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The Westin St. Francis
335 Powell St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

Enjoy the White Glove Treatment at this Enduring Legend

By Poppy Carew

The façade consumes an entire block

Hot on the heels of her Gold Rush glory days, San Francisco entered the 20th century as a grand dame of dubious distinction—both elegant and bawdy at the same time. That, of course, is what we adore about her. And this legacy is what makes her history so essential to her 21st century appeal. She thrives today on a sturdy foundation supported by her rich past, which owes more than a few of its notable moments to The Westin St. Francis hotel.

Host to queens, kings, shahs and every U.S. president since Taft, this hotel is as colorful as the city it inhabits. While it touts former guests such as Ronald Reagan and King Juan Carlos of Spain (and claims to have indulged Nixon's midnight cravings for Oreos), it also keeps a few secrets: Al Jolson died of a heart attack here while playing gin rummy, and Fatty Arbuckle fell from grace in one of the hallowed guestrooms—as for which room that was, your guess is as good as ours.

View of Union Square

Today, The Westin St. Francis guest list is still illustrious, and its grandeur is going strong, particularly in the main building, which anchors Union Square. In fact, it is impossible to imagine the square without this hotel: a façade that consumes an entire block, with regal red awnings and liveried doormen. Opened in 1904 by the Charles Crocker family who set out to build the finest hotel on the West Coast based on the grand hotels of Europe, this structure houses a 6,000-square-foot lobby where flower arrangements flow like fountains. Ongoing work (including a $65 million restoration started in the 1990s) assures the preservation of such sumptuous details as travertine marble, oak columns, gilded ceilings and crystal chandeliers.

Opulent State Suite

The 566 guestrooms and suites reside in the main building and a modern tower built in 1972. Bedrooms in the main building have more character, with molded ceilings, Regency colors and swagged drapery. But those in the tower are also nice: contemporary, done in a kind of simple, W Hotel-lite style (both Westin and W are owned by the Starwood Hotel Group). Suites range from upscale residential to opulently European, complete with oil portraits on the walls. Along with theme suites (Mediterranean, Asian, etc.), there is the Windsor Suite, where Queen Elizabeth II stayed, and the MacArthur Suite, which the General made his San Francisco headquarters when he returned to the U.S. Views from the bedrooms and suites vary, from excellent vistas of Union Square to limited views of surrounding buildings—we suggest you ask about this in advance.

The hotel’s culinary heritage is suitably impressive. Not only was the first chef a cook and food taster for Czar Nicholas II, the hotel managed to survive the San Francisco earthquake and serve breakfast to Enrico Caruso before being devastated by fire (it reopened just 19 months later). Today, diners can enjoy comfort food in the Oak Room and California cuisine at Bourbon Steak. The latter is the fifth location of this acclaimed Michael Mina steakhouse. The menu features fresh, seasonal West Coast fare, with ingredients sourced from local purveyors.

Michael Mina
The hotel offers all the requisite luxury accoutrements, including The St. Francis Health Club where spa treatments include massages, body wraps, salt glows and La Stone Therapy, using warmed stones from the world's oldest riverbeds. There is also a Cardio Floor with a four-screen cardio theater. Meetings and events take place in grand venues, including Alexandria's, a private party room styled after an Eastern European glass palace, and the Imperial blue and gold Victor's, inspired by the 19th century palaces of Russia. These spaces have hosted the Black and White Ball, San Francisco Symphony's opening night party and the city's annual Debutante Ball.

With a passion for the past that is charming rather than archaic, the hotel graciously integrates history into the present. It understands the importance of offering high-speed Internet access, while at the same time maintaining the world's only silver coin cleaning operation—once considered a necessity to protect ladies' white gloves. The next time you're shopping or dining in the city, and you receive a shiny nickel or dime back with your change, chances are it came from The Westin St. Francis... a modest reminder that attention to detail never goes out of style.

Going to San Francisco? Check our guide.

(Updated: 06/30/13 HC)

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