Where to stay in San Francisco: Reviewing The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel, a Philippe Starck-designed historic landmark

Old, but blazing with splendour

share the story

You’d think with all the tech money San Francisco would look like a city of the future, overrun with shiny skyscrapers and smart city technologies. But no; the Golden City is determinedly 19th-century. From the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square to the hippie Haight-Ashbury district, SF is — and Architectural Digest agrees — home to some of the world’s most beautiful Victorian architecture (though many were constructed post-colonial, after the major 1906 earthquake and that destroyed the city).

The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel along Geary Street is San Francisco’s distillation — a curious composite of glamour, surrealism and an irrepressible sense of fun. Born as raised as a hotel in 1913, it was started by attorney Frederick C. Clift and was billed as the first hotel in the city to be fire- and earthquake-proof. Nearly a decade later, an additional three floors were added to the building and it became the largest hotel in the state. Four Seasons Hotels acquired the property in 1976 — their first in the US — and renamed Four Seasons Clift Hotel. Fast forward to 1999, Ian Schrager, the hotel impresario who’s often associated with co-creating the Boutique Hotel category of accommodation, took over and gave it a $50 million makeover, together with celebrated designer Philippe Starck. The hotel reopened in 2001. Sonesta Hotels assumed management in May last year.

Though it’s been around for more than a century and hasn’t yet seen a major facelift since Schrager’s acquisition, The Clift is still achingly cool. Inside the front door, the dark, imposing lobby boasts soaring ceilings, a gas fireplace framed by a 2,500-ton bronze mantelpiece, Eames chairs, a Salvador Dali coffee table, a cast bronze four seater by William Sawya, the surrealist Apple Stool inspired by artist Rene? Magritte, and (literally) The Big Chair by Starck with Alice in Wonderland vibes.

The rooms, by contrast, are light and bright. Outfitted with custom-designed furniture by Philippe Starck, the colour scheme — inspired by a classic Californian sunset — is a soft, soothing palette of ivory, beige and gray, accented by pops of lavender and orange in the acrylic table and chairs. The English sycamore king sleigh bed is dressed in 300 thread-count bedding, down duvet and fluffy pillows to help you get some deep, restorative sleep. Bathrooms, unfortunately, are small, plainly tiled, and aren’t quite as pretty as the rest of the interiors — though the Malin + Goetz products did find their way into the suitcase. Minibar raiders will find an eclectic variety of munchies — from nuts and gummy bears to beef jerky — to snack on, and enough booze to fuel a small party.

Unless you’re looking to get your day-drink on (read: before 4pm), the Clift’s legendary bar is the place to be, even if you’re not staying in the rooms above. Many of the city’s hotel bars aren’t frequented by locals, but this one packs in the young urbanites, rich businessmen and bottle blondes. Opened in 1934, the Redwood Room is one of the oldest bar in San Francisco, lovingly restored and reinvented as a smouldering, old-world drinking den that is part hunting lodge and part gentleman’s club. The original redwood paneling, as well as the enormous bar, said to be carved from a single redwood tree, had been retained from the old days, completed with Starck-designed lounge furniture and plasma screens which shows oil painting with creepy shifting eyes. The cocktails here are top-notch — the martinis are a hit and the negroni is strong, yet well-balanced.

While The Clift could most certainly use a refresh — in fact, the hotel’s director of meetings and events said during our tour that it will undergo a renovation in the near future — and coffee machines in the rooms, the San Francisco icon is still worth spending time in. The warm, on-it hospitality from the hotel crew makes you feel right at home in an unobtrusive way, and there’s that sense of wonder and mystic that only comes with a storied, decadent place filled with secrets and history.

The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel is located at 495 Geary Street, San Francisco, California 94102, United States. Visit its website to book a stay.