The Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. | Brock Keeling
My No. 1 spot.
Dancing at the Stud. Helping my mom trim back the mint in her garden. Getting a bear hug from a pal during my Saturday movie nights. These are things I miss while most businesses remain closed and social-distancing guidelines are in effect because of the pandemic. One of the things I didn’t realize how much I loved until it was gone: the luxe bathroom hidden inside the Four Seasons.
I felt its absence during my regular Saturday-morning walk through the wasteland that is now San Francisco, tumbleweeds rolling through its empty streets, nary a clang-clang-clang from a cable car to be detected. Armed with a large cold brew, my journey on foot along Market Street was suddenly cut short: I had to pee. None of the regular pit stops were available. Cafés, usually a safe bet for the price of a scone, were only serving curbside orders. Restaurants, where I could usually camouflage myself as a brunch customer, were closed. Even big-box retail stores like Target, deemed essential, taped off their petri-dish bathrooms to patrons. Short of unleashing a flood onto city streets or on the corner of a building, which is as illegal as it is unsightly, there was nowhere to go.
Forget toilet paper and King Arthur Flour; the real COVID-era commodity is a peaceful public bathroom. But not just any tidy restroom — one that is free of charge and impossibly dignified.
My surest and chicest bet for bladder relief — the lobby bathroom inside the Four Seasons hotel — wasn’t open. Frequenting this WC, I have spotted such well-known hotel residents as former Google VP Marissa Mayer and publishing heir William Randolph Hearst III, not to mention LeBron James and his sidekick Kevin Love, who have stayed here during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA championship matchups against the Golden State Warriors.
I’ve grown accustomed to popping in for nearly a decade since moving into the SoMa neighborhood. Smack-dab between two Muni stations, the Four Seasons is the most luxurious place to relieve myself prior to jumping on grimy public transit.
What makes this tony toilet a find — as opposed to similarly luxe loos at the nearby St. Regis or W hotels — is that it doesn’t require a key code or room key for entrance, two tells for less than stellar lodgings. Trust is part of the five-star experience!
And during the pre-COVID era, when the hotel was open, it was a fun little treat for me when nature rang. Located in the second-floor lobby, as opposed to ground level, this hotel didn’t have throngs of tourists wandering in to muck up the facilities. To gain access to the lobby level, you must walk in through glass doors opened by Beefeaterlike friendly faces, head down a corridor past the private residential entrance, nod confidently at a buffer concierge as if you were a key-holder to one of the 277 beautifully appointed rooms, and take a two-floor elevator up to the lobby.
The bathroom itself, tucked into a forgotten corridor, is hard to find. But once you get there, you will be richly rewarded: The white marble men’s bathroom has gleaming porcelain urinals set in an alcove, two sinks with L’Occitane en Provence soap and moisturizer in frosted glass canisters, and four private water closets with floor-to-ceiling doors (no tacky under-stall checking going on here) for less delicate moments. And the finishing touch, paper towels, waiting patiently in a basket, so thick and absorbent that hand-drying requires only one of them.
Another amenity is that, save for the occasional tourist or hotel-restaurant patron looking to unleash, I’m one of the only people inside the bathroom.
As it becomes possible again to get your favorite burrito or scone — restaurants have begun reopening for open-air dining — others also yearn to return to their favorite powder rooms.
“I super-miss using the bathroom at the Westin St. Francis,” says Rachael Schafer, a San Francisco–based illustrator who says the facility at the famed Union Square hotel, née the St. Francis Hotel, is her preferred pit stop. “It’s got a lounge with vintage photos on the wall; it’s my urban oasis.”
But not everyone sticks to hotel-lobby toilets. Restaurant bathrooms, which, as a roast chicken is to a chef’s talent, can encapsulate the vibe of an entire eatery, are equally as missed. Eugenia Chien, founder of Muni Diaries, says that the WC at North Beach’s Family Cafe, once a fried-chicken joint and now a Japanese neighborhood restaurant, has, among other things, runway-ready wallpaper.
“Their bathroom really has style: The wallpaper is Christian Lacroix, and there’s always a little squat jar of carnations or a thoughtful little touch like an origami crane,” she says. “The café is so small that on one visit, as I was coming out of the bathroom, I bumped right into a man who decided to give me a five-minute impromptu concert using the guitar that was hanging on the café wall.”
Another restaurant bathroom, the Michelin two-star sparkler Lazy Bear, which features a slew of miniature bear figurines and paintings, excites patrons who can afford to plunk down $195 for a meal inside the Mission District hot spot. And then there are the lavatories inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which underwent a major renovation in 2016 by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta. Each floor now comes equipped with a bathroom decked out in a single color: red, charcoal, green, teal, and violet.
When this pandemic is all over and S.F. lodgings can once again open for business — Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties have allowed some hotels to reopen, but not so in San Francisco, with no opening date on the horizon — I’ll stick to the polished private lavatory at the Four Seasons, a mere five blocks from my ramshackle, pre-1906-quake apartment. It’s a serene, lightly-scented space that isn’t overrun with people or signs of past use. A small moment of hygiene-related escapism that, however brief, takes me out of the city’s usual horror show of $14 pour-overs, examples of economic inequality and distress, and business vacancies galore. My paycheck-to-paycheck life in the country’s most expensive city is, for a moment, flushed away.