Older European travellers. Younger gay couples. Briefcase-toting professionals with child-toting spouses in tow. Airline crews in for a night. Singles looking for fun. Stereotypical shorts-wearing tourists in search of sun. In its prestigious Powell Street perch just above Union Square, the venerable Sir Francis Drake Hotel, built in 1928, has something to offer just about everyone -- and at busy times it can seem like everyone has taken up the offer. That's because, like the city itself, it's not afraid to be a little bit cheesy, a little bit racy, proud of its colourful past but also quick to bring the future into the present.
This wasn't always the case. When Kimpton Hotels took over management of the 416-room hotel a few years ago, it spent nearly $20 million and two years putting the bloom back on this pseudo-English rose, named for the Elizabethan explorer whose near-discovery of San Francisco is celebrated in vintage murals in the lobby. The hoteliers wisely decided to keep the iconic if somewhat silly Beefeater-costumed doormen - one of whom, Tom Sweeney, has served more than three decades in the bright red get-up - but quickly set about updating the rooms into little jewel boxes of plush green, gold and cream, with smart baths done in black tile and stainless steel. Animal-print robes add a frisky touch, while the emblem of the puffy, flower-bedecked Beefeater hat appears on doors and shower curtains, as if to say 'In for a penny, in for a pound'. The new flat-screen TVs and DVD players, not to mention free Wi-Fi access, reflect more modern tastes.
Gone are the 'Servidors', special door panels that made it easy for hotel valets to pick up laundry or deliver room service - perhaps including a clandestine drink or two during the Prohibition era. But the ornate lobby has been rejigged to accommodate a delightfully inviting bar with a luxurious 1930s design, enjoyed by both guests and residents, and in 2008 the hotel managers expect to offer packages that include tours of another Prohibition feature: a hidden room between floors served by only one of four lifts - sort of like a Hogwarts Express for boozers. There's still a peephole hidden in the room's floor, which allowed occupants to see who had pressed the buzzer for entry from the foyer below.
That same foyer fills with young and beautiful people on Wednesday nights, queuing up for the long-running Indulgences dance party in the penthouse nightclub, Harry Denton's Starlight Room. On other nights, the slightly less young will enjoy beautiful city and Bay views, along with dancing. And it wouldn't be a truly San Franciscan experience without a drag show; Harry Denton's conveniently has two seatings during Sunday brunch, so you can take in painted ladies of all sorts from on high.
Other staples of the city - sourdough, strong coffee and Cali-Franco-Italian cuisine - are provided by Caffè Espresso and Scala's Bistro on the hotel's ground floor. After enjoying a night at the newly indulgent Sir Francis Drake, you may not feel like heading up Nob Hill or hitting the revamped gym, but you can play explorer in Union Square or simply let your golden hind lounge in style at Bar Drake.