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A welcome journey back to the disco era, in a remarkably well-preserved hotel from the 1970s. Pros: Good location, amazing views, pleasant service. Cons: If you’re looking for 21st-century chic, this ain’t the place.
The Hyatt Regency San Francisco and I go way, way back. The hotel opened in 1973, and just three years later, I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. San Francisco was our usual adventure, and once you’d crossed the Bay, the just-minted Embarcadero Station was the first stop on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. There you’d find the glistening new and awesomely weird Hyatt Regency Hotel.
We loved exploring the Hyatt’s cavernous lobby and riding the bubble elevators that looked like costume jewelry, all the way up to the rotating bar on the 17th floor. If we had a little more money than usual, screwed up our bravado and got lucky, we might even get a drink without being carded, and then we would watch the city revolve, feeling like big-shot adults.
Nowadays, the top floor no longer moves, but that insane lobby looks almost exactly as it did back then. Forty-five years after construction, it still holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s largest hotel lobby.
More on all that later. We had a room to check into.
We had two goals in redeeming Hyatt points: an open-air balcony and, especially, club access. You needed club access to enjoy the great view on the top floor from the no-longer-rotating but still panoramic bar.
Rooms were available for only the first two nights of our three-night stay in San Francisco, and club access for only one of those. I transferred points from Chase to Hyatt, and redeemed them for what was available: one night in the club room (27,000 points) and one night in a standard room (20,000 points). We added one night at the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf — not even the Grand Hyatt on Union Square was available. This odd assortment of rooms was anything but ideal, but I had hopes that something better might open up.
Then I called every day for availability, and soon another night at the Hyatt Regency opened up, though just for a standard room. I kept calling. A few weeks before we departed, I got a Hyatt rep who really knew how to get things done, and she got on the phone to the hotel and worked it out. We had all three nights in the club room. We transferred the additional Chase points to Hyatt while the rep kindly waited on the line, and we were set, more or less.
As I mentioned above, a free night at the Category 5 Hyatt Regency costs 20,000 World of Hyatt points per night. Since you can transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio (which is what I did to book my stay), it’s incredibly easy to fill your Hyatt account. For example, just for signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after you spend $4,000 within the first three months, you’ll have enough points to book three nights at this property, subject to availability, of course.
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The Hyatt Regency is in the Embarcadero Center, near the financial district. Really, it’s near everything, because San Francisco’s center is tiny. From the hotel’s position at the starting point of Market Street, you can easily walk to Chinatown, North Beach, Union Square and even Fisherman’s Wharf if you’re moderately hardy.
Mass transit options from the Hyatt Regency are unparalleled. That’s because, in addition to BART, you can catch a cable car or streetcar right near the hotel:
Though the cable cars are, to quote the Rice-A-Roni commercials, a famous “San Francisco treat,” the lesser-known streetcar system is equally historical. Beginning in the 1980s, the city began bringing together and putting on the tracks a magnificent collection of restored vintage streetcars from 1912 through the 1950s from Hiroshima, Japan; Milan, Italy; Hamburg, Germany; Melbourne, Australia; Zurich, Switzerland; and Blackpool, England. From New Orleans came two streetcars from the Desire line made famous by Tennessee Williams. Many of the streetcars, with their original interiors, are as picturesque as the cable cars.
The concrete exterior of the Hyatt Regency is dramatic, if not beautiful, from every angle:
In addition to the exterior of the hotel itself, there are some even more bizarre sculptures on and around the Hyatt grounds.
The hotel is right beside the iconic Ferry Building, one of a handful of major survivors of the 1906 earthquake. A few steps away from the hotel, you could go to the major and well-attended farmers market that wraps around the Ferry Building every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. That’s where you can pick up one of the historic streetcars.
When we arrived, we were set for one of the king rooms. The ones we’d seen online featured a balcony overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The weather was pleasant, and we were looking forward to that balcony. But we were told the room we’d booked had no balcony, and though the balcony rooms cost no more points than ours, none seemed to be available.
“Is there anything you can do?” we asked.
Again we got lucky, and they found the one remaining balcony room.
There was a self-evident bell desk beside check-in.
The room was good-sized, not huge, and comfortable without being luxurious. This was a ’70s hotel, so the rooms tended toward that decade’s beige palette.
Each room contained fixtures and art that, if it didn’t date from the period when the hotel was created, did a pretty good job reminding you of it.
Our bathroom was long and spacious.
Body wash, shampoo, conditioner and bumpy soap/massage bar were by KenetMD, with a mild citrusy smell. Hyatt sold these products to the general public for a while, but as of now they’re only for Hyatt guests. The packaging looked a bit cheap, but the scents inside were nice.
The rooms had armoires rather than closets, so your stuff was out in the open. That didn’t bother me in the least, but again, not the fanciest touch.
Despite the legendary but falsely attributed Mark Twain protestation that “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” it was warm during our stay. So I appreciated that, in addition to the luxe down comforter on the bed, a plain old-fashioned blanket was available.
The little fridge was delightfully devoid of $18 bottles of beer (or anything else). I appreciated not having to clear it out myself, as I normally do.
Perhaps the room’s best feature was the deck, where in the mornings we enjoyed a dose of fresh air and sunshine.
We had a view of the controversial concrete water sculpture (now dry, closed and apparently in danger of serious deterioration) the Vaillancourt Fountain, and a nice slice of the Bay.
Now that they’ve turned the water that flowed through and around the fountain, it stands dry and exposed as — let’s be honest — a stale, old pile of concrete. Modernist architect Lawrence Halprin, who judged the design competition won by Vaillancourt, declared at the time that if this fountain didn’t prove to be among the nation’s “great works of civic art … I am going to slit my throat.” (Halprin died at age 93 of natural causes.)
The view of the lobby from our 16th floor was a dizzying one.
Food and Beverage
Club access gave us a full breakfast and a partial early-dinner buffet. Fresh fruit and pastries (danishes, croissants) were served in the morning, along with bagels, cream cheese and cereals. My favorite was the thick quiche, different every day but always rich and creamy.
Evening snacks were put out — enough to make a meal of — including a few hot dishes like gnocchi with veal, soft pretzels with beer-cheese sauce, wok-tossed shishito peppers and large, buttery oatmeal and chocolate-chip cookies.
More importantly than the food itself, having a club room was the only way to get into the remarkable circular 17th floor and enjoy its incredible view of the Bay.
Everyone we saw (including us) chose the bay view, which left nobody enjoying the almost equally great city vistas on the other side of the hotel. You can imagine — I guess you will have to imagine — how impressive this floor was back in the day, or rather the night, when it slowly revolved around downtown San Francisco, the lights low and bluish, the extravagantly air-conditioned air thick with smoke, Donna Summer thrumming in the background.
Though you could get a few drinks at a modest honor bar on the club floor, the main bar was in the lobby. The video screens, which extended about 20 feet high, looked vaguely supervillainesque, but most of them were merely showing college basketball scores.
You could also get served in open-air, round cubicles.
As we were getting ready for sleep one night, we heard (and felt) a loud pounding, BAM! BAM!, like a guy banging his fists on the sliding glass door of our balcony. I checked. That was no intruder — it was the first salvo from a fireworks display in the Bay.
We came out in our Hyatt bathrobes and sat on our balcony to watch a custom fireworks display unfold. It was all being put on for a special cruise, the brightly lit boat directly underneath the fireworks.
As it happened, the pyrotechnics weren’t over for this evening. In the wee hours, the fire alarm went off, and it was no drill.
With the nightmare scenario in my head of revisiting “The Towering Inferno” — who needs to sit through the world’s worst film twice? — I took a quick photo of the evacuation plan, and we left. (What stands out now, however, is the rack rate shown for the room. Really, Hyatt, $1,575? The actual price of the room is usually $299.)
And now, our legs already weary from a very long walk in the hilliest city in America, we encountered the major disadvantage of having a room on the top floor. We trundled down and down, from the 16th floor to Market Street.
After a few minutes at fresh air at street level, the all-clear sounded, and we filed back into the building. Hotel employees and firemen were also there.
But the elevators were jammed, so we decided to hang out in the lobby a little longer.
Many fellow guests had the same idea, which made the lobby a bit busier than usual, but a lobby that size can take a lot of business. The hotel provided bottled water to everyone. All in all, it was a calm and well-run end to the fire alarm.
The next day, we received an email from the hotel saying that they were “deeply sorry that the Life Safety Alarm was activated last night … it is a huge inconvenience to have to evacuate the hotel at such a late hour.”
Nah, don’t worry, Hyatt, it was kind of a fun adventure. Not completely unlike the rest of the stay.
The world’s hugest lobby is both the hotel’s strangest feature and its key attraction. It’s a gigantic collection of spaces, art projects and decorative elements, and it absolutely brutalizes all other brutalism. No wonder it was chosen as the setting for the 1974 disaster kitschfest “The Towering Inferno,” as well as Mel Brooks’s “High Anxiety.”
The link with film is not surprising. Architect John Portman said the lobby’s design came to him after watching the seminal 1935 sci-fi movie “Things to Come.”
The lobby is carved up into a number of subspaces by the use of furnishings and artwork.
The section of the lobby with these cubicles was roped off for an event during our stay, but your fearless reviewer snuck in anyway to get a photo before security ushered me out. Check out the string walls of the cubicles, which look like you should twang them, and the carpet’s strange pattern.
These lamps were likely a modernist take on the tiki torches that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s:
Another seating area in the lobby featured small, marble tables and hammered-metal tables:
The lobby’s centerpiece was the 35-foot sculpture “Eclipse,” by Charles O. Perry, which consists of 1,400 pieces or curved metal tubing. It’s been there from the very beginning.
The Hyatt’s answer to chaise lounges came with a big old topping of unnecessary wood.
I asked the concierge if the sculpture behind her represented anything, and she pulled out a sheet that explained it: The sculpture was a grid of backlit bottles that define the shape of a satellite photo of the Bay Area. The concierge, like everyone we dealt with at the hotel from check-in to check-out, was the soul of courtesy.
The fitness center was large and empty.
It was a pleasure to rediscover the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. I checked out with a whole new respect for the hotel. It’s become a wonderfully working and comfortably updated museum that you can stay in, manned by a helpful staff and preserved at a level that I never expected from a 1970s hotel. There is nothing quite like it.
All photos by the author.
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