Counter Culture: A brunch stop at S.F.'s Clift Hotel

02/01/2013 12:00 AM

01/31/2013 4:24 PM

Grand-dame hotels in world-class cities seem filled with intrigue and character, generating an aura close to mystery – at least when the imagination is prodded.

At the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, for instance, one wonders who has walked through its doors over the decades, and on what assignations? What clandestine rendezvous have taken place over martinis in the bar and at multicourse dinners in the hotel restaurant? If only these walls could talk, right?

The Clift was built in the Italian Renaissance style, billing itself as the first "earthquake-proof" building in San Francisco when it opened in 1915. It was most recently updated after changing hands in 2001, but – much like the nearby St. Francis Hotel – has managed to maintain its soul.

Brunch pal Peter Eres and I were discussing all this in the Velvet Room, formerly the high-end Asia de Cuba, a cutting-edge restaurant that helped pioneer the concept of fusion cuisine. Eres is a San Francisco-based designer, veteran diner and expert home cook.

The sprawling Velvet Room has soaring ceilings, cushy leather-and-wood banquets and, yes, dark-rose velvet curtains that effectively dampen most sound. The place was eerily quiet the Sunday we were there. Drop a plate and nobody hears it.

The to-the-point seasonal menu features fare that's "locally grown in a sustainable and organic manner." We looked at omelets, smoked salmon, brioche French toast and Gulf shrimp 'n' grits. We settled on classic eggs Benedict (smoked ham and poached egg on English muffin, sauced with rich hollandaise) and an excellent seared bavette steak with scrambled eggs and diced Yukon gold potatoes mingled with tri-colored bell peppers and onion. Prices range from $9 to $24 – not out of reason, given where we were.

"This," said man-of-few-words Eres, pointing his fork at his plate, "is a good Benedict."

"Ditto the steak," I said.

Nearby was a buffet table piled with croissants and muffins, fruit and juices, farmstead cheeses and handcrafted salumi, all looking fresh and tempting ($22). Would anyone miss that croissant if I took it back to our table?

The Velvet Room also serves dinner, but there are no plans to serve lunch. Which makes sense. Hotel guests are most likely to be on property in the mornings and evenings, and out sightseeing or doing business during the day. Add to that the fierce competition for the lunchtime dollar in the Union Square area.

Though our breakfast was fine, the most interesting part of the morning was a walkabout with Clift manager Matthew Hittleman.

He toured us through the adjoining Redwood Room, the local landmark that opened shortly after Prohibition. It's been refurbished into a marvel. The entire cocktail lounge (serving appetizers) is covered in glowing redwood milled from a single 2,000-year-old redwood tree. The bar top itself was embellished with a spectacular, hand-cut Italian glass motif by designer-architect Philippe Starck. All but one of the dramatic art deco light fixtures are original.

The dimly lit lobby area holds a collection of museum-quality chairs and other furniture valued at $1.5 million. Included are the massive Big Chair by Stark; a coffee table and lamps by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali; and a cast-bronze bench and chair by Lebanese designer William Sawaya. The remarkable cast-bronze fireplace – a sculpture, really – is by French decorator Gérard Garouste. The lobby is next to a lounge called the Living Room, filled with Ralph Lauren furniture.

Well worth a look and a bite.

Clift Hotel, 495 Geary St., San Fransisco; (415) 775-4700, www.clifthotel.com.

The Velvet Room serves breakfast 7-10 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, and 7-11 a.m. weekends. Dinner is 5:30- 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; until 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

The Redwood Room is open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays, and 4 p.m.- 2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.


A peek at the Village Pub

The parking attendant brought the Batmobile up from the Clift parking garage, and we headed south to Woodside for the heck of it. We later learned it's one of the richest towns in the nation.

We went inside the unassuming Village Pub, expecting draft beer and in-the-shell peanuts (the burger was a good substitute). Instead we found a classy menu of exquisite-sounding dishes (duck schnitzel, sirloin of venison) and a wine list as thick as, well, a small phone book. (Do they still make those?) One wine-list page listed "Reds Under $80" as if they were bargains, and we spotted a French Bordeaux for $5,700.

Village Pub, 2967 Woodside Road; Woodside; (650) 851-9888, www.thevillagepub.net.


Over at Roberts Market

Closer to our version of reality was Roberts Market, a short stroll away. It began life in 1889 as a San Francisco butcher shop and now lives in a wood-floored building dating to the early 1930s.

We looked at aisles and shelves filled with fascinating gourmet goodies, then lingered over the spectacular bakery, A-list meat counter and world-class deli. In the deli cold case, grilled swordfish, lasagna and imported Italian herbed pork roast competed for space with bacon-broccoli salad and lemon-pesto linguine, crunchy with pine nuts.

If we can't live there, can we at least have one of each?

Roberts Market, 3015 Woodside Road, Woodside; (650) 851-1511, www.robertsmarket.com.

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