Still On Top

New hotels South of Market and in the Tendernob are no match for Nob Hill’s historic charms.

By Brittany Shoot

After nearly a decade of no new builds, San Francisco is undergoing a bit of a hotel boom. The just-opened AT&T Park–adjacent Hotel VIA pitches its offerings to Giants fans. In August, the San Francisco Proper hotel opened at Market and McAllister near Civic Center. And Proper will have competition when the Millennial-focused Yotel San Francisco opens at Market and Seventh Streets later this year, complete with robot concierges and capsule-style rooms reminiscent of Japanese business hotels. Both plan to cater to nearby offices of Twitter, Uber and other tech companies that have slowly attracted the restaurants and businesses that are transforming Mid-Market.

Is this too much hospitality—and in the case of the proposed Waldorf Astoria landing near the Embarcadero by 2021, too much luxury competition—for a city with established high-end properties? Hardly. In Cool Gray City of Love, his book-length love letter to the city, journalist Gary Kamiya calls iconic Nob Hill the most famous neighborhood in San Francisco. Thanks to the hilltop neighborhood’s ritzy reputation, it retains its popularity.

More than 170 years ago, the steep city summit was named for the state, and for the street that bisects it east to west. California Hill was an attractive, appropriate name. But during the building boom of the 1870s, railroad tycoons Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins—the so-called Big Four Associates—wanted to put their names, as well as their stately homes, on the hill. Each of their opulent mansions occupied an entire city block of the prime real estate. (Kamiya adds that their manors displayed “almost ludicrous excess.”) The nabobs, or the ostentatiously wealthy men of great sociopolitical influence, bestowed it with their joking reference to one another and christened it Nob Hill.

Today, Nob Hill still offers the pinnacle of luxury, at once classy and comfortable. Pristine streets and lush parks augment the residential setting. The neighborhood boasts proximity to other beautiful, bustling areas of North Beach and Union Square, but up above it all, the summit is extremely quiet—except for the constant hum of the cables that move our historic streetcars up and down the steep hills.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that Nob Hill’s popular hotels are thriving despite new properties South of Market and on the edges of the Tenderloin, including the trendy Virgin Hotel, opening at Fourth and Market at the end of this year. The reason is simple. “People want to come to Nob Hill to be a part of the myth and history,” says Maarten Drenth, General Manager at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, which celebrated its 90th anniversary last year.

Drenth explains that in addition to its notable location, the hotel’s history is part material culture. Guests often mail the hotel vintage memorabilia, and accordingly, the hotel maintains a small but impressive museum of items from the property’s history. A recent parcel of note arrived from a guest who still had the original invoice from her three-night honeymoon stay in the 1930s.

Preserving history is perhaps most top of mind these days at The Stanford Court, currently undergoing a $16 million property-wide renovation while also adding more local art and technology through out the hotel. “San Francisco has been at the forefront during many eras in its relatively short history, and we hope to capture as much of that as we can,” says area managing director Michael Baier. “The look and feel of our public spaces and guestrooms will feel more like a residence than a hotel—something we feel the modern traveler appreciates.” The one thing that won’t change? The Stanford Court’s warm, inviting, effortlessly casual service.

Nob Hill’s most exclusive hotels boast numerous thoughtful touches that nod to each respective property’s legacy. The Fairmont advertises its storied history as the birthplace of the United Nations in the world’s flags that blow in the breeze. Following its 2015 renovation, The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, offers dapper suites that pay homage to the legendary styles of former mayor Willie Brown and beloved clothier Wilkes Bashford. The Scarlet Huntington and InterContinental Mark Hopkins show off in the subtlest way of all. Both are renowned for the high-touch service provided by longtime employees, including porters and concierges, some of whom have been with their respective properties for more than four decades.

The Fairmont is a historic institution that predates the 1906 earthquake, but today, it features mobile check-in, tablets in the rooms, and Wi-Fi throughout the property. “We are traditional in our design, yet contemporary in our spirit,” explains General Manager Paul Tormey. “Do the drapes close at the touch of a button? Nope; we wouldn’t want you to miss the view of the bridges as you start your day,” he says. Guests seeking a high-tech experience will certainly enjoy automated aspects. But if someone requires assistance arranging an extra-special amenity, high-end hotels with deeply service-minded history provide unparalleled personalized service. “I still think people serve you better than your phone,” Tormey adds.

At The Stanford Court, the same attention to detail is noticeable. “Our team wears Levi’s because San Francisco is the birthplace of blue jeans,” explains Baier. “We talk about what life was like before the great quake of 1906, the fascinating individuals who lived on Nob Hill, and what they contributed to our region’s history.” Naturally, he notes, his staff is partial to Leland Stanford’s story.

As the city’s accommodation offerings expand, staying on Nob Hill remains the apogee San Francisco experience. “We may be a few steep blocks from Union Square, but our views are amazing,” Baier adds. “Nob Hill really sells itself.”

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