Top of the Mark

Martinis or Brunch?


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!

top of the mark, brunch view
Brunch With a View

History of the Top of the Mark

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.

dorothy lamour, 1940
Dorothy Lamour, 1940
betty grable, 1951
Betty Grable, 1951

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.

Go For the View

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.

top of the mark, view of downtown san francisco
Downtown San Francisco

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.

top of the mark, view of sf bay and transamerica pyramid
Transamerica Pyramid and Yerba Buena Island

Sunday Brunch or Evening Cocktails?

The two aspects of the Top of the Mark:

  • Brunch: an opulent, over-the-top brunch, with tables of delicacies that are usually found only as very expensive appetizers...
  • Cocktails: travel back to the Fifties and sip a Martini (or other selection) like Holly Golightly, gazing at the sparkling lights of San Francisco. Dancing, too!

Drinks at the Top

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 unfortunately it's gotten a reputation for mediocre service. According to their more recent reviews, though, the food seems to have improved quite a bit.

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.

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.

They don't serve actual meals, but have a menu of small plates to go with the drinks, ranging from home-made potato chips and sliders to pricy caviar dishes. Desserts, too.

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The hotel itself, the Mark Hopkins, is a great place to stay, with old-fashioned elegance and excellent service, according to many reviews. See Mark Hopkins for booking info and prices.

practical tipTips for having a great evening at the Top of the Mark:

  • They no longer take reservations for the tables. The lines can be long, especially on weekends.
  • Go before 8:30 pm to beat the cover charge (and crowds) for live music on weekends (go before 6 pm Wed and Thurs).
  • Go just before sunset - gorgeous, and less crowded.
  • To get a seat by a window, when it's your turn for a table, tell the hostess you'll wait for a window table.
  • No shorts allowed. There's no actual dress code, but business casual or above is a good idea.

They show a movie on Tuesday nights, but it's not that easy to see or hear from many of the tables.


The Best Brunch

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.

top of the mark brunch room
Set Up for Brunch

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.

top of the mark brunch
Top of the Mark Brunch

And the grand finale, a beautiful display of desserts: tarts, cakes, candies, mousses, puddings, etc.

top of the mark brunch, dessert table
Dessert Table (One of Them)

The hardest part is deciding what to eat, since it might not be possible to try everything!

Visiting the Top of the Mark

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.

Cocktail Hours: open from 4:30 to 11:30 pm every night (4:30 pm to 12:30 am Friday & Saturday, 5 pm to 10 pm Sundays). Live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday, with a cover charge ($5-$15).

Note: they no longer do evening reservations for tables at Top of the Mark. It's first come, first served.

Check their evening entertainment schedule.

Brunch Hours: 10:00 am to 1 pm (last seating), every 30 minutes.

Reservations for brunch are strongly recommended: 415 392-3434, or reserve online at Top of the Mark brunch.

Transportation

All three cable car lines cross just below the hotel, at Powell and California Streets, and the California line goes right past the hotel. They can take you to Chinatown, the Embarcadero, Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach.

See riding the cable cars for tips on how and where to catch them, how to avoid the lines, and a route map.

Parking

Garages nearby are expensive and forget street parking. Some suggestions:

  • Cheapest. 750 Bush Street garage: $6/hr.
  • Mark Hopkins garage: $10/hr.
  • Masonic Center, 1101 California, $11/hr. 1 level block.
  • Nob Hill garage, 875 California Street: $10/hr. 1 steep block.

Tip: Use a parking app, Spot Hero to find the cheapest parking in the area, and space availability. Works best to book it ahead.

Map of Nob Hill, San Francisco, Top of the Mark
Nob Hill


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