A trip to the Top of the Mark, the restaurant/bar at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, is one of the quintessential San Francisco experiences; everyone should do it at least once!
It's so traditional, it's become a little uncool to go there; but doesn't that make it retro-cool? I can't figure that out, but I do know they have one of the most spectacular and scrumptious brunches I have ever enjoyed. And what a view!
The Mark Hopkins Hotel is one of the Grand Dames of San Francisco, catering to the rich and famous of the 1920's, 30's and 40's, and sitting on top of Nob Hill since 1926.
The hotel sits in the area that the wealthy of 19th century San Francisco built their mansions. Most of the Nob Hill homes were destroyed by fire in the 1906 earthquake, which also claimed the turreted mansion of Mark Hopkins.
One of San Francisco's most elegant hotels was built on the site of the former mansion 1926 and became one of the most prestigious hotels of the city, along with the Fairmont Hotel across the street.
The Peacock Court (just past the ornate lobby) was the scene of debutante balls, and hosted many of the biggest names of the big bands and entertainers of the gilded age, like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour, and Rudy Valley.
The list of famous guests is too long to list, but includes U.S. Presidents Hoover and Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Charles de Gaulle, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones.
Most people go up to the Top of the Mark for the 360 degree view. It's on the top floor of the hotel, the 19th, and has its own elevator.
Which view is better? The sparkling city lights are very romantic, and the day view gives you a great view of the downtown buildings, Alcatraz and both bridges.
The two aspects of the Top of the Mark:
The Mark has long been known as a place to go for a special occasion, like a 21st birthday, an anniversary or marriage proposal.
During World War 2, the bar became a well-known spot for Navy men to meet and have a last drink before shipping out overseas, often promising to meet back there after the war was over.
During it's heyday, the Top of the Mark was a fancy place to go for cocktails and dancing. It still has some of the 1940's ambiance, but it's recently gotten a reputation for bad service and mediocre food.
Looking for a hip bar with a young vibe, this ain't it. It does tend to attract an older crowd who enjoy the nostalgia of it's romantic history, but many young visitors appreciate that as well. It used to enforce a strict dress code, which did help preserve it's classy, upscale feel, but that has slipped, so it's gotten a bit of a dated feel without the elegance of past years.
There have been steady complaints over the past several years about lousy service and rude waiters. I don't know why the management doesn't police this problem better, but there it is. This is not true of the hotel itself, a great place to stay, with old-fashioned elegance and excellent service, according to many reviews.
Nevertheless, many people still love it, and in spite of everything, I think it's worth it to experience such an interesting bit of San Francisco history in a spectacular setting.
Tips for having a great evening at the Top of the Mark:
They show a movie on Tuesday nights, but it's not that easy to see or hear from many of the tables.
I can't count the number of brunch places I've been too, but this one tops the list.
The elegant setting and fantastic views would be reason enough to go, but the food is sensational! The variety is impressive and the quality lived up to the presentation.
Pates, smoked fish platters, several kinds of caviar, crabs, oysters, cheeses, artisan breads, blini, many salads, and artistic little plates of imaginative appetizer combinations...for starters. Unlimited glasses of champagne and orange juice served at your table to wash it all down.
Entrees: soups, leg of lamb, prime rib, beef medallions, stuffed chicken, salmon, scallops, tortellini, and more.
Yummy breakfast foods, including crepes and dim sum.
And the grand finale, a beautiful display of desserts: tarts, cakes, candies, mousses, puddings, etc.
The hardest part is deciding what to eat, since it might not be possible to try everything!
The Mark Hopkins Hotel is located on Nob Hill, at the corner of Mason and California Streets, just uphill from Chinatown (two very steep blocks) and 6 blocks from Union Square.
Hours: open from 4:30 to 11:30 pm every night (5 to 10 pm Sundays). Live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday, with a cover charge ($5-$15). Check their schedule.
Reservations strongly recommended: 415 616-6941.
All three cable car lines cross just below the hotel, at Powell and California Streets. They can take you to Chinatown, the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach.
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Garages nearby are expensive and forget street parking. Some suggestions: