Friday night at the Fairmont

In a city like San Francisco, nothing beats having a longtime local as your personal tour guide. And if that local also happens to be a great friend, then your blessings are doubled. Friends know what you like and don’t like, where you’re comfortable and where you’re not, and how you’re changing moods can quickly alter the daily itinerary. I’m lucky to have such a friend, one whom, at the slightest suggestion, instantly comes up with the perfect place to eat, drink, stay, and play.

So it was on a recent visit that I scored a room for one night at one of the SF’s most iconic landmarks, a place I’d always wanted to stay but as yet hadn’t. The Fairmont Hotel is the very personification of the city by the bay. From its stately perch on Mason Street at the top of Nob Hill, the hotel holds a veritable reign over the city, a towering symbol of turn-of-the century wealth and luxury. The nearly 600 rooms are spread over nine floors and a 325-foot-tall tower, all designed in the Beaux Arts style and now an honored entry on the National Register of Historic Places.

Driving into town on a Friday afternoon, I was giddy with excitement, as was my aforementioned friend who had spent years raving about the place. Being the history buff that I am, I couldn’t help doing a little research pre-visit. Nearly completed in 1906, the Great Earthquake and ensuing fire took a heavy toll on the hotel, which had designed and engineered by renowned Bay Area architect Julia Morgan. Reopening a year later, the Fairmont was the place to stay for the country’s Gilded Age movers and shakers. Surprisingly, at the close of World War II the charter of the United Nations was drafted in the hotel’s Garden Room. And throughout the decades of national heroes and hippies, celluloid celebrities and sports legends, the Fairmont retained its classical demeanor as a place to see and be seen.

Not surprisingly, the Fairmont’s lobby is nothing short of palatial, with architectural details and adornments that defy the imagination. Arriving at my room—a queen-size in the main building—I found it to be exceedingly comfortable without being ostentatious or overdone, a surprising contrast to the public areas. Before long, the knock on my door that I’d been waiting for came, and after a bit of catching up and some time spent looking out over the city from the windows, we headed down to the equally-renowned—and somewhat notorious—Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, where out-of-this-world kitsch amidst a tropical atmosphere was in full swing.

The Tonga Room opened in 1967, and quickly became famous for being the city’s best Tiki bar. Casual and absolutely un-fussy, the décor is dazzling if not a little overwhelming—imagine Pirates of the Caribbean-meets-Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti. Tucking into a couple of the bar’s signature Mai Tais, it wasn’t long before we were totally immersed in the TGIF-mood, with myriad businessmen and casually-attired locals quickly filling the tables and bar. We ordered up some appetizers a la Pacific Rim cuisine, and over the next several hours made some new friends as a live band cranked out tunes. A late dinner of free-range steaks and organic salads at the Laurel Court Restaurant—also at the Fairmont—came next, followed by some bar hopping on the town and a great night’s sleep.

After checking out the next morning, my friend reappeared and suggested we indulge in that most San Franciscan of traditions—afternoon tea. As was typical during my (too short) stay at the Fairmont, service was impeccable, friendly and efficient and, at times, refreshingly playful. Perhaps soon I’ll find myself staying once again at this grande dame of the city, but until then my taste of Gilded Age luxury and Mai Tais will sustain my wanderlust.

Peter Rerig is a Senior Writer for Vacations.com.

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Comments (1)

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  1. I was in the penthouse suite, allegedly a favourite of Marilyn Munroe last Monday, attending a function, not staying over, sadly. Truly a lovely hotel.

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