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Reinventing San Francisco

Catherine Ledner A view of the Ferry Building tower from the Embarcadero.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

On the theory that nothing lifts a hangover like a good bar, I go to meet the masterminds behind Otis, a combination restaurant-hangout–private club near Union Square, at the site of the former Iron Horse, which used to be an old boys–martini sort of place. Damon White, one of the partners, grew up in Harlem and worked in Los Angeles as an actor and a promoter before arriving in San Francisco. He says he noticed there was something lacking in the local nightlife: sex appeal. So White and his partner, Joseph Latimore, burrowed into their Rolodexes and decided they could make a significant mark by creating a club in the most traditional sense: one with a members-only policy. It would be a sort of Soho House for the Golden Gate–society set, a West Coast outpost of the kind of spot more readily associated with New York or London or Berlin.

In fact, Nicolo Bini, Otis's architect, cuts quite a figure in local society (I see his photo in the social pages of the paper three times while I'm in town). Bini tells me he looked at the city itself for inspiration: Otis's eclectic décor reflects San Francisco's nutty amalgam of flamboyant and folksy—a mural is painted with gold leaf, the light fixtures are modeled after costumes worn by Moroccan belly dancers, and porcelain antlers decorate the walls. "There's so much here, such cultural diversity," Bini says, beaming. When I point out that Otis's door policy seems antithetical to the ethos of the town, he looks genuinely hurt. "No, no! We're going to find a way to have different age groups, different income levels. We want diversity! We want it to be like a juke joint." I have my doubts—it hasn't been my experience that freewheeling, inclusive nightspots have a VIP list—but then again, there's something sweet about this longing for sophistication and polish in a city that tends to eschew the merest whiff of affectation.

Though Otis is Union Square's single haute boîte, there have long been plenty of high-end shops in the area, including Gump's, the old-line San Francisco department store that sits just across the street from Otis. As long as I'm in the neighborhood, I visit a few favorites: Lang Antiques, for its ravishing heirloom jewels; Babette, whose Issey Miyake–ish clothes are perfect for travel; Wilkes Bashford, where I covet the alligator loafers; and Three Bags Full, a sweater store specializing in hand knits, many from England, that sell 12 months a year in this crisp climate. I pause for a moment to mourn the passing of City of Paris, a department store with a fabulous glass dome on Union Square. Neiman Marcus gutted the space (save for the dome, which is still extant) after preservationists waged, and ultimately lost, a fierce battle.

Early the next morning, I take a taxi to the almost finished De Young Museum. The driver, who is brimming with enthusiasm as he takes me out to the site, is hardly the only one excited about the museum's new building—Nicolo Bini fairly crowed when I brought up the De Young. "It's turning San Francisco around! There have been a lot of naysayers, but it'll knock your socks off!" I'm ready to lose my socks as the cab meanders through Golden Gate Park and pulls up to the reborn museum, which, despite its avant-garde exterior—including a striking overhang, ribbon of windows, and spectacular observation floor—looks right at home in the park.

The old De Young was irreparably damaged in the 1989 earthquake. When it came time to rebuild, municipal funding problems emerged, so Dede Wilsey, a reigning society queen (and the subject of a scathing new memoir by her stepson, Sean Wilsey, that casts her as an evil stepmother), raised the money single-handedly. The famed Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron was hired to design it, and though the result is uncompromisingly modern, the De Young is nothing like, say, New York's Whitney Museum, a building that always seems to have a chip on its massive shoulder.

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