Concierge Confidential: Tom Wolfe, America’s First Concierge, Shares His City Scoops From Fairmont San Francisco
Top tips from the OG American concierge
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 best hotels in town.
Tom Wolfe, the chief concierge and director of heritage at Fairmont San Francisco, truly is the OG American concierge. “I became the first concierge in the United States back in 1974,” Wolfe recalls. He also founded the American branch of Les Clefs d’Or, the prestigious international organization of top hotel concierges, once others had also begun to serve as concierges in U.S. hotels.
And while Wolfe hasn’t spent his whole career at Fairmont San Francisco (he was Japan’s first hotel concierge, too), he’s been a fixture at the famed five-star hotel on the hill for the past 26 years and knows everything there is to know about having a great time in the Golden City.
What’s an underutilized part of your hotel?
We have a beautiful room downstairs near the Tonga Room called the Vanderbilt Room. When you walk in there, you feel almost like you’re in Versailles! It’s very rococo, with lots of mirrors in it, very ornate and elaborate and beautiful. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous room.
Where do singles hang out?
The Marina District has Union Street and Chestnut Street as its main thoroughfares. Single people go there — it’s a nice crowd, not a rowdy crowd.
Late night spot where I can get into a bit of trouble? (But not too much trouble!)
There’s a bar and restaurant down in the Mission called ABV. And their bar goes until about two a.m., and the kitchen is open till midnight, so you can even eat very late there. There’s not so many late-night spots like that these days.
Where can I go for the best dessert?
Cafe Jacqueline, over in North Beach. All they serve are soufflés, done perfectly.
Best place for a sunset cocktail?
Waterbar on the San Francisco side, down near the Bay Bridge — it has a gorgeous view of that bridge, which is the underappreciated bridge because it’s much more beautiful than the Golden Gate Bridge. It has illuminations at night. To be down there and just watching those and sitting outside on a nice evening is a good thing to do.
Where should I go in the area for a day spent outside?
I jump on the ferry boat and go over to Sausalito. I love Sausalito. That’s a great place to go. It’s always 10 degrees warmer there.
Best neighborhood to take a four-hour stroll if I want to get acquainted with a more “authentic” side of the city?
I go out to the Richmond District, near Geary and Balboa streets. When you get out into the 20th Avenue blocks, it is Little Russia. So you’ve got Little Russia there, that’s really cool, and also, just one block north, you’ve got Clement Street and this rather good-sized Chinatown with lots and lots of places.
What’s the easiest way to get around town, in terms of transportation?
If you’re wanting to just go from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, then Uber is your best bet. We invented it here. If you want to do public transport, including the cable car and Muni Metro, that’s absolutely doable as well.
What’s a lesser-known cultural institution worth visiting?
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, which is relatively new, and is very good. They have some really interesting things there.
What’s a cool architectural site that’s not mobbed with tourists?
The Palace of Fine Arts, which is over near and on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, in the Marina area. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building.
What’s the best thing you can only get in your city?
The best thing you can only get in San Francisco, that’s easy — the Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café. That’s where it was first introduced to the USA lo those many years ago, in the 1950s. And they still serve about 3000 a day. That’s the best coffee you’ll ever have.
What’s something that tourists tend to do that really annoys locals?
Well, don’t call it Frisco. That’s kind of cliché.
What’s an item or activity that tourists tend to get ripped off on? Any tips on how to avoid that?
Alcatraz tickets. Go to the official website and you won’t get ripped off. It’s www.Alcatrazcruises.com. And then you just plug in the day and the date that you want to go and you’ll be able to get the tickets, which you should buy as far ahead of time as you can. When Alcatraz is sold out, it is really sold out.
I’m looking for a low-key brunch. Where to?
There’s a place called Mymy Coffee Shop that’s just down the street from us. And they serve wonderful breakfast every day. There you can have your Eggs Benny about five different ways.
Best place to eat a meal or have a beer outside when the weather’s better?
When the weather’s great, I gravitate to North Beach, which is our Little Italy. Columbus Avenue, which runs right through North Beach, has a lot of outdoor places where you can sit and dine al fresco or just have a drink or whatever.
What’s the one thing everyone forgets to pack? Or the one thing everyone should remember to pack when visiting?
The one thing everyone should remember to pack when visiting San Francisco are warm clothes. It can be arctic here — forget the shorts and flip flops!
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