San Francisco, CA

Puttin' on the Ritz in San Francisco

Clay Kallam
Photo byRitz-Carlton San Francisco

Karl the Fog creeps in on little cat feet (to quote another Carl), but Karl the Cocktail arrives with spectacle.

Karl is just one of several Neighborhood Cocktails on offer at the Ritz-Carlton’s Lounge, but it is definitely the most eye-catching. A somewhat sinister black device begins the show, and delivers a gray sphere that resembles a snow globe in shape and size.

It was perched on top of Belvedere vodka and a liqueur made from red grapes, hibiscus and elderflower, and left us wondering what to do next. I certainly couldn’t swallow it, and it wasn’t exactly clear what was inside it.

Suddenly, though, the bubble burst, releasing wisps of grey fog that hovered over the drink and slowly drifted over the side of the glass before dissipating, as if the afternoon sun had finally broken through the summer fog to reveal bright blue skies.

That was our reintroduction to the dining experience at the Ritz-Carlton, and it was an auspicious beginning to a delightful evening.

First, The Lounge itself. It appears as soon as you step inside, lit by tall windows that look out over the Ritz-Carlton gardens. Not surprisingly, it’s stylishly decorated, combining both stately charm and a touch of the new. (Of course, you pay for all this glamor. The Neighborhood cocktails start at $24.)

It’s not a dining room, and is intended to be a bar rather than a restaurant. But Parallel 37, the official dining room, hasn’t reopened after the pandemic, so The Lounge now does double duty.

It may not quite have the same feel as the heyday of The Dining Room, the predecessor to Parallel 37, which was a focal point for the cream of San Francisco society. But even though Herb Caen and Willie Brown aren’t regulars at The Lounge (which would be hard, as Caen has moved on to that Great Fog Bank in the Sky), it’s still a great spot for a special evening.

After all, there’s a reason “puttin’ on the Ritz” has been a byword for living the high life since Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1927, and after another Neighborhood cocktail and an order of deliciously fresh oysters, the fact that we weren’t in the old main dining room faded into irrelevance. (Plans call, by the way, for the full dining room to reopen sometime in 2024.)

Baked artichoke stems crusted with a corn-based mixture were another winner, followed by halibut fresh from Bodega Bay and stinging nettle pappardelle with a perfectly balanced lamb ragu. For dessert, a strawberry Swiss roll arrived that was light, flavorful and, of course, wonderful.

So even if you may not glimpse legendary journalists or the most powerful politicians quite as often, the Ritz-Carlton still offers both glamor and gravitas. The Nob Hill structure dates back to 1909, a few short years after the earthquake, and it was a substantial investment in a city still struggling to recover. Its original intent was to house the Pacific Coast headquarters of Metropolitan Life Insurance, but in 1991, it was remodeled and recast as the Ritz-Carlton.

Subsequent renovations have only added to the luster of the classical Greek columns above the entry, and the regal presence of a building that covers almost an entire block.

That expanse, of course, has nothing on Karl the Fog’s domain, but after a couple Karl the Cocktails, it will hardly matter.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to

Walnut Creek, CA

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