It occurred to us as we arrived in San Francisco and the wind blew down California Street last weekend, that this city must simply have been built strictly for one’s viewing pleasure. Streets look like postcards from little cable car windows, the fog rolls in just in time, and like Pasadena putting its best outfit for the Rose Parade, the City shows you just what you want to see, no matter when you arrive.
Our own arrival was an early Thursday afternoon on a blustery January day, with rain threatening.
We took an Uber (In this city, when you activate your Uber app, your driver is right around the corner) to our first stop, the Omni San Francisco, a stately 1926-era Florentine renaissance design building, perched just at the bottom of California at Montgomery, along one of the city’s most popular cable car routes. We would spend two nights in its welcoming opulence.
The Omni is quiet luxury in the middle of the financial district with a host of amenities and conveniences, from 24-hour dining to a 24-hour fitness center, to free wi-fi, for its travel club members (that’s free, too), and a dazzling steak house restaurant. But we’ll get to that one.
Our first night’s dinner—after a long afternoon walk across the fabled Golden Gate Bridge and its spectacular view of Alcatraz, the bay and the city—was the California Pizza Kitchen on Third Street just south of Market. It was a convenient and comfortable stop after a long day of traveling. Whether the long day and the bridge trek made everything taste better is debatable, but it was a perfect choice at that moment.
When we returned to the hotel, their deliciously cruel beds made sleeping late the next morning almost a required task.
We bundled up and spent a lazy Friday late morning with lunch at the underrated Bistro Burger, tucked into an alley off California, just around the corner from our hotel, and then boarded a cable car for the long ride to Fishermans’ Wharf. (Full disclosure: We’d been provided with a CityPass by San Francisco Tourism, which we used liberally in exploring the city.)
The brakeman warned me more than once about stretching my arm along the back of the bench seat, as it would interfere if he had to suddenly pull the emergency brake. He wouldn’t hesitate to take my arm along with it. Clearly, it never came to that.
Riding the cable cars in a brisk wind and a steady drizzle just seemed to add to the San Francisco-ness of it all. We traversed the California Street route along its length, and then circled back to transfer to the Powell Line, off to its end at the Wharf.
Fishermans’ Wharf is every tourist excess you can imagine, but on this cold winter day, the visitor numbers seemed scarce, and gee, it’s such a lovely afternoon, everyone seemed placed in the City just for the atmosphere they would provide.
We took the long walk along the embarcadero from just above Ghirardelli Square to Pier One and the Ferry Building, taking in everything slowly, and sneering at the rapacious rickshaw drivers who seemed to insist that this was no time to be walking. We strolled on, stopping to view the Alcatraz model at its dock entrance. (We’d opted out of any boat activities, as the Bay seemed to me more choppy than usual.) We admired the reinstated and refurbished collection of city buses from all over the world, which operate along the Historic F Line between Castro, Market streets and Fisherman’s Wharf as we walked.
Our destination, the Ferry Building, with its restaurants and gourmet shops, was a highlight all its own. We indulged in designer chocolates from Recchiuti Confections, enjoying them out out on the pier, as we watched commuters queue up for ferries home, up and down and across the bay. For them, it was another busy Friday, the end of a long work week. For us, it was a picture window onto a great city.
The new Bay Bridge light exhibit (http://thebaylights.org/ ) lit up as if to greet us while we nibbled, as evening fell. The exhibit, by artist Leo Villarreal, has just begun streaming nightly again, from dusk to dawn on the bridge’s west span.
The lights formed dazzling fog formations, which moved and descended hauntingly and beautifully across the bridge’s length. The light exhibit, which opened in March 2013 and shut down in December 2015, has just been made permanent, thanks to new State funding. We may have just only gotten lucky, in fact, and seen a test lighting. No matter. Beginning January 30, it will be there and all lit up the next time you come up here.
We walked back up Market Street just in time to dress for dinner at Bob’s Steak and Chop House at the Omni.
From the moment we walked in, to the last spoonful of creme brûlée, we were made to feel special here. (I should also explain, at this stage of the proceedings, that the hotels we visited “hosted” us, along with with their restaurants, which is a standard arrangement in travel journalism. There are no promises of favorable coverage, and no agenda to follow, simply an understanding that we’re eager to publicize their offerings, and they are only too happy to show us their best face.)
Seated at a cozy but cold window booth, we shared our concern with our maitre’d, who immediately whisked us off to an intimate but roomy back booth in a secluded alcove. Gee, that was easy.
A loaf of freshly baked bread arrived on cue, and the dinner procession began.
We opened with a shrimp cocktail, the crustaceans the size of a baseball, and served with our choice of remoulade or cocktail sauce. When we hesitated, they brought us both. This was followed by a bowl of clam chowder that made you want to live there.
The main course was a giant ribeye steak, topped with lump crab in a bearnaise sauce. I’ll pause here to let that sink in.
Along with that decadence were mashed potatoes better than Thanksgiving, and a school bus-sized carrot cooked in a honey/brown sugar/cinnamon mixture. It was enough to consider coming back to this world in the next life as a rabbit.
The aforementioned creme brûlée was as good as you are picturing it. Right. Now.
Saturday was an early morning, grabbing a rental car in time for the hourlong drive north to Napa for lunch on the iconic Napa Valley Wine Train.
Just over 50 miles northeast of San Francisco and about 60 miles west of Sacramento. the train runs through one of the most famous wine growing regions in the world. Only 30 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest point, the region produces some of the finest wines in the world, rivaling France and Italy for the quality of its product.
The rail line itself was built in 1864 by San Francisco’s first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, to take visitors to the resort town of Calistoga, to the north. The line parallels the path of Highway 29 , the main travel corridor through the Valley.
From the McKinstry Street Station, in Downtown Napa, we crossed the Rural Urban Limit Line (RUL) about ten minutes into the journey and into wine fields from horizon to horizon, through some of the most expensive and renowned farm real estate in America.
It’s a three hour, thirty-six mile round trip journey from Napa north to St. Helena and back, with a gourmet meal served in its historic rail cars, along with a host of local wines, of course.
We were signed up for the Grgich Hills Estate Tour, which after a sumptuous meal, dropped us off at the doors of the world-famous winery. It’s this winery that truly put its owner/winemaker Mike Grgich, and the state of California, on the map as a wine region when it bested—for the first time ever—a French wine, in a legendary 1976 New York City wine competition. Since then, it has set a standard for California wines.
Back on the train, we enjoyed dessert in one of the train’s dining cars, and watched rows and rows of wine fields whiz by, underneath a bank of clouds over the Mayacamas range to the west, bordering Sonoma County.
The Napa Valley Wine train is that perfect surprise birthday gift, best prize in your office pool, or planned getaway. It’s luxury, history and wine all wrapped up in one happy afternoon.
Leaving Napa, we pointed the rental car slightly east and south to the Berkeley/Oakland Hills area, for the truly iconic and fabulously luxurious Claremont Club and Spa, at the base of the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. The landmark hotel, viewable from across the bay in San Francisco, joined the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts company in December of 2015, joining their other world-famous Fairmont hotels, including The Plaza in New York, Fairmont Banff Springs in Canada, and The Savoy in London.
The hotel was built in 1915 after the property was originally purchased by a lucky farmer turned miner who turned it into a “castle” for his family, complete with stables. When it all burned down in a fire, the property was then “won,” the legend goes, in a checker game in 1904, by a Mr. Frank Haven. He began construction in 1905.
The hotel now offers 276 restored guest rooms and suites, which have all been recently updated by global design firm Gensler, including a new Presidential suite.
The entire hotel has been restored as part of the acquisition, in fact, and the results are, frankly, breathtaking. The lobby, one of the largest in California, is a vision in white with a long dramatic hallway entrance, spectacular chandeliers, red wing chairs, and dazzling art pieces.
There are 22 acres of landscaped gardens as well as a rejuvenating spa, with a choice of acupuncture, facials or massages available. There are also two heated pools, a children’s pool and 10 tennis courts. In fact, the hotel used to be known as the Claremont resort hotel and Tennis club, and each time we looked our the window from our corner suite overlooking San Francisco Bay, the courts were full.
Speaking of full, that’s what our days were, and after the drive back to Berkeley from Napa, some car switching around, and a nap, we were oh so ready for dinner.
We dined at what our waiter called the “second best view” table at Meritage, the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, with the far-away lights of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco twinkling “hello.”
Dinner opened with a rich mushroom soup cooked in a fish sauce with aged black garlic. The trick? Our waiter poured the soup over the chanterelle mushrooms and the garlic lying in wait at the bottom of the bowl. Superb.
The menu offerings all evening were a circus of tastes and textures, with each course (almost) besting the previous. Next up was seared scallops served with huckleberries, a raisin sultana and a dollop of polenta. There were fried pork bellies with brussel sprouts, a runner bean salad with blue lake, wax beans, romano and christmas beans. The chocolate soufflé dessert was like a day off from school with new sneakers and a ticket to a ball game. The evening was that kind of happy.
We moved slowly through the meal, and retired early.
The next day was more travel, but it was also breakfast. Back downstairs to Meritage (this time in a booth) for Blueberry & Preserved Lemon Pancakes with a streusel topping, and real Vermont maple syrup, along with some smoked salmon on toast, and that view across the bay.
The Claremont is opening its newest eatery, Antoinette, from famed chef Dominique Crenn, sometime in early 2016, and when it does, you can be sure that it’s going on our editorial calendar.
The Claremont is one of those “very special occasion” places that you remember for a lifetime. You’ll visit the Bay Area many times, but you may ever only visit the Claremont once. That will be the visit and the place that stays with you.
Now here’s the surprising part. All those photos of the drive in our slide show? They were taken from the upper deck shotgun seats of a MegaBus. That’s right. Before you scoff, it might be Southern California’s best travel secret.
We purchased seats about 45 days before our trip. They were $5. There was another $9 charge to get the best seats in the house. And there was a service charge. That’s $18 for a panoramic view high above the 5 Freeway, free wi-fi (don’t depend on it), reclining seats and power outlets. That’s even less than you would pay some stranger on Craigslist. (We’ve done that, too.)
It’s one stop near Fresno and one in Oakland on the way up, and one in Buttonwillow and one in Burbank on the way down. Along the road, you’ll see all those things you wanted to stop and admire when you were driving—cows grazing, softly rolling hills, those magnificent wind turbines, and the City of San Francisco to your right, as you cross the new Bay Bridge. All for the price of a pretty good lunch.
We’ll be back. Soon.
The Omni San Francisco
Bob’s Steak and Chop House
500 California Street (at Montgomery)
San Francisco , California 94104
Phone: (415) 677-9494
The Claremont Club and Spa, Fairmont Hotel
41 Tunnel Road
California, United States
Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry St, Napa, CA 94559
Union Station, Los Angeles