Best Room in the House: Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco
When you walk into the horse shoe-shaped lobby, you couldn’t possibly criticise the correctness of the greeting from the staff arranged around you. It’s duly deferential, perhaps sometimes almost chirpy when the sun’s out, but it’d never stray into familiarity; I noticed I was wiping my feet an extra couple of times before I stepped in off the street. If you need a package sent halfway round the world, you know you can rely on the diligence of the concierge and the honour resting on the glittering gold keys of his lapel badge to ensure the package will be weighed within an ounce, all possible routes to New Zealand cross-costed and a note left in an envelope, with your name written on the front in forward-leaning script.
A hotel’s bar is usually where things liven up. In the dimly lit “M.O.” lobby bar, amongst the c. 1985 red banquettes and polished rails, you get the impression that the odd necktie might just be loosened off, after 7pm – but I never saw it. I did see four soberly-suited businessmen trying to smile at each other as they pushed documents around the table for signing. It made me wonder why they had come here to do it – I imagine they needed a signifier that with these contracts their relationship would now be moving into a greater familiarity, but this place could hardly be more convivial than, say, the photocopying suite at their office – and the lighting there would have been a whole lot better. Post-Schrager, a hotel’s lobby bar is the principal designator of a hotel’s mood – unfortunately “M.O.” does that too well.
We all have to work. But the Mandarin Oriental has made a week out of Monday mornings.
Of course, if you’re a hotelier in San Francisco, you’re never going to beat the view. And if you turn round and look out instead of in, the Mandarin Oriental has one of the best views of this glorious city. Take a room on one side and you have the districts and hill, an instant lesson in local history. Take a room on the other side and you have the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, and passing beneath it a reminder of the realities of global commerce as container ships slowly nose the fog aside to bring the latest cars and phones and gadgets from China.
At 4pm, the fog falls over itself coming in from the Ocean, like a child rushing in after a day playing out in the cold. As it licks round the base of Alcatraz and slowly climbs over the top, this is my favourite view in the world.
I woke up on the third morning suffering from an overnight attack of cataracts. The Mandarin Oriental takes the top 11 floors of the city’s third tallest building, and when the fog decides to come in and stay in, the first thing you see is nothing at all. The rooms have generous expanses of windows all around you, but pushed hard up against the windows is an indefinable swirl of white with no solid visual reference points up or down or anywhere around. In its own way, it’s as memorable as the view it replaced.
The Best Room in the House is probably whichever one gives you the best view of the Harbour – it’s worth asking to move up a few floors if it’ll take you above the fog. But officially, the Best Room is the 2-bedroom, 186 sq. metre Oriental Suite. There is a formal, open layout furnished with hints of Orientalism: a lacquered table here, a bit of inlaid whatnot there, gold-ish, plain-ish, basically Oriental-ish. The most convincingly Oriental thing in the room was the Chinese pear.
The suite has a 50 metre terrace running its length, looking out onto the world’s greatest view, dressed with a few shrubs (bought maybe at the local petrol station), a three-bar brown-painted handrail and flooring which appears to be made up of contract-price paving stones. It made me want to hurl the boring black 1980s leather work chair they’d put at the boring desk in the expectation of boring businessmen sitting there to write boring business memos, straight out over that brown handrail.
This could be, should be, one of the Top Ten hotel suites in the world. It would be, if they only realised that these days Business mixes very well with Pleasure, thank you. Company time isn’t 9 to 5 anymore and if you need to do your shopping from the desk, that’s fine too. We have so little spare time, we end up sharing it with people from work.
A hundred years ago, hotels were desperate to copy the grandeur of the best homes, now it’s the other way round. Anyone that’s ever seen the David Tang suite at the Boundary Hotel in London, has come away with scribbled notes of inspiration, not just about what they can do with their home but what they can do with their work too. If you’re travelling to San Francisco, one of the most exciting cities in the world, you’d want to stay an extra day and indulge yourself, explore, open your imagination. If you stayed at the Oriental Suite, despite the great service, I suspect you’d find yourself looking not at the great views, but at a computer screen to find an earlier flight back home. CHRIS WEST