The CLIFT: Hip Hotel Meets Mod Museum

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By Christina Dunham

After battling the Dreamforce gridlock in SoMa, I manage to find my way to the CLIFT hotel on Geary and Taylor. I step through the hotel’s lavender vestibule, and finally relax. It’s 4:45pm, and I have about 15 minutes to check-in, drop off my bag, and meander over to the Redwood Room for welcome cocktails with Ward Childs, CLIFT’s General Manager, and Catherine Hunter of Wagstaff Worldwide, our hosts for the evening.

Located in the heart of the theater district just a few steps from Union Square and minutes away from Nob Hill and Moscone Center, the CLIFT hotel is the ideal home base for a weekend of sightseeing, shopping and socializing in San Francisco. I am here for the Winter FAM event, a mini-getaway honoring the changing of the seasons, organized for local journalists by Wagstaff Worldwide and the Morgans Hotel Group. Established in New York in 1984 by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell (founders of the storied Studio 54), Morgans Hotel Group is the originator of the boutique hotel concept.

Ward explains, “Ian and Steve wanted to create the anti-hotel. They didn’t want big and stuffy… more like the boutique shops of Madison Ave. Smaller spaces, more intimate environment, more engaging. Really focusing on lifestyle, and speaking to lovers of art, fashion and music.”

Take the CLIFT’s lobby, designed by Schrager himself along with Philippe Starck who is best known for his fluid forms and playful style. Soaring ceilings along with club-like mood-lighting and music, provide an intimate feel, akin to a sexy lounge. While most lobbies are nothing more than cavernous transient waiting areas, the CLIFT’s lobby invites you to sit, sip and stay awhile.

Home to a quirky collection of funky, fantastical furniture, the CLIFT boasts the most eclectic and expensive pieces of furniture California, valued at over $2 million: chairs from Ray and Charles Eames; an “egg” coffee table (one of three in the world) and a “melting” lamp by Salvador Dali; a surreal stool by Renee Marguerite; and a bronze octopus-like custom chair by William Sawaya (Ward refers to it as the “juicer” chair). Anchoring the space is a 35-foot fireplace with a Bronze chimney sculpture by Gerard Garouste.

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Taking center stage is Starck’s Big Arm Chair, spectacularly oversized and valued at over half a million dollars. “It costs $7,000 a year to re-upholster it,” adds Ward. Understandably so, since it’s one of the most sat upon and photographed chairs in the city.

One thing you won’t find here, however, is a clock. To aid with decompression, I later find out.

Ward, who has been with the hotel 2 ½ years, continues to regale us with the CLIFT Hotel’s celebrated past. “The hotel will be 100 years old in 2015. Did you know this used to be a Ritz Carlton?” he asks. He proceeds to talk about the Redwood Room, CNN’s pick as one of the Top 15 Hotel Bars in the World. Established in 1934, the Redwood Room’s dark-paneled walls are said to have been carved from a single 2000-year old Redwood tree. An ever-changing array of digital art displayed on framed flat-screens adorn the walls, including 90-second animated loops created by Design Paris.

“When Schrager and Rubell took over the property, there was an outburst because the locals were afraid the Redwood Room would be turned into another Studio 54,” Ward exclaims. After the $50 million makeover, the entire city heaved a huge sigh of relief, as Schrager retained the original structure and warmth, albeit infusing a bit of whimsy, outfitting the space with furnishings fashioned by Starck.

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At 6:00pm, we are ushered into the Velvet Room next door to sample some of CLIFT Executive Chef Thomas Weibull’s creations. Clad in floor to ceiling red velvet drapes, the dramatic Velvet Room’s mahogany leather banquettes and hand-blown Murano glass lamps evoke a “Great Gatsby”-like elegance. As with many of the public spaces on the first floor, the purposefully dim lighting creates a decidedly sedate mood.

There are twelve of us at dinner, with Catherine seated at the head of the table. Soon, the dishes start arriving: Kale & Frisee Salad with a Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette, Acadia Blue Mussels with Smoked Bacon and Cream, Catalan Albondigas with Shaved Manchego, Roasted Bone Marrow with Pickled Shallot Marmalade, Grilled Flatbread with Fontina and Mushroom, and Crisp Truffle Fries. And that’s just to whet the palate. For my main course, I feast on the Maple Braised Kurobuta Pork Short Rib served with Smoked Bacon Cheddar Grits, while my husband enjoys a Pan-Roasted Rib-eye.

Chef Thomas Weibull’s delicious offerinngs at The Velvet Room

One thing on the menu no one thought to order is the Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Green Bean salad, seemingly out of place among the haute cuisine entrees. But such is the genius of Weibull. Trained at Kristineberg Hotel & Restaurant School in Sweden, Weibull has worked at some of the top restaurants in San Francisco, including One Market, Aqua, Rubicon and Plouf. Initially drawn to the history and vision of Morgans Hotel Group, Weibull felt uniquely suited to make the shift from restaurant service to a hotel food and beverage format. “I think it has a lot to do with the way I was educated,” Weibull says of the transition. “It really helps that I was taught to do what I do in Europe, all of my schooling had a definite hospitality flare – a quality that is emphasized in institutions overseas.”

As the last of the dinner plates are cleared, Catherine reminds us that we are on a timeline, as part of the Winter Adventure includes orchestra tickets to the eight o’clock showing of Peter and the Star Catcher at the Curran Theater. Soon dessert arrives, a sampling of Warm Chocolate Brioche, Strawberry Cheesecake and Baba Au Rum with Chantilly Cream, which our party quickly devours.

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Luckily, Curran Theater is just next door, a mere two minute walk. Based on the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Star Catcher is dubbed as a grown-up prequel to Peter Pan. The set is very bare, with only two scene changes. Elements like squeaky doors, cramped sleeping quarters and a giant alligator are merely suggested. There is no orchestra. Just a piano player and a one-man band/sound-effects creator on a raised platform above stage left.

Catherine informs everyone that she will be at the Living Room around 11:00 p.m. if we’d like to join her for a late-night drink. We get back to the CLIFT at 10:45 p.m. I am unable to rally and partake of a nightcap, too exhausted from the excitement of the day. I sink into the feather-soft bed, surrounding myself with an avalanche of pillows, and quickly doze off.

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The next morning’s agenda includes breakfast with the CLIFT’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Carolyn Yim, inside the Spanish Suite, followed by an “ethos tour” headed by Hotel Manager Matthew Hittleman. Ethos, which means characteristic spirit or essence, aptly describes the tour, as Matthew expertly and passionately describes the ethos of the design, from entry vestibule to wall color choices.

Matthew reveals that the color of the guest room walls was specially concocted by Starck, who also custom-designed each piece of furniture. The muted-sand tone acts like a chameleon, changing hues depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun.

And while most of the hotel and furnishings were designed by Starck, two areas were left in the able hands of Ralph Lauren: the East Geary Lounge and the Living Room, located right off the lobby. Both spaces are noticeably more subdued, with low leather sofas, club chairs and dark wood furniture evocative of an English hunting lodge. Surrounding the walls of the Living Room are 287 black-and-white animal prints by Jean Baptiste Mondino.

Private Apartment

As the tour comes to a close, Catherine invites everyone to join her for the last activity of the day: skating at the Union Square Holiday Ice Rink. It’s a quick two-block jaunt to Union Square, a 2.6 acre public plaza surrounded by upscale department stores, hip hotels, boutiques, and art galleries. As Catherine and the rest of the crew lace up their skates, I explore the rest of the plaza, taking photos of the 80-foot Christmas tree and the 97-foot monument dedicated to Admiral Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. We head back to the CLIFT just before 2:00 p.m. and bid our adieus. And as I drive away, I am reminded of what Matthew said: “Our mission is to forge emotional connections and form lasting relationships. If I’m not doing that, then I’m not doing my job.” In that, he succeeded, as I am left with nothing but a sense of gratitude and admiration for the CLIFT, and for all the people who made our mini-getaway a memorable one.

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495 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.775.4700

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