From Victorian splendor to green goddess dressing, this San Francisco landmark has been a lavish destination for more than a century.
Downtown San Francisco is a dynamic, modern city with raucous pioneer roots. Its history includes ties to the Gold Rush boom, the development of West Coast viniculture, street cars, and a thriving Chinatown. This City by the Bay is also home to myriad historic gems, but the Palace Hotel on Montgomery Street is special.
It was in early October 1875 when the public was invited to experience the splendor of the Palace Hotel. When it opened, the dream of builder William C. Ralston was touted as the largest, costliest, and most luxurious hotel in the world. Its construction cost an outrageous $5 million — more than $100 million today. The hotel towered above the streets of San Francisco in footprint and appointment. Its lavishness earned it the nickname “The Grande Dame of the West.”
Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Philip Sheridan and celebrities George M. Pullman, Sarah Bernhardt, Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Jack London were guests early on. The Palace hosted U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, among many others. Foreign dignitaries like Winston Churchill and Prince William dined on special gilded china and rested their heads on lush pillows. “Nothing makes me ashamed of Brazil so much as the Palace Hotel,” Emperor of Brazil Don Pedro II once remarked. The Palace was the place to be. It was good enough for artists and world leaders alike.
That was Ralston’s goal, after all. The amenities and modern conveniences alone made sure of that. They included five redwood-paneled hydraulic elevators (reputedly the first in the West), plumbing, private toilets, shared baths for every two rooms, a telegraph on each floor, a pneumatic tube system throughout the hotel, and electric call buttons, air-conditioning, closets, fireplaces, and bay windows in each room. Furnishings and décor were only from the finest makers in the world.
“Here we are in the lap of luxury,” wrote wealthy English native Ethel Hertslet. She and her husband, Gerald, were Palace Hotel guests in May 1885 en route to their new ranch in Lake County, north of San Francisco. “I never was in such a splendid and enormous hotel in my life. ... Gerald, and I have a large bedroom, with a bath-room and lavatory attached, and hot and cold water laid on. They always have the washing-places outside the room ... . There is a large courtyard to the hotel, paved with white marble, and we sit there in great rockers. We have fruit at every meal; breakfast is always begun with a huge plate of strawberries and cream.”
Today, Palace guests continue to be just as pampered. Even though they are stepping back in time as they enter the hotel, guests experience a Palace that is equipped with modern conveniences that Hertslet and her 19th-century counterparts would have envied, including pillow-top beds, large backlit mirrors in the guest room baths, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and a glass-domed indoor pool. Keeping true to preserving the hotel’s integrity, oak doors adorned with brass monogrammed knobs have graced Palace guest rooms since 1909. The hotel’s historic architectural details in each room are painted gloss white to contrast the rich, mood-setting wall color that brings the vintage elements to life. Eleven-foot ceilings and expansive windows create a naturally well-lit room.
The Palace of old also had an elaborate, state-of-the-art defense against earthquakes and fire, including a 630,000-gallon reservoir under The Grand Court lobby. None of this was enough to save the hotel from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake that killed approximately 3,000 people and leveled more than 80 percent of the city. A subsequent fire destroyed the Palace, and it wasn’t until 1909 that the doors were thrown back open at its original location. For the grand re-opening, artist Maxfield Parrish was commissioned to paint the 16-by-6-foot The Pied Piper of Hamlin mural. It remains on display in the Palace’s Pied Piper Bar framed by a mosaic tile floor and luscious wood paneling. Bar patrons relish contemporary California fare, including Bodega Bay oysters with red peppercorn mignonette and Monterey calamari with charred Meyer lemon and citrus aioli, alongside a seasonally based craft cocktail program and stunning whiskey selection.
The dining options were a draw from the start. In the late 1800s, the hotel’s menu rivaled fine restaurants in big European cities. It included a variety of fish, meats, roasts, soups, salads, vegetables, desserts, cheeses, and both imported and California wines. The Palace’s May 3, 1889, daily menu included tenderloin sauté à la périgueux, apricot fritters with kirsch sauce, mussels in white wine, tutti-frutti ice cream, and California oysters stewed or fried, accompanied by wines from vineyards across the state.
Today, the Palace is known for its signature green goddess salad dressing, created at the hotel in 1923 by executive chef Phillip Roemer. Chef Roemer first presented the dressing, made with mayonnaise, chives, parsley, minced anchovy, lemon juice, and more, during a banquet held at the Palace in honor of actor George Arliss, who was the lead in William Archer’s hit play The Green Goddess. Modern diners are offered the classic dressing in the Palace Signature Crab Salad, a mix of English cucumber, herbs, and toybox cherry tomatoes topped with the tangy concoction [recipe below], at The Garden Court restaurant. The breathtaking dining room, considered the jewel of the hotel, sits in the original space where guests were welcomed during the Palace Hotel’s initial heyday.
The restaurant provides a vibrant, magical setting that retains its elegance with sparkling Austrian crystal chandeliers but with a modern twist reflected in the seasonal menu for all seatings, including the Saturday-only signature tea service. Yes, there are scones and tea sandwiches, but the hotel’s kitchen isn’t satisfied with such a simple spread. Prime menu real estate is given to smoked salmon with pickled beet tartare, horseradish crème fraîche, and rye bread as well as Cowgirl Creamery’s fromage blanc “Pimento Cheese” with piquillo peppers and San Francisco’s iconic sourdough bread. As for the tea selection, well, the extensive list is as impressive as the restaurant’s gilded Italian marble columns and its grand glass-domed ceiling.
It was in this space where two significant events were held. In 1919, two luncheons were hosted by President Woodrow Wilson in support of the Treaty of Versailles that would end World War I. In 1945, the official banquet honoring the opening session of the United Nations was held at The Garden Court.
“This is an exciting time,” says Jon Kimball, the Palace Hotel’s general manager. “The new design respects the integrity of the Palace and pays tribute to a San Francisco legend. The historic architecture has been brought to new life and is now complemented by a contemporary vibrancy that our guests truly appreciate.” The history isn’t solely reflected in the Palace’s physical splendor, it’s also seen — and tasted — in the hotel’s culinary legacy. You can’t fully experience the Palace until you’ve finished every lick of green goddess dressing.
For more information on the Palace Hotel and The Garden Court or to make reservations, visit their website.
From the January 2017 issue.