Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grand Dame of Union Square Shines

The Westin St. Francis, which has towered over San Francisco's Union Square since 1904, has undergone a $40 million renovation. I toured the hotel with General Manager Jon Kimball recently to see the redesign of the main lobby and the rooms in the historic building overlooking the square.
The new decor is both classic and contemporary, which was the concept behind the project -- to refresh the St. Francis, which is known for its elegance, sophistication and the integral role it plays in the city and its history, he said.
One of the first new features of the renovation was the Clock Bar (right) which opened just off the lobby in July last year. It's been a popular spot since then, making a name for itself for its unique cocktails.
The is a terrific place to start -- or end -- a night on the town. Two columns lined in lovely colored glass hold clocks showing the time in cities around the world. The theme springs from the St. Francis' famous Great Magneta Grandfather Clock, built in 1856 in Europe (it was shipped by steamer around Cape Horn), which has stood near the hotel entrance off and on since 1907. The clock has been a traditional meeting spot for San Franciscans.
On the other side of the lobby from the Clock Bar is one of San Francisco's most highly rated restaurants, Michael Mina, by the award-winning chef. If you love lobster and haven't yet tried Mina's Maine Lobster Potpie, make plans now.
Much more casual, in the adjacent Tower Lobby, is Caruso's, a cafe and wine bar that's open all day and evening. Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Caruso's features what's being called the Unwind Hour, with a flight of three two-ounce pours of wines paired with gourmet hors d'oeuvres. The price is $15.
The renovated guest rooms were redone in restful neutral colors, with dark wood furniture accented by light-colored walls, upholstered furniture, crystal chandeliers and the plush Westin Heavenly Beds in their snowy white linens. The beautiful old architecture really shines: the decor highlights the handsome curved high ceilings and ornate moldings.
History buffs will enjoy six new displays in the Tower Lobby. The cases, designed by Bill White, curator at San Francisco's deYoung Museum, show visitors the role the grand hotel played in the rich history of San Francisco. The cases are filled with photos, menus, china, old guest ledgers, among other interesting old pieces.
The downturn in the hotel business has brought good deals at properties all over San Francisco, including the St. Francis. An example are five packages offered in conjunction with the blockbuster King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum, which will run through March 28, 2010. Among the hotel's plans is a one-night stay, breakfast for two in the Oak Room and two tickets to the exhibit. Rates for that option start at $205 per night.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Upper Sonoma County Getaways

A surprising number of tasting rooms, shops and places to wander and dine have popped up in tiny Geyserville, which is only two or three blocks long and just north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Most recently, Pete Opatz (above), formerly of Chateau St. Jean, opened the rustic and charming Route 128 tasting room in a section of a former auto dealership (across the street from the old General Store). He makes Bordeaux varietals in the tradition of southeastern France. His flagship is the delicious Pelu Rouge, made with Zinfandel, Syrah and Viognier. One of the older tasting rooms is Meeker Vineyards in a 100-year-old bank (the wine is stored in the old vault). The winery, owned by former Hollywood studio chief Charlie Meeker, is known for its hearty reds and the fun-loving atmosphere of the tasting room.
Two of the newer Geyserville tasting rooms offer an assortment of local Alexander Valley and Dry Creek wines as well as selections from farther afield. The sleek and handsome Terriors Artisan Wines, by winemaker Kerry Damskey who specializes in "high-elevation wine" from northern California, was built in a renovated old red-brick building that once housed a print shop. It showcases four different labels produced by Damskey.
The more low-key Locals was started seven years ago to present the wines of boutique wineries in one location. Owner Carolyn Lewis (right) is usually on hand to guide a wide variety of flights for tastings.
In a light-filled modern building next door is Geyser Arts Gallery, a stylish shop selling handmade crafts and artwork from regional artists.
The big buzz in town is the departure of Santi, everyone's favorite Italian restaurant in these parts. The restaurant is moving to Santa Rosa in October, and the beautiful space is scheduled to be filled with another, as yet-unnamed, restaurant. But the culinary scene here has been kept fresh with the opening of Diavola, a pizzeria that is packing diners in with thin, crackly crusted pies (top photo) topped with delicious local and seasonal ingredients. It's the handiwork of Santi's Dino Bugica, who spent seven years in Italy where he apprenticed with cooks and butchers (Diavola also specializes in Bugica's salami and sausages).
Geyserville even has its own coffehouse. Mornings find locals heading to the tiny Geyserville Mud for a cup of joe from Thanksgiving Coffee Company, which is the favorite coffee of upper Sonoma and Mendocino County residents.
To see a bit of the farm town that Geyserville has been for more than 100 years step into the 19th century General Store, where you can usually find a few old-timers shooting the breeze. Browse through the huge collection of hats (left), buy a saddle and grab a small brown bag to stock up on nails, which are sold by the pound, just as they were in the old days. Nice way to wrap up a Sonoma County weekend getaway.