Where There's Smoke: A Review of Virgin Hotels San Francisco
These days, the iconic red of Richard Branson's Virgin brand can be seen on more than just planes. From the impending launch of the Virgin Voyages cruise line to Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, from Virgin Trains to Virgin Galactic, it seems that the Branson brand is focused on being a part of your next adventure, no matter what form of transportation you choose.
Out of the nearly 30 brands under the British conglomerate, Virgin Hotels San Francisco still manages to distinguish itself. While still featuring the sleek, contemporary accents for which the brand as a whole is known, the brand-new building on Fourth Street that faces the Yerba Buena Gardens also incorporates elements of San Francisco’s Victorian-era past, hints of the city’s 1960s rock 'n' roll history and nods to 19th-century Britain.
I stayed at the hotel with a friend this spring. Here's how I found it.
We booked this stay through the Hotels.com app, paying cash for the two-night stay and earning 10% cash back through the Capital One Venture plus two nights toward the 10 required for a free one-night stay via Hotels.com
Virgin Hotels San Francisco is in the city's SoMA district, barely more than a block from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and around the corner from the Children's Creativity Museum. It's about a 15-minute ride from San Francisco Airport (SFO) and a little more than a 10-minute walk to the Powell Street BART station.
There was construction going on out front of the hotel on Fourth Street, but the Virgin Hotel SF was well-insulated from outside noise and chaos. All the mayhem came from within the hotel itself. The entire building, and the Everdene bar and restaurant on the first floor in particular, was designed to allow guests to hear each other over the ambient music piped through Virgin-red speakers mounted high on the restaurant ceilings. But there was not much to do about sound overload when the entire first floor of the hotel was filled with Friday happy-hour seekers clamoring to be heard over the throbbing beats blasted by a particularly enthusiastic DJ ushering in the weekend through his turntables.
But I didn't realize any of that was in my future when I checked in to the Virgin hotel midafternoon on a sunny Friday. The hotel had just formally opened a couple of weeks prior, and all the staff were new to the property but experienced in hospitality from previous jobs.
While there wasn't a lot of standing room in the foyer and check-in area itself, I also had the option of snagging a seat in the Shag Room, the small lounge adjacent to the lobby, and waiting for a staff member to come over and check me in directly from my seat. My check-in was both speedy and seamless, with just two other guests ahead of me in line, so I waited.
I typically ask for a room with a view on a high floor, but forgot to ask about complimentary availability this time around. I was on my merry way to Room 319 within five minutes or so.
You needed to swipe your hotel key across a sensor to operate the elevator unless you were trying to access the rooftop bar. The hallways were a crisp white with bold red accents -- you'd be hard-pressed to forget that you were in a Virgin property here. Each room had a little doorbell ringed with red, for a touch of analog whimsy amidst all the technology.
I'm a huge fan of cute, cozy rooms. But even with that caveat, rooms in the Virgin Hotel SF are definitely designed for two people, max. And even then, you'd better be extremely comfortable with sharing space, because that's a scarce commodity here.
Back in late February, when the Virgin SF first invited The Points Guy to take a sneak peek at the new hotel, I thought that the little antechamber, which served as foyer, dressing room, bathroom-and-shower entry and closet space all in one, was charming and adorable. It still was both of those things during my actual stay, but I realized over this stay that it was also very cramped for one, let alone two people. I'm a small person who packs extremely light, especially for weekend trips, but I constantly felt like I had to tuck in my elbows to avoid bumping into walls or other surfaces.
The separate shower and bathroom cubicles were roomy enough, but their doors took up a lot of space when opening and closing. I generally avoided using either one when my friend was in the room getting ready, because we were constantly saying "excuse me" and "thank you" in an elaborate dance to avoid the swinging door. I also found the shower design to be frustrating.
Though the space was roomy and the high-set shower head would easily pass the TPG shower test, there wasn't anywhere in the shower room for me to hang up my towel. The stream of water didn't hit the built-in bench in the back of the shower, so I put my towel on the seat. But I then had to be really careful where I stood so that water hitting my body wouldn't ricochet onto my towel. It wasn't really a big deal, but that's not the sort of concern I want to keep in mind while relaxing into a strong stream of hot water, you know? Minus points.
Once I stepped out, there was a hook immediately outside the frosted-glass door for me to hang my towel upon. But the bath mat I placed right outside of the shower door kept getting caught on the bottom edge of the door every time I swung it open or closed, so I had to finagle that a few times. Once again, not the biggest deal, but it made me feel like the architect hadn't really thought through the user experience when designing the hotel.
The dressing area featured a lovely lighted mirror that turned on and off with the touch of a built-in button directly on the glass. There also was a little velvet tuffet for you to perch upon while doing makeup. If you decide to perch on said tuffet, I strongly recommend having short legs, like I do, and making sure nobody needs to walk past you to get to the door or use the sink immediately behind you. The little nook is low to the ground, and when the seat is pulled out, you'll have to scoot left and right to allow anyone to move past you.
Word to the wise: If you're wondering where your towels are, they're lurking under the sink.
There were two closet spaces in the dressing area, each with a curtain you could draw to hide your clothes. There was a simple, black yoga mat on one side, and a locked safe for valuables in the other nook. It was be hard to get through a few asanas without hitting the wall or furniture, but there was enough room in the main part of the bedroom, at least, to lay down the full mat.
There also were two fluffy, soft white Virgin-branded robes in the closets. I greatly enjoyed wearing mine every chance I got during my stay.
In the main bedroom itself, there was a well-stocked minibar with a tiny Smeg retro fridge that could be customized to include beloved treats, if you requested it via the Virgin Hotel brand's loyalty program, The Know, beforehand. I forgot my login and had a bear of a time recovering the password because I never received any emails for a password reset. I could have created a new account, but the customization process was long (even though fun), and the truth is I simply forgot to come back and fiddle more with the site later on.
The room and its automated virtual assistant were both fine on amenities even without customization. The minibar had an electric kettle that let you brew pour-over coffee right in the room, as well as a cocktail shaker and drink mixers. If you wanted wine from the bottle in your room but didn't have a wine glass, you could ask the virtual assistant, Lucy, to have the staff send up a wine glass for you.
Virgin Hotels prides itself on offering street pricing for its treats, meaning that the cost of the Cokes, popcorn or other treats were pretty close to what you'd pay in a grocery story, with just a slight markup for convenience.
The bed was really comfortable, and we also found the interesting padded prong at the end of the bed to be a surprisingly comfortable nook to snuggle up against when chatting.
Food and Beverage
Friday night at the Virgin hotel is a scene. The hotel invites different local DJs to perform on a rotating basis, and the audio kicked in on the dot at 5pm. Frankly, the music was a little overpowering for proper conversation, so after checking out both the Commons Club restaurant scene, on the first floor, as well as the rooftop bar, my friends and I fled to the mezzanine.
The space technically wasn’t open until 7pm, but the oh-so-kind bartender and servers noticed that I was a hotel guest and generously allowed us to sit in a corner of the mezzanine bar to escape the mayhem down below. We tipped our gratitude to them when we left, because the sheer amount of ruckus was a make-or-break experience for us.
I hadn’t thought to call ahead for dinner reservations to the Commons Club, but I should have — I couldn’t get a same-day dinner reservation at check-in, even as a hotel guest. However, the host said I could sit in the Shag Room and order off of the same menu there. This turned out to be a great idea, and we ended up eating there for an hour and a half.
The food was absolutely scrumptious, although priced as one would expect good food from a trendy new restaurant to be. We particularly enjoyed the duck breast and the dressed raw oysters. Again, the Shag Room was pretty loud, and some of the seats were uncomfortable for long periods of sitting since they were not really meant for dining. But most people probably won’t eat there for dinner like we did, instead making reservations or going elsewhere.
Since I hadn’t been able to work on Friday afternoon due to lack of internet, I woke up early on Saturday to check out the Funny Library coffee shop on the first floor. I found the breakfast there to be cheaper than I would have thought, while coffee and other beverages were slightly pricier than I would have thought. The space itself was adorably decorated with whimsical pillows, cubbyhole shelves reaching up to the ceiling, and a giant wooden table that was the focal point of the entire place.
Our breakfast was the coup d’etat of the entire experience: scrumptious, plentiful and utterly enjoyable. We picked several items off of the menu, and then I lucked into choosing the fanciest Bloody Mary experience I’ve had in a long time.
The staff rolled out a custom Bloody Mary bar cart, and I got to select from my choice of infused liquors and garnishes.
We got back late that evening and decided to check out the room service. We flicked on the in-room TV at the foot at the bed and scrolled through the menu, deciding on steak frites with gremolata and Béarnaise. Unfortunately, you couldn’t order directly from the TV menu, so I picked up the phone around 11:30pm. Our food was delivered exactly 23 minutes later — not at all bad for a busy Saturday evening toward kitchen closing time. I was impressed that the steak wasn't overcooked, too.
The internet did not work the first day I was there, meaning I had a backlog of work to look forward to when my trip was over. Virgin Hotels have a “yes” button on the phones in customers’ rooms, because the brand’s policy is to try and tell a customer “yes” as often as possible. However, the engineer the hotel sent over to tweak my internet didn’t even bother trying to run any tests. He simply told me that the Internet login issue was because the Internet was "incompatible with MacBooks" and asked if he could offer free breakfast as compensation. I made a face and archly suggested that having Windows-only internet would probably alienate a significant portion of the Virgin Hotel's target demographic. (We did indeed test out two separate Apple laptops in order to try replicating the issue. But we also discovered that Android-operated cell phones couldn’t connect to the internet either, so that explanation didn’t hold a lot of water with us.)
The internet finally worked later on, a day or so into our two-night stay, but it never did ask me for a login or password, so I could only assume it wasn’t all that secure. I had one other hotel staff member tell me, “It’s just the Wild West of the internet with our connection right now,” while another separately assured me that the connection was perfectly secure. I really wasn’t sure I believed that answer either, so I was careful not to log in to my bank accounts or other sensitive websites during our time there.
There was not a lot to say about the small gym: It was functional, but nothing really stood out. I’d say the workout facilities were the least impressive part of this otherwise flashy hotel.
One evening, my friend and I decided to check out the rooftop bar, since the space had been too crowded with afterwork revelers on Friday. We accordingly made our way to the top floor, where we found a much more relaxed vibe than that of the previous night. (I later found out, however, that most of the attendees were there for a semiprivate party that charged a $20 cover fee per person, which may have affected the volume in the bar.)
After a bouncer checked our IDs, we made our way into the half-covered, half-open space to a mellow DJ spinning cool beats. The rooftop space had a semiprivate deck area and a main patio with a spit of seating off off the bar. From the rooftop’s nearly 180-degree view, we could see a good number of San Francisco landmarks. It took us about 10 minutes to order our drinks, but the bartender only charged me for one — a thoughtful gesture I appreciated.
At one point, I stopped at the front desk to mention the internet situation and ask if there were anything the hotel could do for us for the inconvenience. The incredibly helpful (and funny) concierge went to great lengths to comp our mezzanine drinks from the evening prior, and also gave us two vouchers for $25 each to use at any of the dining spaces in the hotel.
Right when we were finishing up our room-service food around midnight, the fire alarm went off for about 15 minutes. We were still hanging out, so it didn’t rouse us from sleep, but it definitely was frustrating for the following 15 minutes. We debated heading outside in case it wasn’t a fire drill, but were in comfy PJs and doubted there was a real fire. The front desk wasn’t certain but also didn’t sound concerned, so we decided to chance it for another five minutes until the alarm stopped.
The following morning, we once again woke up to the fire alarm just before 8am. We groaned and ignored it again, but the alarm shut off quicker the second time around. Now incensed, I called to ask what the issue was, and a staffer told me that neither time had been a drill. The first one was a drunk guest smoking in a guest room. (He or she was banned from the property for the offense.) The other was a small issue in the kitchen. So while the alarm was annoying, it was nice to know that it worked exactly as it was supposed to.
The staff ended up comping our dinner from Friday night to make up for the dual fire alarms, and also giving us breakfast for the nonfunctional internet. So even though there were a lot that didn't work out during the weekend I was there, the staff went above and beyond to do their best for us.
I would highly recommend the Virgin Hotels San Francisco if you're interested in staying somewhere trendy and hip when in San Francisco. But if you're looking for a restful, spacious hotel experience, it might be a good idea to stick with a location that's more traditional.
All photos by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.