From Champagne toasts at the Top of the Mark to curried lobster in the belly of Campton Place, rooftop burgers at Charmaine’s to duck-fat fries by the fire at the Four Seasons, there are some dazzling hotel restaurants and bars in San Francisco. Defying stuffy stereotypes, they unlock rare dining experiences in the city, frequented by just as many locals as tourists. But with tourism at a standstill in San Francisco and many of those hotels without guests, hotel bars and restaurants are in an extremely tough position.
The pandemic is hitting the travel industry hard — as of last month, 44 percent of SF hotels remain closed, and nearly 11,000 workers have been laid off, according to the Hotel Council of SF and the state Employment Development Department (EDD). Some, like the Proper Hotel, are sheltering a few essential workers, while others, like the Four Seasons, have a handful of permanent residents. Many others have closed their doors completely, including the Fairmont, that historic landmark at the top of Nob Hill that currently stands empty, from its elegant suites to its underground tiki den.
Some hotel restaurants run independently from the hotels they occupy, and face challenges familiar to most other restaurants. It’s easy to forget that Michelin-starred Kin Khao and the stunning new Nari are in fact hotel restaurants, each borrowing a corner on the ground floor of the Parc 55 Hotel and Hotel Kabuki. These modern Thai beauties operate as totally separate businesses, they just happen to have boutique hotels as landlords.
Kin Khao has a “tiny, tiny kitchen,” Chef Pim Techamuanvivit tells Eater SF, and it’s been closed since the beginning of shelter in place. In contrast, Nari (which has a bigger space) has stayed open for takeout. Techamuanvivit says the decision to close her star restaurant had less to do with the hotel being closed, as Kin Khao is usually so popular with locals, she regularly has to turn away hotel guests. Like other restaurants across the city, it came down to questions of space and location. “Union Square is just a neighborhood that doesn’t have people right now,” Techamuanvivit says.
Other hotel restaurants are part of a big luxury hotel group, which calls the opening and closure shots. Calling up chef Srijith Gopinathan of Campton Place, the star chef is answering from the hotel’s empty lobby, where he says he’s covering calls at its front desk. But why, chef? He’s just keeping an eye on the crown jewel restaurant that brought him two Michelin stars. The hotel closed in March, and the restaurant with it, he had no choice in the matter. He hopes that both will reopen in the fall, and in the meantime, he’s spending his time rewriting his menus and recipes.
Campton Place is owned by Taj Hotels, which is in turn owned by Tata Group, one of the oldest and wealthiest conglomerates in India. “The good side is that we are able to attract people and pay them a little more,” Gopinathan explains. “The funding is more fluid.” He says that his furloughed staff are still receiving benefits, and will have jobs to come back to when indoor dining returns. In the meantime, the restaurant still has the resources to do some painting and repairs, while he writes a grab-and-go menu, switching from poached lobster to, well, sandwiches.
A few hotels also have the luxury of rooftops, opening up into outdoor dining spaces long before they were ubiquitous. Any kind of parking lot or alley is an advantage at the moment, although in the case of hotel rooftops, diners do have to be brave enough to step into the confines of an elevator. Chef Jason Fox recently checked in as the new head chef of Hotel Proper SF, taking on the dining operations from Villon restaurant in the lobby to Charmaine’s bar on the roof.
In June, he effectively flipped the restaurant scripts. Previously, Villon served the hotel from breakfast through dinner, while Charmaine’s poured drinks at night. But now, Charmaine’s offers a new, all-day menu, and it’s possible to reserve one of the rooftop’s coveted firepits, cozy up with a cocktail, and feast on the house burger with kimchi dressing.
“It’s pretty cool. We’re pretty fortunate,” Fox tells Eater SF. “We have the space. It was designed to be comfortable. No offense to anyone who’s trying to make it work these days, but it’s not a makeshift thing. We’re lucky to be able to provide an experience.”
The Four Seasons is currently closed, but in addition to the 277 rooms, there are also 136 permanent residences occupied by luminaries like International Smoke co-founder Ayesha Curry and her NBA starring spouse, Steph. That means that MKT restaurant and bar, best known for Benedict brunches and duck-fat fries by the fire, is still serving takeout to tenants during limited hours.
MKT’s chef, Cyrille Pannier, has worked for the Four Seasons for 26 years, traveling the world from London to Palm Springs, the Caribbean to California. He loves the sheer scale of hotel dining, from the room service to the banquets. “It’s not easy to create menus that are so extensive,” says Pannier.
There’s an art to room service in particular, he says. “Travelers want something healthy, but also something that brings them home.” But now, he says, the hotel feels like a “ghost” of its former self. The kitchen is usually open 24 hours a day, but now, the burgers are no longer riding the elevators at all hours of the night.
San Francisco hotel restaurants also have rich histories and traditions. Of the greats at the top of Nob Hill, the Top of the Mark surveys them all, raising glasses to the tune of live music with sweeping views of the city and bay. The bar is going on eight decades of business inside the Mark Hopkins, with one server who’s worked there for five. And there’s a tradition of servicemen coming back year after year, leaving bottles behind the bar for members of their squadron.
“When you say Mark Hopkins, it goes hand in hand with Top of the Mark, and it will reopen,” reassures Jaap Boelens, director of food and beverage. “It’s incredibly important.” At the moment, the hotel is closed to the public, housing a few essential workers only. When possible, they plan to reopen for outdoor dining, setting a few tables in the hotel’s front courtyard. But it will take the longest for the Top of the Mark to reopen, given that tight squeeze in a long elevator ride up.
The hotel’s buffet brunches will also have to go, given the service style, but they will never surrender the bubbles. Top of the Mark isn’t a neighborhood bar with Friday night regulars, it’s where people come back for big celebratory moments, Boelens says. December is it’s busiest month, fully booked with holiday teas.
But now he waits. For the city to reopen, the hotels to reopen, and their restaurants and bars to shimmer back to life. He’s also hoping for fall, and with a pang, it’s easy to understand why. What are the holidays in San Francisco without a twirl through the gingerbread house at the Fairmount, or a glass of Champagne at the Top of the Mark?