Concierge Confidential: The Ritz-Carlton’s Kelly Richie Shares All Her San Francisco Secrets
A veteran hotel concierge of more than 20 years shares her favorite restaurants, bars, shops and secrets around the Golden City
This is Concierge Confidential, a series in which we learn about a city’s best-kept secrets from people who specialize in exactly that: long-serving concierges from the swankiest hotels in town.
Shortly after graduating from Florida State University, Kelly Richie picked up, moved west and, in 1998, landed in San Francisco. Pretty soon thereafter, following a brief stint as a cocktail server, she decided on a career change.
”I drove down California Street and saw this amazing building, and I actually didn’t know what it was. I walked inside and asked if they were hiring. Turns out, it was a hotel,” Richie says. “[More specifically], it was the Ritz-Carlton.”
In March of 2000 — just nine years after the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco first opened its doors — Richie began as a front desk agent and within just six months, it became abundantly clear that she belonged at the concierge desk. More than 21 years later, and fresh off a pandemic, it’s a sentiment that rings truer than ever.
“When 2020 happened I did realize that this was really the only industry I belonged in, and I’ve really, really missed customer service. I missed the hospitality, I missed everything about it.”
Richie has spent the bulk of her career (15 years, to be exact) affiliated with Les Clefs d’Or, the national association of professional hotel concierges, the prerequisites of which include a minimum of five years in a concierge position plus an additional year or so of applications and testing.
Given her extensive background coupled with her obvious love for the Bay Area, we (correctly) assumed that Richie would make the perfect candidate to dish on all things San Francisco: where to get the best cup of coffee, how to make the most out of a stay at the Ritz-Carlton and the one thing locals hate the most. Below, everything you could possibly need to know in advance of your next trip to the Golden City.
InsideHook: Let’s start with some dining. What’s a bar or restaurant that only locals go to?
Kelly Richie: The Toronado, which is in the Haight, Haight and Fillmore, so it’d be lower Haight area, not as quite high up as Haight-Ashbury, which most people are familiar with. They have over 40 beers on tap. It’s definitely one of those places that you will only find San Francisco city people at. The restaurant that mostly only locals go to is Sam Wo’s. It’s over 100 years old, it’s Cantonese Chinese.They used to be known for their late night dining — they used to be open until 3:00 AM — and actually they became super popular because they were known for having the rudest waiter of all time. He’s no longer there, and their hours of operation have changed, but the food is so fantastic. I actually haven’t been in a little bit, but everything on the menu [used to be] $3, it didn’t matter what you ordered.
What about a good late night spot?
Cat Club. The Cat Club is a nightclub in SoMa, so South of Market area. They do themed nights, which is super fun. They have cage dancing for anyone to go into, one at a time (maybe that’s changed now, I don’t know). They’re open, but their theme nights are anywhere from the ’80s to bondage to go-go.
Best cheap eats in town?
The Italian Homemade Company, in North Beach. Everything’s fresh, and nothing’s over $13, which is pretty spectacular for San Francisco. You can definitely get a full meal, too. They have gnocchi and you can mix — you pick your pasta and then you pick your sauce. They do flatbread as well.
What’s the best time of the day to get my table of choice?
Anytime after 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. — our city is very sleepy. We’re not like New York at all, we don’t like late-night dining. Especially with COVID — most restaurants’ last seating tends to be 9:00 these days.
Is there a time of year when that’s even easier to find?
Avoid any of those breaks, whether that be a school break or holiday break. Early November, early December — those are two really great times. Even mid-January, after we have the conferences here, the Bay area is pretty wide open.
I’m venturing out from the Ritz-Carlton and in pursuit of brunch. Where are you sending me?
Brenda’s Soul Food Kitchen. It’s about a mile from [our] property, so it’s on Polk and Eddy Street. They definitely have the best bloody marys, and fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.
What about a good place for cup of coffee and a nice walk?
The Warming Hut down by Crissy Field. I would grab a cup of coffee and walk the beach line. Crissy Field used to be a U.S. Army field in the 1920s — it’s along the water that has the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. You can watch kite surfers there, you can walk towards Fort Point, you’ll see sea lions as well and sometimes a whale. It’s just beautiful. They do have very good coffee there, but it’s really the San Francisco experience you’re going to get out of that.
What about the best coffee shop for people watching?
That’s in North Beach. Caffe Trieste, it’s on Vallejo. They were the first espresso coffee house in the West in the ’50s. They have live music, sidewalk seating — it’s great for people watching. North Beach is our lively district. It’s very much like the North End in Boston.
Describe a great date night out in the city.
I would go to The Vault Garden for cocktails. It’s an outdoor oasis in the Financial District, located on the patio of the 555 California building. It’s heated and covered, so you can be out there year round, and [it’s got] spectacular views of San Francisco. Then, after cocktails, I would ride the cable car down towards the Embarcadero to have dinner at Waterbar. Waterbar is our most prestigious seafood restaurant, located along the Embarcadero and underneath the Bay Bridge. The Bay Bridge is lit at night and there’s a light show in the evenings. You get spectacular views and the food is amazing. You can sit and have some oysters and champagne or a full-service meal. The seared scallops are to die for. Then, if your date’s going really well, I would walk towards Pier 7. Pier 7’s a little secret spot in San Francisco. It’s an empty pier that goes all the way out, right underneath the Bay Bridge. It’s an old fishing pier, but it’s super romantic, and usually you’ll stumble across somebody playing some instrument there, too. It’s really lovely.
Where do singles hang out?
In the Marina, the Cow Hollow neighborhood is probably the most popular area for that. And I would say Balboa Cafe would be the best spot for singles. It’s one of the PlumpJack Group restaurants. It’s been around for a long time, and it is always busy, and definitely a good pickup spot.
Where should I go for a day spent outside?
North Beach is a great area to be. Really, from our hotel straight to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s only a mile and a quarter. So if you’re spending a day outside, you could do that walk from the Ritz, which is Nob Hill, into Chinatown, into North Beach, and end that at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s this great walk through four different neighborhoods in a mile and a quarter and it gives a great overview of San Francisco and different experiences.
Can’t miss shopping experience off the beaten path?
Hayes Valley. It’s definitely more small local boutique shopping there, where you can get home furnishings, home decor, etc. It’s really cute. They’ve got some of the greatest restaurants over there, too. No chains, just all local vendors. And, again, about two miles from us, so it’s really not that far either.
Give me the perfect spot for an Instagram-worthy photo …
Lovers’ Lane, it’s in the Presidio and it is … God, it’s just so beautiful. Presidio is about, I don’t know, maybe three miles from the hotel. And it is probably, I would imagine, one of the most photographed areas in the region. The Presidio was an old army base, and this is right off of one of the main roads in the Presidio. The foothills are just beautiful, and it’s not far from the bridge.
What’s the easiest way to get around? Because after all this strolling, I’m probably looking for an alternative to walking.
Uber and Lyft are still probably the best way. I wouldn’t rely on taxis at all anymore and the cable cars don’t go around the entire city. So I would say Uber and Lyft are going to be the best way.
What is a unique service that the Ritz-Carlton offers that I won’t find elsewhere?
We definitely have the largest and only full-service club lounge in San Francisco. Our guests on the club level receive exclusive access to the club lounge, complimentary food and beverage presentations throughout the day, including wine and cocktails. And in the evening hours, the hors d’oeuvres are themed. For example, on Monday nights we feature a night market menu, where the guests are transported to the streets of Asia with dumplings and Shanghai noodles, and on Tuesday, we do Taco Tuesday, with tequila cocktails and homemade tacos. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Tell me more about the Respite Concierge program that you guys just launched. It’s up and running now, correct?
Yes. It’s been a challenging year, so the Respite Concierge program was designed for guests to respite in the city through curated lists of experiences in three distinct categories: retail, recreation and relaxation. This new program, in partnership with coveted local businesses, offers a variety of experiences available at special rates exclusive to our guests. [For example] you can experience a private tai chi session with a local Tai Master, Rebecca Grossbard, or a personalized shopping experience at Saks Fifth Avenue with champagne upon their arrival. They’ll also deliver any packages that you end up purchasing from them. With the hills, that definitely is a bonus around here.
What is, in your opinion, the most underutilized part of the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco?
Our beautiful courtyard. It features a landscape garden, water fountain and city views. It’s an ideal spot for fresh air, a good book, cup of coffee and some downtime. People never take advantage of it, I’m not sure why.
Any potential issues I should be worried about, or pay attention to when it comes to public transportation, like busiest times, delays, etc.?
Not really. Our public transportation’s only really just coming back honestly, but it’s like every other major city — don’t have your purse wide open, don’t wear your headphones at all times, be aware when you’re on a city bus. I do think there have been more car break-ins … even in the Golden Gate Park or Fisherman’s Wharf. I tell all of our guests not to leave one thing in your car, including a phone cord. That is one of the harder things we’re dealing with right now.
What is a lesser known cultural institution worth visiting, like a museum or a music venue?
The Castro Theater. It’s a historical movie palace with beautiful ceilings. It was built to look like a tent inside. They’re really well known for their singalongs, with any movie that comes out. It’s usually themed during holiday times and it is spectacular. [They haven’t reopened yet], but it’s the perfect place to go.
What is a cool architectural site that’s not mobbed with tourists, or just anything that’s not mobbed with tourists?
The Sentinel Building, or the Columbus Tower. It’s on Kearny Street, which is North Beach. Francis Ford Coppola actually owns it. It is a beautiful building, curved on a corner. And it’s actually where he wrote a lot of his famous movies — he still owns it today. It was copper but it’s turning green because of the weather, so it’s a very cool building to see from the outside.
What’s the best thing I can only do in San Francisco?
Alcatraz. We are the only ones that have it. I will say the cable cars, but I know that you can do those in Portugal. So I will definitely stick with Alcatraz.
And what is the best thing I can only get in San Francisco?
Hangar 1 is a vodka distillery that’s in Alameda, which is across the Bay Bridge, that infuses one of their vodkas and it’s only done and sold here in San Francisco, and it’s the San Francisco Fog Point vodka. It’s pretty expensive, because it is limited and you can only get that here in our area.
What about something that tourists tend to do that really annoys locals?
They call San Francisco San Fran. The locals absolutely can’t stand that.
Tourist trap to avoid at all costs?
Buying any Chinatown art work. You’ll see a sign that’ll say, “Persian rug $25,000 now $2,000.” Why did it just drop from $25 grand to $2,000, for what reason? That should alert you that something’s not right, but people still buy it. So I probably wouldn’t do that.
What’s one thing you wish you could tell all of your guests in advance of their trip to San Francisco, particularly those who might be visiting for the first time?
For those that really are unaware of our weather patterns in San Francisco, we don’t have warm weather ever, not even in the summer. I can’t tell you out of the 20 years that I’ve been here, how many 4th of Julys you end up seeing people in “San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf” sweatshirts because they had no idea how cold it was going to be. We tell everybody when you’re visiting San Francisco, come prepared with layers. Even in the summertime, you are looking at high 50s.
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