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The Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel, San Francisco

By Alejandro Benes | From Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

You get a sense that nineteenth-century railroad baron Leland Stanford would have been proud of The Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel's ingenuity where cigars are concerned. The management of the hotel, which sits on the site of the mansion that Stanford built in 1876, has figured out a way to allow guests to smoke a cigar in its elegant lobby lounge while still observing California's restrictive smoking laws.

Essentially, the decision was "Solomonic": the lounge was divided in two. On one side you can have a drink and dine. Walk across the Oriental carpets and Carrarra marble to the other half when you finish eating and enjoy your cigar amid a luxurious decor, including nineteenth-century Baccarat chandeliers.

"Our philosophy is simple," says general manager Christopher Steuri. "We will try our best to provide any service that is legal and within reason." Steuri smiles, then adds discreetly, "There are just too many examples to name just one."

Elie Zod, the director of operations, and Gary Hallinan, the restaurant manager, remember several, especially the time that one guest arrived late for a meeting. His luggage had been lost by the airline and he needed a clean shirt. A bellman gave the guest the shirt off his back and the guest made his meeting.

If cost is no object, at $4,000 a day you might as well stay at least one night in the Presidential Suite. Apart from its own fully stocked wine rack, the unique part of this suite is the view of downtown San Francisco that you get from the bathtub. Sean Connery stayed in the suite for six weeks while filming The Rock.

Service is foremost at the Stanford Court, but comfort attracts equal attention. The rooms are appointed with antiques and painted either a soothing shade of blue or green. There are at least two phones in each room and babysitters on call; room service, laundry and a "hotline" phone to the general manager are all available 24 hours a day.

Eat as often as possible in the redundantly named but highly regarded Fournou's Ovens (in Portuguese, fournou means oven). Chef Mathew Dokoupil's cuisine is a very creative Mediterranean, much of which is roasted in the 54-square-foot roasting oven covered with hand-painted Portuguese tiles.

You will do very well if you order several appetizers for the table. Be sure to try the delicately baked lobster strudel with artichoke, baby spinach and a citrus creme fraiche. The kitchen might send out some small delights, of which the most robustly distinctive could be a grilled fig with prosciutto in a balsamic reduction. While Fournou's is known for its Sonoma lamb, anything from the grill is excellent.

The wine list is superb, as indicated by Fournou's having been a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1991. The emphasis is on California wines, but the list holds some old vintages--such as a 1945 Château Lafite Rothschild and a 1945 Château Margaux--at reasonable prices.

If you overindulge, worry not. Take a walk around historic Nob Hill and smoke a double corona. You could just go to the cigar lounge, but then you might never want to leave.

Alejandro Benes is a businessman and writer in Washington, D.C.

The Renaissance Stanford Court Hotel
905 California Street
Phone (415) 989-3500
Rates Rooms from $270 to $4,000