The Westin St. Francis on Union Square Rating: 4.0 Pearls
Union Square, San Francisco, California

Oyster Review Summary

Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators

Pros

  • Second-oldest hotel in city (opened 1904); fascinating -- and sordid -- history
  • Rooms in the tower are spacious and modern.
  • Borders Union Square, great for people-watching and luxury apparel buying
  • Amazing panoramic views from the glass elevators
  • Home of acclaimed Bourbon Steak restaurant by Michael Mina
  • Happening Clock Bar
  • Gym access is free for guests 24-hours a day

Cons

  • Rooms and bathrooms in the original building are small
  • Daily fee for Wi-Fi
  • Parking is pricey

Bottom Line

The St. Francis combines the history, decor, and traditions of a turn-of-the-20th-century grand old dame with the amenities, modernity, and corporate-dominated clientele of a large chain property. If you find a better deal at the similarly priced Palace or Meridien -- also business-oriented Starwoods -- go with one of those. If not, the Westin is a perfectly pleasant option.

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Oyster Hotel Review

 Scene

A nice but conventional business-oriented chain hotel wrapped in grand-old-dame history and charm

The famous clock in the lobby
The famous clock in the lobby

Built at the turn of the last century, and opened in 1904, the St. Francis is the second-oldest hotel in San Francisco, younger only than the Palace. A lot has happened since then (see history below), culminating, at least for now, in the hotel becoming a Westin, complete with everything that entails: Starwood ownership (and, importantly for some, Starwood Preferred Guest points), Westin's trademark "Heavenly" amenities, and a clientele dominated by business and convention travelers (again, those Starwood points). For leisure travelers, that adds up to some trade-offs. On the one hand, you get the quality and consistency of a chain property; on the other hand, the impersonal atmosphere in this large (1,195 rooms), setting is less than leisurely -- or even downright boring.

Still, you have to give Westin credit for its many nods to the hotel's rich history. You can find photos of a dozen or so of the St. Francis' many famous guests near the elevators. Ansel Adams portraits hang in the lobby. Even the hotel's bizarre "coin laundering" program of yesteryear -- every coin that passes through the front desk's cash registers is hand-washed -- has remained. Good luck finding that at another hotel.

And it's not just pre-World War I touches that give the St. Francis its cachet. The views from the top of the 32-story "Modern Tower" (which opened in 1971) are some of the best in the city. Take one of the glass elevators to the 31st floor (the 32nd floor is for penthouse and wedding guests only), hold down the little button with the outward-facing triangles, and enjoy the panorama. (You don't have to pay for a room to ride the elevators. Hint hint.)

In the end, it really comes down to price and location (as it so often does, I suppose). If you can get a room at the Palace, four blocks away, for a similar price, grab that instead. Ditto for Le Meridien, if being near Union Square isn't a priority. If you're choosing between the St. Francis and the W (yet another Starwood), it mostly comes down to taste: modern (W) versus classic (Westin).

 Service

Amply staffed and friendly enough, but nothing extraordinary

Adequate service, but not top-notch
Adequate service, but not top-notch

The St. Francis is exactly what you'd expect, service-wise, from a Westin: efficient and cordial but not doting.

  • 24-hour room service
  • Express checkout
  • Concierge desk open during business hours -- a short day for a big-city business hotel

 Location

Overlooks Union Square, best known for high-end shopping

The St. Francis sits on the western border of Union Square, which is famous for its couture shops and not much else. Home to enormous outposts of Niketown, Saks, Tiffany, Macy's, Louis Vuitton, and Neiman Marcus (aka "Needless Markup"), among others, Union Square is to San Francisco what Fifth Avenue is to New York and Rodeo Drive is to L.A. Locals don't hang out here, but the square is great for people-watching nonetheless, and it occasionally plays host to small festivals and demonstrations. Still, if conspicuous consumption isn't a priority, you might prefer a neighborhood closer to the city's biggest attractions, like Nob Hill or Fisherman's Wharf.

  • The Mason-Powell cable car runs right outside the hotel's front doors. It can take you to Fisherman's Wharf, or, with a transfer, to Lombard Street and Ghirardelli Square.
  • Far from the Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, and Haight-Ashbury, but then so are the other neighborhoods with major hotels
  • Discount day-of theater seats available at the Union Square ticket kiosk
  • Plenty of dining nearby, though the area isn't really known for its epicurean flare (Cheesecake Factory is the most visible restaurant around)
  • Il Caffe at Union Square, on the other side of the square, charges exorbitant rates for coffee and snacks, but you can't beat the setting on a sunny day.
  • 30-minute taxi from San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

 Rooms

Rooms in the original building are small but full of turn-of-the-20th-century charm; tower rooms are larger but generic. All are clean, classy, and comfortable.

A "cozy" bathroom in the original building
A "cozy" bathroom in the original building

This is a tale of two buildings. The rooms are divided pretty evenly between the hotel's original building (or "Celebrated Landmark Building," as the Westin calls it), constructed at the turn of the 20th century, and the 32-story Modern Tower, which, though built 40 years ago, retains its modernity on the interior. Rooms in the old building match the character of the building itself: crystal chandeliers, marble countertops, dark-wood furniture, and so on. Classy, to be sure, but small -- 200 square feet or so -- especially for a hotel in this price range. Tower rooms, meanwhile, are significantly more spacious but not as charming. But no matter which building you end up in, you'll have a bright, clean, comfortable room with the standard collection of Westin's trademark "Heavenly" appointments.

  • Westin's popular beds, with Heavenly mattresses (a little firm for my taste, but people love them), Homestead Hospitality 250-thread-count sheets (60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester blend), and plush pillows and duvets
  • Westin brand white-tea-aloe bath products
  • Two-headed showerheads with good water pressure
  • 37-inch LG flat-screen TVs with 35 channels, including HBO
  • Coffee machines and Starbucks coffee
  • Minibars and snack baskets
  • Wired Internet connection. Spring for the high-speed -- both are charged and, for a bit more, at least service won't be spotty.
  • Alas, several amenities the hotel promises on its website, including free morning newspapers and bathrobes, were missing.

 Features

Nothing unusual -- basically, a gym, spa, and business center -- but everything is top-notch

The impressive gym
The impressive gym

The St. Francis features the standard array of big-city-hotel amenities: a combined health club and spa, a business center, and not much else. The upside: Everything is first-rate. The downside: extra fees on most everything.

  • The two-story fitness center sports a dozen or so Life Fitness cardio machines, some nice strength-training machines, free weights, and even Nintendo Wii Fitness, all in a spacious setting with amenities like newspapers and flat-screen TVs. All guests have access free of charge 24-hours a day.
  • The spa connected to the gym features the typical selection of treatments. For details and rates, click here.
  • The business center is small but well equipped; friendly staffer on hand to help out.
  • The most unique feature is the St. Francis Wine Experience -- every Tuesday to Saturday afternoon, in the lobby -- which pairs wine varietals with hors d'oeuvres.
  • Fee for parking

 Family

Not great for young kids, but no reason not to take the family

Because of its grand-old-dame atmosphere (turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, antiquish furniture, conservative decor) and large number of corporate guests, the Westin isn't ideal for families with young children. Still, there's no reason not to take the young'uns.

  • Westin's trademark "Heavenly" cribs (yes, really) are free, and fit in any size room.
  • Rollaways also free, but fit only in tower rooms.
  • Safe neighborhood (though, as in all of San Francisco, vagrancy and panhandling are common)
  • For a roundup of the city's most family-friendly hotels, click here.

 Cleanliness

Some blemishes, but not really a problem

Given that the rooms in the original building were renovated two months before Oyster's stay, it was surprising to see many blemishes: a sizable mark on the carpet, another on the stuffed chair, and a collection of stains by the bathroom sink. Otherwise, the property is quite well maintained -- everything was functional and hygienic.

 Food

A much-heralded dinner place, plus a standard hotel restaurant and a lobby coffee shop

Michael Mina opened his fifth Bourbon Steak restaurant in the Westin St. Francis in December 2010. Executive Chef Omri Aflalo, who did an externship with Mina while at the Culinary Institute of America, is at the helm of the San Francisco locale. The feel of the former flagship restaurant named after Michael Mina himself has been replaced with a more upscale steakhouse feel, and the food to go with it. The broad menu includes some of Mina's greatest hits, including lobster corn dogs, black truffle popcorn, and lobster pot pie (market price). As far as the steak, notable options are a 28-ounce Porterhouse, an 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye, and a 6-ounce Australian Wagyu strip. It's the highlight of the hotel's dining options.

  • Caruso's, in the lobby, serves coffee and snacks, and also hosts the Wine Experience (see Features, above).
  • The Oak Room serves typical American cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including a breakfast buffet.
  • Clock Bar is surprisingly busy for a hotel bar. Also designed by Michael Mina, the bar serves hand-crafted cocktails and small plates.
  • Plenty of dining off-site, though Union Square isn't really known for its epicurean flare (Cheesecake Factory is the most visible restaurant in the area).
  • The concierge recommended the Daily Grill, a restaurant and bar with Prohibition-era charm, across the street, and lunch proved both tasty and reasonable.

 History

A long, wacky (and sordid) past

A few of the hotel's many famous guests
A few of the hotel's many famous guests

If a long history full of famous names and wacky anecdotes is your thing, it's tough to do better than the St. Francis. If you like your anecdotes with a heavy dose of infamy, you can't possibly do better than the St. Francis. The hotel has hosted dozens of celebrities and foreign dignitaries over the years. It became the place Republican presidents stayed when they visited San Francisco (Democratics usually stayed at the Fairmont). That's the part they proudly tell you about, both in the lobby and on the website.

What they don't tell you is that the St. Francis is also where some less boast-worthy history has taken place. On September 5, 1921, silent film megastar Fatty Arbuckle hosted a wild party in his suite (rooms 1219 to 1221, by the way) where a young actress named Virginia Rappe died of a drug overdose. Arbuckle was brought to trial on a number of charges in one of the most publicized trials of all time. He was ultimately acquitted, but his career never recovered, and today he is known mostly as an unfortunate footnote in film history. Half a century later, Sara Jane Moore attempted to assassinate then-president Gerald Ford as he was leaving the hotel. The St. Francis folks don't have a plaque for that either.

 Bottom Line

The St. Francis combines the history, decor, and traditions of a turn-of-the-20th-century grand old dame with the amenities, modernity, and corporate-dominated clientele of a large chain property. If you find a better deal at the similarly priced Palace or Meridien -- also business-oriented Starwoods -- go with one of those. If not, the Westin is a perfectly pleasant option.

Things You Should Know About The Westin St. Francis on Union Square

Address

  • 335 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

Hotel Is Also Known As...

  • San Francisco Westin
  • Westin Hotel San Francisco
  • Westin San Francisco
  • Westin St Francis

Room Types

  • Bayview Suite
  • Bridgeview Suite
  • Chairman's Suite, Landmark Building
  • Classic Suite , Landmark Building
  • Deluxe Room, Landmark Buliding
  • Deluxe Tower Room, Modern Tower
  • Executive Tower Suite
  • Golden Gate Suite
  • Grand Deluxe Parkview Guest Room, Landmark Building
  • Grand View Room
  • London Suite, Landmark Building
  • MacArthur Suite, Landmark Building
  • Pacific Suite
  • Parkview Suite, Landmark Building
  • State Suite, Landmark Building
  • Traditional Room, Landmark Building
  • Traditional Room , Modern Tower
  • Union Square Suite
  • Windsor Suite

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Hotel Features

Number of Rooms: 1195
Fitness Center: Yes
Internet: Yes
Pets Allowed: Yes
Cribs: Yes
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Hotel Information

Location: Union Square, San Francisco
Address: 335 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
(See Map)
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