast, when a local jazz radio station broadcasts from the restaurant while patrons load up on exquisite sushi, dim sum, and other wonderful breakfast options (cost is $44, reputed to be well worth the investment). Daily breakfast can be American or Japanese style, and Japanese newspapers are also available.
Rack (listed rates) run $275-$365, with suites from $500 to $2,000. Because the hotel serves such a large business clientele, however, if you’ll be here on the weekend, between January and March, in August, or over holidays, you should be able to snag a room for much less -- $139-$249.
Hotel Nikko San Francisco
222 MASON STREET
San Francisco, California 94102
Hotel | "Pan Pacific Hotel"
The Pan Pacific is a topnotch hotel two blocks from Union Square with an international focus: sophisticated, well appointed, and packed with luxury amenities. Part of a hotel group with properties all around the Pacific Rim, the hotel has a multilingual staff prepared to serve guests from any continent, and a range of services to ensure that guests will feel utterly pampered.
This is a large hotel, with 338 rooms, and you’ll feel it in the lobby, which is the floor level of a lofty atrium which reaches up through the middle of the entire hotel. The lobby is unusually located on the third floor. The advantage is that, since it does not have doors opening on the street, it is uncommonly peaceful and therefore a very nice place to linger. In addition to the striking central area with its boldly patterned marble floor and dramatic sculpture, there is a casual bar area and restaurant. On Saturday nights, the grand piano is manned and the music wafts through the lobby and up through the atrium. Warning for acrophobes: if the glass elevators present a challenge for you, stand just inside the door facing toward the doors and you’ll only see the brass entry and not the view down.
The rooms are unusually spacious and elegantly tailored, decorated in tan and white with maroon accents. The rich dark furniture is set off by the plush white down comforters. All rooms have a sleek new flat LCD TV with HBO and in-room movies. Business travelers will appreciate the computer dataport, three telephones, and fax machine. The bathrooms, both spacious and luxurious, had all the amenities and sleek modern flair, with rose-beige Portuguese marble floors and walls and enormous mirrors – and a TV too! There’s a wall button which will summon a valet for complimentary service 24 hours a day: they’ll fetch you a pillow, some dental floss, a hamburger from McDonald’s – whatever you’d like! In-room massage is available for an extra charge.
The hotel has a business center and a fitness center, and laundry service is available. Complimentary newspapers and shoeshine are available. The concierge can help you with your activity plans, including getting theater tickets or restaurant reservations. Complimentary morning coffee is available at the bar at 6:30am daily. The Pacific Restaurant serves a choice of breakfasts – continental, American, or buffet – as well as lunch and dinner. When you’re ready to head out, the hotel provides complimentary car service to anywhere within six blocks, particularly wonderful if it’s raining! For those heading farther afield in damp weather, complimentary umbrellas are available.
While the Pan Pacific’s rack rate is $395, typically you can get a room for somewhere between $149-$229. Because the hotel serves a lot of business travelers, you may find lower rates on weekends, in August, and over holidays.
JW Marriott San Francisco Union Square
500 Post Street
San Francisco, California 94102
Behind its rather plain brick façade, the Campton Place is a plush boutique hotel with 110 luscious rooms and a delightful staff, located only half a block from Union Square. Don’t be misled by the unassuming exterior; the instant you walk in, you’ll know you’re somewhere special. The lobby is intimate and plush with luxurious Asian touches in the ceramic pieces and hanging art; the color scheme is beige and brown with coral accents, very restful to the eye. The staff is very professional and attentive and quick with a smile.
Rooms are lushly furnished in soothing beige spiced with rust touches. Bedding is luxurious down; the beds looked incredibly inviting, with plump covers and four fat pillows. Each room is outfitted with a leather-topped desk and a chaise or an upholstered window seat; some have views over Union Square. Suites are luxuriously furnished in rich pearwood and light, elegant fabrics. Artwork is subtly Japanese but unobtrusive; it’s intended as background. The bathrooms were luxuriously large with beige marble tub surrounds and sleek pearwood-framed vanities; some had French doors. Closet space was more than ample. Room amenities included safe, minibar, playstation, CD player, and T1 access for internet. Laundry, dry-cleaning, and concierge service is available.
The Campton Place is constructed from two buildings which have been combined into one. As a result, you’ll have a half-flight of steps up to some of the rooms. If stairs will cause you difficulty, be sure to say so when you make your reservation, so they can reserve you a room on the elevator level.
This hotel also states it is "pet-friendly," perhaps unusual for a hotel outfitted so luxuriously; still, your pet will cost you $35 extra per day.
The hotel has a roof-top fitness center with a canvas awning; you can gaze out over Union Square while you put in your treadmill or exercise-bike time. The restaurant, serving French-Mediterranean cuisine, has a 3 ½ star rating and is overseen by a chef nominated for a James Beard award. There is also a bar, and room service is available 24 hours a day. The concierge can assist you in making any entertainment arrangements you would like.
Rooms with a single king bed range from $335-$470, while double-doubles run $445. Midrange suites run $550-$850, and luxury suites run $1,800-$2,000.
Campton Place Hotel
340 Stockton Street
San Francisco, California 94108