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