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Arts & Entertainment

Dead by day, a party at night—could new sky-high bars save downtown? 

Union Square might be fading as a daytime shopping destination. But the opposite dynamic is happening at night.

People socialize in a cozy night-time lounge with a cityscape backdrop. Drinks on tables, warm lighting, and a relaxed ambiance.
UC Davis students Catherine Kavalauskas, Blaire Cocotis and Elea Gueorguiev celebrate Cocotis’ birthday at Charmaine’s rooftop bar and lounge at the Proper Hotel. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

Despite the all-day rain last Saturday, and the bad-news binge of the preceding week, bargoers at the Starlite Lounge were feeling neither gloom nor doom. Instead, they were pressed three-deep against the bar, sipping Porn Star Martinis atop the 21st floor of the Beacon Grand Hotel, the city a basket of sparkling jewels beneath them. 

Tenderloin resident Cantwell Muckenfuss (their real name) had come for the “views and the vibes” and to show their out-of-town friend the skyline. Jessica B. and Zach P., who live in Marin and didn't want to give their last names, were there to meet Barbie Bloodgloss (her stage name), who used to dance burlesque at Starlite’s earlier incarnation. 

Some were drawn here out of nostalgia, like San Francisco resident Ron Schivo, who returned to the bar with his family after getting married at the property 30 years ago. Others were there for a birthday party. But not one of the guests The Standard spoke with was moping about the announced closure of the Macy’s store across the street. 

A blurry night scene with bright lights, a neon sign, and "BEACON GRAND" sign above an illuminated entrance.
A guest leaves the Beacon Grand Hotel, where Harry Denton's famed Starlight Room has been reborn as Starlite. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

Union Square and the surrounding area is changing, yes, but that’s a daytime story, a death-of-retail story. At night, there’s surprisingly a new and bustling scene emerging in select pockets of downtown San Francisco. You just have to look up to find it. 

Up high is where the action is  

As retail outlets continue to shutter and the return to downtown offices feels like a fairy tale, there’s another tale quietly unfolding in downtown San Francisco: the renaissance of hotel bars and restaurants, many of which are perched sky-high and are supported more by locals than by hotel guests. 

Over the past year, the openings have been fast and furious—and they keep coming. They include but are not limited to: 

  • Chotto Matte, the immense Nikkei dining destination, opened on the roof of the Macy’s men’s building in October 2023.  
  • Before the rebirth of Starlite in February 2024, the Beacon Grand opened the Post Room, an elegant lounge and restaurant, in November 2023 with live piano music and a crackling fire in front of its rare whisky collection.
  • The new Corzetti restaurant in Hotel G opened in August 2023 to serve up zesty Ligurian Italian food in a sprawling dining room decorated with appropriate-to-the-food citrus wallpaper. 
  • Dark Bar opened in the Line Hotel last month, an intimate 30-seater with an Asian-inspired spirits list, joining the rooftop bar Rise Over Run that opened in the fall of last year.  
  • Over on Powell Street, a block away from the cable car turnaround—where nearly every retail storefront is available for lease—the Hotel Barnes along the same strip recently expanded its dining options and hours and added live music on Thursdays. 

The glut of new options adds to the many hotel bars in the city, already iconic destinations and still going strong, many of which have lines even on weekdays: the Fairmont Hotel’s Tonga Room, the Top of the Mark restaurant, the Pied Piper at the Palace Hotel. 

A nighttime street scene with a light trail blur from a moving vehicle, a wet parking meter, and parked cars in front of a building.
The PLS on Post (short for “peace, love and soul”) restaurant and bar at the Zeppelin Hotel opened last August. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

When Ben Malmquist, the general manager for the Hotel Zeppelin, opened the restaurant PLS on Post last August, the clientele surprised him. Less than a third of those dining at the 1960s-themed restaurant were tourists, with the remainder a mix of locals and people coming into the city for the day.  

“We thought it would be more hotel guests, but it was exactly the opposite,” he said. 

The restaurant took off, and demand has been high enough that it’s expanding both its footprint and its hours. Hotel Zeppelin plans to repurpose a private event space into a new bar as well as expand the hours and days of operation for PLS on Post to meet the demand for late-night dining. 

A DJ at a mixer with people mingling in a dimly lit indoor space.
Val Sinckler of New York, middle, dances to a DJ set during a Noise Pop event at the Line Hotel in downtown San Francisco. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

Antonio Flores, the general manager at the Line Hotel, whose new rooftop bar opened just six months ago, said the local population has been crucial at both Dark Bar and Rise Over Run, which includes varied seating areas, tons of fire pits and lots of events—everything from Los Angeles DJs to sound baths to a Noise Pop happy hour, all in an attempt to make it a destination. 

“Locals are rallying around supporting the businesses that are here,” Malmquist said. 

Raising the rooftop

With our chilly twilights and fog-clogged skies, San Francisco might not seem right for rooftop festivities. But cloud-scraping perches keep opening—and existing ones are becoming more popular, many of them affiliated with hotels.  

“You can count on one hand the buildings in San Francisco that are over 10 stories,” said Starlite-goer Zach P. 

People socializing in a cozy bar with a backlit shelf of bottles.
Michelle E. Medici of South Beach, right, Jamielin and Marissa LaMar of Mission Bay enjoy the rooftop bar and lounge Charmaine's. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

With the news of Macy’s closure, it was the rooftop restaurant the Cheesecake Factory that provoked the most nostalgia. Hotel Zeppelin’s sister property, Hotel Zelos, is expanding the hours of its rooftop bar Dirty Habit. Charmaine’s, the buzzy rooftop bar atop the Proper Hotel, was completely remodeled in 2020. 

The Macy’s men’s building may be closed, but its rooftop is buzzing. People traveled from across the Bay Area on a rain-soaked Saturday to Chotto Matte, the 450-seat Nikkei fusion restaurant. With a DJ spinning and plates of sashimi and ceviche pouring out of the open kitchens, not a single table inside was free. 

“Rooftop spaces are really special,” Malmquist said. “The views in San Francisco are unmatched.” 

Two people stand by a fire pit on a rooftop at night with city lights in the background.
UC Davis students Catherine Kavalauskas and Blaire Cocotis prepare to take a picture on the rooftop of Charmaine's bar and lounge at the Proper Hotel. | Source: Manuel Orbegozo for The Standard

According to the Union Square Alliance, 2023 saw 728,000 more visitors to the area than in 2022—an increase of 7%, but still considerably down from pre-pandemic levels. Despite the doomsday focus of some media outlets, larceny crime is down, and foot traffic is up. Over the last 17 months, 30 new businesses have opened and signed deals in and around Union Square. The full list includes grab-and-go outposts like Miller & Lux Provisions Café, high-end returns like the decadent French restaurant Jeanne D’Arc and even a “luxury” yoga studio: Hot 8

Malmquist, who has worked in the downtown hospitality sector for 10 years, understands San Francisco as cyclical, a city of booms and busts. 

“We’re in a period of reinvention,” he said. “There’s a recovery underway.”