Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
Historic and elegant -- one of San Francisco's true grand old dames -- but its past is more interesting than its present
Whatever drawbacks the Palace has -- and it has a few -- you have to give it this: The place boasts some serious history. When it was built in 1875 -- it's the oldest hotel in San Francisco -- it was thought to be the world's costliest, most luxurious hotel. In 1906, however, the famous earthquake -- and subsequent fire that swept through the city -- demolished the property. It reopened, completely redesigned, in 1909, and it been played up its (sort-of) 100th anniversary in 2009 -- note the 10-layer, 400-pound anniversary cake that was in the lobby. (115 of those pounds? Butter. Yes, seriously.) Eight U.S. presidents have visited the Palace, including both Roosevelts, along with John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Oscar Wilde, among others. (For more on the hotel's venerable past, click here.)
A lot has happened since the days of the Roosevelts, culminating in the Palace becoming a Luxury Collection property (one of Starwoods' top-tier brands, a notch below the St. Regis), complete with everything that entails, including the ability to earn Starwood Preferred Guest points and a clientele that veers toward business people and conventioneers. For leisure travelers, all of that adds up to some trade-offs. On the one hand, the quality and consistency of an upper-middle-range chain property; on the other, a less-than-leisurely atmosphere in a large, impersonal setting. Some might even find it downright boring; for instance, the bar takes last call before midnight, even on weekends. Strangely, the most egregiously corporate aspect of the hotel has nothing to do with Starwood. The Palace's owners, a Japanese company called Kyo-ya, have littered the property with placards touting their eponymously named sushi restaurant, which is attached to the hotel. The ads are so ubiquitous that it almost feels like the hotel has become a shill for one of its eateries.
Still, the Palace is aptly named -- the building is indeed palatial. With 553 rooms on only eight stories -- do the math -- each floor houses long, enormous corridors reminiscent of those from The Shining ("Come and play with us, Danny -- forever and ever..."). Alas, the building and its elaborate turn-of-the-20th-century appointments -- vaulted archways, crystal chandeliers, throne-like chairs -- are the Palace's highlights, and those features might not affect your stay as much as the hotel's service, amenities, and room quality. The latter are still all excellent, if not quite up there with the similarly priced Le Meridien or W. It's a Palace, after all. You can't go too wrong.
Amply staffed and friendly enough, but nothing extraordinary
The Palace is pretty much what you'd expect, service-wise, from a Luxury Collection hotel: efficient and cordial but not doting, and a tad inconsistent. Overall, though, you can expect mostly competent service.
The Palace has an odd location on Market Street that's sleepy on the weekends and dead at night. It's sort of no-man's land: It's technically the border between Financial District South and SoMa ("South of Market"), known for its museums and art scene. (If you have business in the Financial District, you might prefer the Meridien (another Starwood) or the Hyatt Regency, which are more centrally located in the heart of the corporate action.) It's also only three blocks to Union Square, which is famous mostly for high-end shopping. The best thing about the Palace's location might be its proximity to the Montgomery Street BART station, the electric train system serving the Bay area, which is right outside the hotel's doors. You can get from SFO airport to the Palace cheaply.
Lots of turn-of-the-20th-century charm and a little 21st-century technology, but not much else
The Palace's rooms are not the reason to stay here. They're classy and comfy but a bit worn and torn (they were last renovated in 2002) -- and, at 300 square feet for the most basic room type (Superior), they are far from palatial. Although rooms in San Francisco tend to run small, especially at the old hotels, the rooms at the Palace feel particularly "cozy." Maybe it is the presence of the wardrobe rather than an in-set closet, or the fact that the small window looks out upon another building (though even the rooms with the best views just overlook Market Street). Whatever it was, rooms felt far, um, cozier than ones at similarly priced hotels like the Fairmont. The room with two double beds felt positively cramped. Deluxe Rooms, which run about 340 square feet, cost more than Superior Rooms, but the upgrade might be worth it.
There were some issues. In the double-bed room, the overhead bathroom light didn't work, and the placement of the beds' reading lights was strange -- on the outside, next to the walls, rather than near the nightstand. No in-room coffee supplies, strange for a hotel at this price point. These stains, scratches, dents, and mold growth (see Cleanliness, below).
As you'd expect for a large, high-end spot, the Palace boasts an impressive collection of features. Besides the big-hotel standards -- gym, Wi-Fi in the lobby and rooms, business amenities aplenty -- there's an excellent indoor pool, which is rare for San Francisco (although not as rare as you might think, given the weather -- even cheaper places like the Marriott San Francisco and Radisson Fisherman's Wharf have pools). The pool may well be a draw in and of itself: Two teens we met there said they come on overnight trips to the city to hang out and swim. Unfortunately, the accompanying Jacuzzi was less alluring; it was filthy our first night there and drained the following day.
Not great for younger kids, but there's no reason not to take the family
Because of its grand-old-dame vibe (turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, antiquish furniture, conservative decor) and large number of corporate guests, the Palace isn't ideal for families with young children. A father we met said that other than the pool, which his three young girls enjoyed, he didn't find the Palace kid-friendly.
Overall, the property is well maintained, and cleanliness, strictly speaking, isn't an issue -- everything was operational and hygienic. But the rooms and most public spaces were last renovated in 2002; nothing feels fresh and new, like it does at some of the Palace's competitors, such as the Meridien.
Some great options on-site -- and a good thing too, because there's not much nearby
The Palace boasts three restaurants -- including a sushi place, Kyo-ya, that the hotel ubiquitously hypes (see Scene, above) -- plus a bar that also serves decent pub grub. But all conversation must begin with the hotel's legendary Sunday jazz brunch, served in the enormous Garden Court restaurant. Actually, to call it a restaurant is grossly misleading. It's more like an enormous, extravagant ballroom that happens to host meals. We're talking 40- to 50-foot vaulted ceilings, neoclassical marble columns, and six-foot-wide crystal chandeliers, topped by a sunlit translucent windowed ceiling. And that's just the setting. On Sundays, brunch is served there -- a most impressive spread. Sushi (with sushi chef), omelets (with omelet chef), crepes (with crepe chef), fresh fruit, sandwiches, salads, oysters on the half shell ... you name it, it's there. Plus unlimited coffee, orange juice, and champagne. It's not just quantity, either. Thoughtful touches like flame-heated syrup add class to the experience. And for your aural pleasure, a jazz trio. Just be sure to prepare your stomach -- and, afterward, your eyeballs. The cost of such fine living is not cheap.
Boasting ample turn-of-the-20th-century elegance and 550 rooms on only eight floors (dig these corridors), the Palace is aptly named -- it is indeed palatial. But other than a nice indoor pool and an elaborate Sunday brunch, few features distinguish this business-oriented Starwood from its competitors. If you can find a better deal at the Fairmont, you may be better off.