Raising The Bar San Francisco's Redwood Room was the classic hotel bar--one part glamour, two parts decay. That was then.
By Josh Tyrangiel

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A funny thing about cool. You can be cool if being cool is the thing you care about most, and you can be cool if being cool is the thing you care about least. These are, however, dramatically different kinds of cool. Whether the two can co-exist is a question that has raged in the corridors of America's high schools for decades.

Now it rages at the Clift hotel in San Francisco. Ian Schrager, a man so hip he bleeds chartreuse, recently completed a renovation of the Clift, including the beloved Redwood Room, which had been a seemingly joyless hotel bar with chintzy drink menus and gilded Gustav Klimt reproductions on the burnished redwood walls. The old Redwood Room was a place where literary celebrities of long ago were sighted, a musty piano sat untouched, and serious alcoholics went to look at the clientele and feel good about themselves. Of course, San Franciscans loved it, or at least they loved saying they loved it. When news leaked that Schrager and his French design whiz, Philippe Starck, would be overhauling the place, the city's op-ed pages filled with moans about What We Have Lost. Never mind that most of the eulogists hadn't set foot in the bar for decades, the Redwood Room was an institution--one best preserved without an invasion of chartreuse.

Schrager isn't much for nostalgia, but he took the criticisms to heart. His best hotels are reflections of a city's personality--there's no place more L.A. than the Mondrian's Skybar or more Miami than the pool at the Delano--and he said all the right things about trying to understand who San Franciscans really are. As a concession, he agreed to keep the signature dark-wood paneling (myth has it the whole room was carved from a single 2,000-year-old redwood) and the art deco light fixtures. Then he gutted the place.

To say that the new Redwood Room is overdesigned is to note that Lawrence of Arabia had a lot of sand. It's kind of the point. Klimt is gone, as is the redwood bar, which had been chewed up by termites. Five plasma screens now show the latest in digital art, and a giant backlit liquor shelf provides an amber glow. The rust-striped carpet, a shade lighter than the paneling, is what Elvis might have chosen for the Jungle Room had he had a better decorator. The chairs and couches--and there are lots of them--range from your standard leather loungers to massive velvet-backed numbers. The lights are low. The music is loud and comes from turntables. The old-timers would be horrified.

But it works. And in a very modern San Francisco way. The crowd is mixed--straight, gay, black, white, jeans, Prada--and the vibe is exceedingly warm. The employees, who at other Schrager outlets have a way of making you feel as though you worked for them, underwent a month of mixology training and eagerly explain the ingredients of the relatively affordable specialty drinks. There is pretentiousness but not snobbery, which some might say makes the Redwood Room cool. Twice.

Redwood Room Clift, 495 Geary St., 415-775-4700

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