Palace Hotel describes itself as San Francisco’s first luxury hotel, iconic, and these things are true. It is quite storied and beautiful, one of a certain era of hotels that keep the opulence of those bygone days of glamour alive, those plush, high-ceilinged, grand hotels where presidents and movie stars slept and regular folk could stay or drink and see and be seen. For example, The Garden Court, also called the Palm Court, is a lovely room with Beaux Arts style leaded glass ceilings that reminded me very much of the beautiful dining room in Paris’ Hotel Vernet, where one can feel quite glamorous over weekend brunch and weekday high tea.
And there are other original details, such as this amazing 1909 solid brass post box with glass chute. It’s no longer in use but fun to imagine some visiting dignitary dropping a letter in here.
Plus, it’s got some literary chops; as Wikipedia reports:
- The last chapter of the third part of the main story in the 2007 novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter by American writer Joyce Carol Oates takes place at the Palace Hotel.
- In Time of Fog and Fire by writer Rhys Bowen, the protagonist, Molly Murphy Sullivan, travels to San Francisco and stays at the Palace Hotel while searching for her missing husband, days before the 1906 earthquake, describing the aftermath of the city’s destruction and chaos.
- And for some fun foodie trivia, this is where Green Goddess dressing was invented in 1923 by hotel chef Philip Roemer in honor of the actor George Arliss, who was staying in the hotel while performing in William Archer’s play of the same name.
But a hotel can’t rest only on past laurels. It was updated several years ago, but the remodel really only serves to make it feel like the Miss Havisham of hotels, if Miss Havisham traded in her dirty, tattered wedding dress for an equally vintage twinset and pearls. The primary issue seemed to be an inefficient air handling system. The lobby smelled vaguely powdery and flowery, like the perfume your grandmother would have worn were she born during the Great War. The rooms secrete a subtle decades-old perfume and cigarettes smell, and all the spaces we were in all felt humid and stuffy, especially the famed Pied Piper Bar and the indoor pool.
We had especially wanted to spend time next to the pool. The photos were enticing, depicting a “newly renovated” room with a rectangular pool and with glass ceilings through which to enjoy the San Francisco skyline. But there wasn’t enough ventilation to keep the room from smelling uncomfortably over-chlorinated. It was too warm, to smelly, too humid, and too loud. It was a letdown.
And the modern room updates were oddly challenging. The lever of the shower was strangely difficult to turn, and once I could move it, it was unclear which lever and handle did what and when. I’ve stayed in, at last count, 156 different hotels, so I’m used to wrangling unfamiliar shower configurations. This one came close to defeating me. Then the Toto Washlet, the combination bidet/toilet seat touted as a feature on our upgraded room, was … not really what one wants from a toilet seat. It was very soft and cushy. And very, very warm. You could probably get used to sinking into a warm toilet seat if you had insomnia on a cold winter’s night and took your book in there to read so as not to keep your partner awake, but they would wake up anyway, because as soon as you sit on that seat, or put your foot on it to paint your toenails, or place your toiletry bag on top because the counter space was challenging, a loud fan is triggered that says on as long as there is any pressure on the seat at all and continues on for several very long minutes afterward.
Sleeping was difficult. It may have been ghosts of parties past that were haunting the room, but both of us kept hearing phantom music coming in through the air handling system along with that cloying old-floral-cologne smell. It reminded me of the time our room in Paris was located 5 floors above the hotel disco and we were treated to subtle bass and cymbal sounds until the wee hours of the morning. Then there was the frequent sound of car windows being smashed and subsequent car alarms going off all night – which was in no way the fault of the hotel, just an unfortunate byproduct of being located in San Francisco, a city plagued with constant car break-ins. But there was a bit of a worry if the valet would bring our BMW back to us unscathed.
The lesson here is that iconic luxury can come at the sacrifice of comfort. So despite the gorgeous architecture, San Francisco history, excellent location on Market Street with an easy and safe walk to the SMFOMA, SOMA restaurants, the Financial District, Union Square, the Moscone Center, Bloomingdale’s, and the Embarcadero/Ferry Building/AT&T Park area, and despite it being part of the Starwood/Marriott Luxury collection, I’m going to have to recommend you take your tourist dollar to another hotel. You’ll be able to breathe better down the street at the W.