Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Pacific Heights Hideaway for Business Travelers
Thursday, September 28, 2017 -- The little-known San Francisco hideaway that became the unwitting birthplace of JoeSentMe has gone on to become the city's top-rated hotel.

Tucked away on a quiet street in the posh Pacific Heights neighborhood amid million-dollar condos and $30 million mansions, the 48-room Hotel Drisco has been voted San Francisco's top property by TripAdvisor for more than four years. But Joe has recommended it for much longer, back when it was called the El Drisco. He happened to be there on 9/11 and conceived JoeSentMe while waiting for the chance to fly home. Joe began printing my old Copley News Service column at JoeSentMe soon after the site was launched on September 27, 2001.

Today, the 114-year-old Hotel Drisco's reputation is not as the birthplace of this little enterprise or any of its other colorful iterations. It's neither neighborhood inn nor multi-level bed and breakfast. It strikes me as a cross between a sophisticated pied-a-terre with staff and one of those discreet private hotels you find in the Embassy neighborhoods of European capitals. It is a hideout for the intrepid traveler who is tired of institutional rigidity and by-the-book sameness of chain hotels.

For example, the Drisco has no lobby. Instead, there are two small, tastefully furnished sitting rooms just inside the front door where coffee and teas are served around the clock. The compact Honduran mahogany front desk has space for two "hosts" to check you in.

On a recent afternoon, Dave Chapman, a private equity executive from Vancouver, was having luncheon salads in the sitting rooms. "The staff here is very thoughtful," he said and noted that the 24-hour room service kitchen delivers to anyplace in the hotel guests want to dine.

The Drisco is old-school gracious, but high-tech when needed. The free WiFi is fast enough to stream live content. At a time when brand name hotels are shuttering their business centers, the Drisco has set aside a cozy space with a desktop PC, printer, a comfy chair, reference books and all the supplies a guest with a deadline would ever need. It's free, too.

With a longtime aversion to the spotlight, it's not surprising to learn that the Drisco understates its offerings. Case in point: the daily "continental breakfast" bundled into the room rate. Offerings include 14 different pastries, a small-batch granola, a sheep's milk yogurt and cold meats and artisanal cheeses. A complimentary evening wine service is also creative. The hotel has a small wine cellar with respected Napa and Sonoma varietals that are uncorked and served along with cheeses, house-made hummus, meatballs and charcuterie.

"We tend to under promise and over deliver," says the hotel's general manager, John Spear.

Spear, who has been in charge for more than eight years, is an interesting guy, disciplined but not rigid. He's not your up-from-the-ranks hospitality industry lifer. Instead, he was a technology consultant before becoming a health care reform advocate and has lived in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow. He joined the hotel in 2003 when it was managed by boutique hotel pioneer Chip Conley, now the hospitality guru at Airbnb.

The Drisco's current owner, a former Marine turned commercial real estate developer named Tom Callinan, is a demanding boss who white-gloves the hotel regularly and expects nothing less than perfection. When he noticed the Drisco was getting a bit long in the tooth, he shut it down for six months and wrote a check for a top-to-bottom modernization that, amazingly, did not disrupt the hotel's stately Edwardian exterior or its inner calm.

"Most hotel owners are trying to squeeze blood from a rock when it comes to making improvements," Spear said. "Tom has real pride of ownership and is a stickler for details."

The changes are mostly technological and tasteful. Bathrooms are spacious and all have radiant-heat flooring. Guestrooms are warmed and cooled the same way. In-room Nespresso machines and safes are hidden from view. Each accommodation has at least one 42-inch television and Blu-ray player. Furniture, bedding and light fixtures are elegant and eye-pleasing without being jarringly hip. And a new elevator was installed.

Other hotel amenities that a corporate cost-cutter would likely whack remain untouched. The Drisco has no parking garage, only neighborhood street parking, but the hotel staff will move a guest's car to make sure it is not ticketed. The hotel's house car, a black Chevrolet Suburban, delivers guests downtown on weekday mornings at no charge. While many hotels have cut newspapers, the Drisco offers guests a choice, delivered to their door. Calls throughout the United States and Canada from guestroom phones are free.

Callinan is the latest in The Drisco's long line of unusual owners. One version of the hotel's history is that local real estate developer L. Frank Drisco built his five-story lodging in 1903, out of sight and--for his purposes--out of mind of the city's downtown establishment. A long-held theory is that he was creating a sort of luxury rooming house to lure the steamer-trunk set to Pacific Heights and entice them into commissioning elegant homes.

Another version of the hotel's backstory was passed along by a former hotel manager named Harold Ellison. In his telling, Frank Drisco was one of a group of powerful local businessmen who ponied up to build a hideout for their mistresses. Each investor had a private suite where their concubines were served regally by ornately costumed Chinese maids.

There's a third and more savory version that an amateur historian claims to have extracted from a 96-year-old local matron. Namely that a John Drisco Wilson and his wife built the hotel in 1903 as a 27-unit apartment building. They also rented rooms nightly to guests of local homeowners. When the 1906 earthquake and fire virtually gutted downtown San Francisco, the Wilsons reportedly turned the property into a hotel for the homeless and fed guests three free meals a day.

For all its generosity and tranquility today, however, the Hotel Drisco is hardly a nonprofit enterprise. A king-bedded room ranges from $299 to $599 a night. Suites cost $499 to $1,699 nightly for a three-bedroom accommodation. Those rates may seem high, but not for a city such as San Francisco, which is swimming in tech money and squeezed by a paucity of hotel rooms.


This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.