Late last week, when one Erika Lenkert sent us an invitation to a sort of drink-in at the Clift Hotel's Redwood Room to protest the remodeling of the bar by its new owner, we thought the whole thing had to be some sort of practical joke. Remodel the Redwood Room? Oh, sure -- and they're also going to take down the Victory in Union Square and replace it with a flattering bronze of Larry Ellison. Still, because Dog Bites is strongly in favor of the type of journalism that can be conducted with a Singapore Sling in one hand -- and need we add that the Redwood Room pours a nice one? -- we convened a group of people who didn't mind drinking on a Sunday evening (surprisingly easy), and headed down to Geary and Taylor to investigate the situation.
The Redwood Room, for those joining us late, has been a city landmark since the 1930s. Its walls are paneled in gleaming wood from a single 2,000-year-old redwood tree; a few decades ago, when the bar and restaurant was being redecorated, management sent a swatch of the proposed new carpet to late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who was a regular. Then, two months ago, the Clift was purchased by Ian Schrager, who has managed it since 1996 and whose name is usually prefaced by the adjectival phrase "hip hotelier." Schrager now owns, among other hotels, New York's Paramount, Royalton, and Morgan's, Miami's Delano, and L.A.'s Mondrian, all of which are known for their, uh, dramatic (we're being kind here) Philippe Starck décor.
After being greeted by Lenkert and Beth LaDove, co-founders of the San Franciscans for Saving the Redwood Room, Dog Bites' party found a spot at the 75-foot-long bar and opened a tab. Someone ordered a Brandy Alexander -- it's just that kind of place -- and Lenkert, who was wearing an elegant black cocktail dress, made a speech about the closure and remodeling of the room. "I'm tired of seeing San Francisco lose its history and culture," she said. The assembled barflies applauded; afterward, a representative of the hotel attempted to argue some of Lenkert's points, but was widely ignored.
"After September 10th, this place is gone," Lenkert told us later, gesturing at the surrounding baronial elegance. "And I'm worried that if we try to have another event here before then they won't let us in."
According to Clift Hotel General Manager Tim McEneny, the Redwood Room is only going away for a year or so. "I think [the San Franciscans for Saving the Redwood Room] are going to be very happy with the efforts put forth to restore the room to its original glory," he told us.
Schrager's designer of choice for the Clift Hotel remodel is -- surprise -- Starck, whose trademark pomo design aesthetic has successfully overawed many a buxom sorority girl visiting New York for the first time -- like, how far is it to the Hard Rock Café? And indeed, there are those who see having a Starck-designed hotel in the city as a sign of progress. Why, San Francisco has arrived!
Hotel management claims Starck's $25 million redesign of the Clift will respect its status as a landmark, and that the Redwood Room itself, after a year of work -- does it really take an entire year to remodel a bar, we ask? -- will be essentially unchanged. Dog Bites was suspicious: The Clift's furnishings are being auctioned online at Rabin Brothers Auctioneers, and our search of the auction catalog immediately turned up the historic bar's 15-foot-high Gustav Klimt reproductions for sale -- plus its "U-shape inlaid redwood bar."
"The bar needs to be replaced because it's deteriorating underneath," contended McEneny. "Believe me, the bar that we put in there, you'll hardly be able to tell it's different." As to the Klimts: "That's a matter of taste. They're just prints, and they weren't there originally -- it was in 1978 that they were added."
Hmm. Well, Dog Bites has always disliked Klimt. Then again, we think Starck's designs are -- well, the technical term would be cheesy. We ordered another drink; at least it's hard to go too far wrong with a Mai Tai.
White-jacketed bartender Damaso Recacho has worked behind the famous bar for 27 years -- "My only employer since I came from the Philippines," he said, sliding us a fresh bowl of miniature garlic toasts, peanuts, and pretzel sticks. (Hey, it was dinner.) He said that, faced with a year's layoff, the members of the bar staff had been offered buyouts of $1,000 for every year they'd worked there; after that, they were told they'd be welcome to reapply for their jobs when the place reopens. "You see us laughing and smiling but inside, boy, we're crying," he said.
Besides their overwrought interiors, Schrager Hotels are noted for their haughty and beautiful young staffs; in fact, when Schrager was hiring for L.A.'s Mondrian he ran an ad in Variety asking for applicants who were "high-energy, upbeat, handsome/pretty with cool-looking individual style." Unfortunately, nine bellhops who'd been working at the Mondrian when Schrager purchased it were deemed not to have the right look; Schrager wrote a memo complaining that they were "too ethnic." The nine -- three of whom are Filipino, two Latino, two Cambodian, one black, and one white -- were fired and replaced with white bellmen. This month the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which pursued the fired bellmen's racial discrimination complaint, reached a settlement with Schrager Hotels under which the chain must pay $120,000 to each of them.
The Redwood Room closes for remodeling Sept. 10. Drop by and have a drink before then; we know the hotel's new ownership says it's only a facelift, but Dog Bites suspects the changes will go far deeper than that.