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Saturday, June 28, 2003
Special to The Globe and Mail

San Francisco is not a city that lacks luxury lodgings. But none of them -- the Sir Francis Drake, Ritz-Carlton and Pan Pacific, to name but a few -- carries the cachet and prestige of the recently revived Clift hotel. Dating from 1913, Clift was once the ne plus ultra of Bay-area accommodations, anchored by the city's most desirable cocktail lounge and its status as the home-away-from-home for nearly every celebrity passing through town. But by the time the recent millennium approached, the old lady had begun to fray a bit at the edges.

Enter boutique-hotel czar Ian Schrager, who, to much wringing of San Francisco hands, bought the grand hotel and proceeded to modernize and renovate it with the more-than-capable design assistance of Philippe Starck. The fear was that Schrager would ignore the hotel's storied past and wreak havoc with its legacy. It was a fear that proved unfounded.


Seconds after you pass through the unmarked doors of Clift, you come face to face with the hotel's signature piece: a two-metre-tall armchair, triple the normal scale, which sits as the focal point of the lobby. It's as if the designer wants the guests to feel that they've left the temporal plane and landed in a place where not everything is precisely as it seems. It is an atmospheric motif that continues with frequent stylistic nods to, and works by, surrealists such as Dali and Magritte.

The energy in the lobby is almost tangible. Even mid-morning, with only scattered guests checking in and out and a trickle of diners lazily vacating breakfast service, the sense is that "action" is about to be called and the high-ceilinged room will spring to life in an instant. On a weekend night, the flow from bar to restaurant to lounge to lobby is seamless and never ending, and the pulse of those rooms is frantic.


If Schrager's goal was to return Clift to the position of prominence it once enjoyed among the jet set -- and it's fairly apparent that this was indeed the case -- then his efforts have met with success. You don't have to be a member of the rich, hip and beautiful set to get a room here, but you will feel very much at home if you are.


The contrast between the lobby and the rooms could scarcely be more dramatic. From the frenetic mood of the main floor, guests take one of the three elevators (each eerily illuminated in orange, purple or green) to an upper level where serenity reigns. Bold design and dramatic surfaces give way to soft curves and gentle tones of lavender, grey and cream.

That feeling of tranquillity persists in the rooms, almost to the point of beige blandness. Ivory, violet and muted shades of pastels are the dominant colours, a scheme broken only by the acrylic orange night and coffee tables; wall decoration is limited to little more than large, room-expanding mirrors. The rooms are extremely comfortable but, despite clever touches such as a wheelbarrow-shaped chair and custom-designed Murano glass lamp, visually exciting they are not.


While murmurings about high-attitude service have been directed toward other Schrager properties, no such problems exist at Clift. From the friendly doormen, always quick with a smile and a "good day," to the efficient and personable desk clerks, to the eager-to-accommodate concierges, service at Clift is a testament to how guests should be treated at high-end hotels. Particularly welcome are touches such as the eccentric mini-bar selection, which includes everything from Altoids to a Zagat Restaurant Guide, and the list of off-the-beaten-track recommendations of restaurants, shops and services packaged with the room information.

Food and drink

The greatest worry in the renovation of Clift concerned the Redwood Room, a San Francisco institution and one of the grandest bars in the United States. Fortunately, Schrager and Starck have left it largely as it was, with its dramatic redwood walls intact and lush decadence undisturbed. Although I doubt the throbbing musical beat that now forms the aural ambiance would be welcomed by former regulars -- including the late San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen -- the old school would no doubt be pleased with the 21st-century Redwood Room.

Whether they would be equally delighted with the restaurant, Asia de Cuba, is another matter entirely. The theme here is "family-style" service, with large portions piled high on even larger plates. Sharing is not only encouraged, it's practically unavoidable. This, plus the back-beat that pounds as loudly in Asia de Cuba as it does in the Redwood Room, makes dinner more of a party than an intimate meal -- fine for groups, but less than perfect for couples. Dishes such as its special calamari salad, served with chayote and banana, and lobster quesadilla stuffed with Asian vegetables tastefully deliver the promised fusion of Eastern and Hispanic ingredients and techniques.

Things to do

Despite its famously rolling landscape, San Francisco is very much a city built for walking, and at Clift you are at a perfect stepping-off point. Two blocks away is the bustling Union Square, with its plethora of shopping possibilities. Only a short distance farther is the Dragon's Gate, entryway to the 24 blocks of San Francisco's famous Chinatown. Circle a little to the west and you will come to Nob Hill and its spectacular views. There's also Grace Cathedral, built in the mid-1900s as a copy of Notre Dame in Paris. A final descending stroll brings you back to Clift.


Clift: 495 Geary St., San Francisco; phone: (415) 775-4700; fax: (415) 441-4621; or visit the Web site at http://www.ianschragerhotels.com. Rooms begin at $325 a night, studios and lofts at $425 and suites at $950 (all amounts in U.S. dollars).


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