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A Lavish Laurel Court Breakfast Buffet

Warning: the reading of the following post may cause excessive salivation. Prepare to dribble. Might be an idea to grab a cuppa, too, cos it’s longish… But you know what I’m like when we talk food, right?

The lobby at The Fairmont.

At long last Monsieur and I could begin our much-needed honeymoon in earnest. In the course of a few short days we’d said our I Dos, celebrated in style, travelled across the globe in spite of that inconsiderate Icelandic volcano and were now safely in San Francisco. At the airport they’d run out of moderate-sized cars so upgraded us to a mammoth of a bright white SUV that had so much interior space that Monsieur and I felt like a pair of Smurfs driving along the freeway. Ah yes, we had definitely arrived in The Land of Super-Size Everything.

Following a sleep so deep that we could have been mistaken for a pair of new stone effigies in neighbouring Grace Cathedral, we were now in dire need of breakfast, so followed our noses down to the lobby in search of much black coffee and eggs with everything. It would be quite factual to say that we were quite empty and desperate to refuel.

Breakfast at The Fairmont is served in a circular room located just off the main lobby. Called The Laurel Court it boasts a triple-domed ceiling and walls painted with wistful Italianate landscapes. As we found, this is a low-lit haven where food for the famished may be found at most times of the day. What’s more, the menu reads like a gastro-geek’s dream AND even better, the ingredients are ‘locally sourced, organic, or sustainable items wherever possible.’ Not to mention that ‘all cuisine is prepared without artificial trans fat’.( I hasten to add that at this point in time trans fats were the last thing on our hungry minds but it was nice to know that we could chow down with a clear conscience. Ish.)

Barely skimming the menu in our starved state, Monsieur and I decided to go for the Deluxe Hot Buffet which, quite frankly, was a bargain for $28.00 (at least, it was the way we did it). We enjoyed bottomless freshly-squeezed orange juice, ice water and coffee, and tucked right into the buffet. Our word of that particular morning was “more!” and with good reason because we hadn’t eaten properly for almost a day. That’s right, people, a full 24 hours without food and we didn’t do it for charity. FYI: I do not classify the plastic wrapped oozy object that the airline called ‘a light meal’ as food.

Laurel Court at The Fairmont.

On the bakery island we found pastries so soft and fragrant that they must have just been lifted out of The Fairmont’s own ovens. The varieties of bread catered for all palates, including the densest, darkest pumpernickel and multiple multi-grained breads alongside classic rye, sourdough, sweet brioches and slices of downright ordinary white. There were baskets of bagels, piles of fat scones from both sweet and savoury recipes, granola and porridge for cereal-lovers, a selection of cheeses from nearby Sonoma and a veritable charcuterie of cured meats. The low-fat raspberry yoghurt was the fullest tasting low-fat variety I’ve ever had the joy to slurp and the platter of fresh fruit sat so heavy with sliced melons, bulbous berries, Californian oranges and squeaky shiny apples that it reminded me somehow of The Garden of Eden.

Beneath stainless steel covers in the hot foods buffet we found bacon and sausages and morning-fried potatoes. Then a smile spread across my husband’s face: he’d found the eggs Benedict.

It always makes me nervous when Monsieur eats eggs Benedict that have been made by non-Epicurienne chefs, just in case he finds some that are better than mine. I sat and watched his face carefully as he took a bite and ruminated over his Benedictine cud. “They’re very good,” he said, “but not as good as yours.” Thank the Epicurean Lord of all things edible. I could now resume breathing. You see, Monsieur is a highly critical eater and my eggs Benedict are in the top three things I make that so far no one else has been able to beat, but I live in (slight) fear of the day when he finds a preferable alternative to my version. Silly, I know, but I’m a bit competitive about my eggs ben…

Anyway, in our time at The Fairmont, Monsieur and I enjoyed two Laurel Court breakfasts and were intensely gratified by both. On one occasion I joined Monsieur in trying the eggs Benedict, to find that he was indeed correct in his appraisal that they were very good (but I also prefer mine). On the other occasion, I asked the egg chef to make me an omelette with tomatoes, scallions, wild mushrooms and mozzarella. Once again, it was very good, but The Epicurean Brother makes them better. I gave Monsieur my omelette appraisal, to which he replied: “what is it about your family that you’re all so good at making eggs?” To that, I have absolutely no answer, apart from: “just wait until you try my brother’s TORTILLA!” I guess we just enjoy the fruits of happy hens.

Apart from trying the eggs at The Laurel Court, I also enjoyed constructing my own bagel one morning. Lightly toasting an onion bagel I spread it with a blend of smoked salmon and regular cream cheese then layered it with soft folds of Atlantic smoked salmon and slices of a perfect tomato. With a squeeze of fresh lemon, a few crisp rings of red onion and a sprinkling of miniature capers I was good to go. And that, my foodie friends, is one bagel I won’t soon forget. It has something to do with the tomato that tasted exactly as a tomato should – tart with juice, unlike the bland red fruit we too often find served up at home which, to my mind, are tomatoes in name only. The salmon was also a revelation compared to the over-farmed slices to be found on London’s supermarket shelves. It practically dissolved on the tongue with the full flavour of a fish that had enjoyed a life free of pent-up farm pond misery. The key to the success of this bagel was all down to the ingredients.

My perfect bagel with the Happy Salmon.

Returning to the breakfast menu for a moment, I must share a few of the a la carte options. There’s Fig-Stuffed French Toast, comprising local black mission figs, brioche, organic eggs, cream and maple syrup. It’s served with roasted red and gold new potatoes and a traditional breakfast sausage. For the health-conscious there are Flaxseed Pancakes, made with dried cranberries and blueberry syrup. These are presented with sides of Asian pears that have been poached in syrup, Riesling and vanilla, and a chicken apple sausage. The classic poached eggs come with Yukon gold potato latke and corned beef hash and even the oatmeal turns up at table with roast potatoes and Applewood smoked bacon. Having said that, these combinations are mere suggestions. On ordering you can select whichever sides you like to accompany the main plate. The Laurel Court calls this ‘couture cuisine’ and positively encourages their patrons to play havoc with their menu. And no, in case you’re wondering, Monsieur and I were not born with bottomless stomachs so we did not try any of the above, not that we weren’t tempted. The buffet provided plenty of everything for both our appetites and believe it or not, we’re not that gluttonous. Yet.

Had Monsieur and I been intent on growing our girths at the Fairmont we could feasibly have noshed there all day. In addition to breakfast, The Laurel Court provides light lunches of classic dishes like grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, flatiron steaks and insalata Caprese. Then there are dishes with a twist, like the Bloody Caesar Salad which uses both red and green romaine lettuce, or the simple sliders made with top-notch Kobe beef. Some guests prefer to enjoy this elegant dining room over a sedate afternoon tea including six sandwich varieties, two of those previously-mentioned fat scones and five desserts. You can even add on bubbly and caviar or chocolate truffles. (Goshdarnit. I’m making myself hungry.) If you have a taste for some end-of day relaxation with a glass of something stronger in hand, then The Laurel Court has a pianist to tinkle you into reverie with soothing classical music.

Get a load of this cheesy geezer! That grin is oh-so-very wrong.

Sadly, Monsieur and I didn’t have enough time to try The Laurel Court’s offerings apart from their superb breakfasts for we were only stopping over in San Francisco but we were impressed with our experience there. As we left on the next leg of our honeymoon, Monsieur remarked “that was one of the best breakfasts of my life.” Now, that’s a true compliment coming from a genuinely fussy customer.

My Fair Fairmont – and the honeymoon begins

Laurel Court at The Fairmount Hotel, San Francisco

When I was but a whippet of a girl, I fell in love with The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, hoping that one day, when I grew up, I might be lucky enough to stay there. At the time I knew that the hotel location was real. I also knew that it was in San Francisco, but I didn’t realise that this hotel was called The Fairmont because to me it was the St Gregory, the subject of a successful TV series called Hotel based on the 1965 novel by Arthur Hailey.

For anyone who’s read the novel, you’ll know that the original St Gregory was in New Orleans, but when Aaron Spelling produced the series he moved the location to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. To confuse the issue even more, Canadian Hailey wrote Hotel at another of the Fairmont group: the Royal York in Toronto, and at the Fairmont in San Francisco, the Laurel Court Bar serves a cocktail called the St Gregory, which was created in 1983 to commemorate the commencement of filming for the t.v. series. So, in summary, Hotel was inspired by a hotel in Toronto, set in a hotel in New Orleans and ended up being filmed at a hotel in San Francisco. Got all that? There’ll be a pop quiz later.

In the almost five years (1983-1988) that Hotel graced our screens, I never tired of it. Each episode was peppered with new guest scandals and cons and complaints and missing luggage and lovers’ trysts and business deals being struck and I watched, intrigued, as in spite of all the daily distractions affection still grew between the characters of Peter McDermott, the General Manager (played by James Brolin), and his assistant, the delicious Christine (Connie Sellecca). For me, watching Hotel was like taking an hour-long holiday to San Francisco, in the utmost of style. They’ve recently released the first series on DVD (about time, too) so at last I’ll be able to show Monsieur what first hooked me on staying at The Fairmont now that we’re all grown up.

Rising high above San Francisco, which it observes from its perch on Nob Hill, The Fairmont is the absolute grande-dame of hotels in this city. Developed by a pair of silver mining heiress sisters called Fair, they sold it just a few days before the 1906 earthquake and fire. As buildings toppled throughout the city, still it stood, high on the hill, its lofty location protecting it from the post-quake waves flooding the reclaimed downtown area. Certainly The Fairmont did not go unscathed; when the fire spread to Nob Hill, it suffered from fire and smoke damage, its windows destroyed by the heat. The earthquake’s legacy was also responsible for a certain amount of internal structural damage, but the main body of the building remained rock solid as all around it lay smoking rubble and utter devastation. If the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ could be applied to buildings, you’d have to say that the Fairmont is at the alpha end of its league.

Exactly one year after the 1906 earthquake, the restored Fairmont opened amidst great festivity with a banquet including 600 pounds of turtle. Since that time, it has survived whatever the various eras have thrown at it, from depression to fading beauty in the frugal times of war, times of regeneration and slumps in tourism. It is the Bay Area base for visiting American Presidents, boasts a penthouse that provides sweeping views of the bay, a two story library and a game room at the rate of $12,500.00 per night and has been the showcase for the handiwork of some of the best architects and designers of its time.

Julia Morgan was the architect and engineer charged with The Fairmont’s restoration following the earthquake of 1906. She was a trailblazer, not just for women in her profession but for the then uncommon use of reinforced concrete in earthquake-zone buildings, strengthening them against earthquakes and employing such methods in her work on The Fairmont. Dorothy Draper, renowned interior designer of the post-war era, also left her mark on the hotel, decorating it in the rich colours of red, black and gold, with the aim of blending Venetian elegance with San Francisco romance. When her newly designed Venetian Room reopened in 1947 as San Francisco’s premium supper club, it attracted the likes of Marlene Dietrich, James Brown and Ella Fitzgerald as headliners, continuing to wow both guests and public with a string of top-flight entertainers for decades to come.

Other random yet impressive facts about the Fairmont include the following:

  • The Fairmont’s Garden Room was the venue for the drafting of the Charter for the United Nations in 1945 and the flags of the nations who took part in the creation of this draft now fly at the main entrance to the hotel.
  • When you trip the light fantastic on the dance floor in the famed Tonga Room, you’re dancing on the original deck of the SS Forrester, one of the last tall ships whose regular route ran between San Francisco and the South Seas.
  • Don’t be surprised when the thunderstorm hits the Tonga Room. That’s right: there is regular thunder, lightning AND rain inside.
  • Tony Bennett first sang ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ in the Fairmont’s Venetian Room.
  • Some of the signature cocktails at the Tonga Room include: The Tonga Itch, Lava Bowl, Tonga Tart (who, me?) and the Tematangi Ubangi, which OBVIOUSLY contains tequila. The name says absolutely everything about this Tongan concoction which will certainly make your head a bit bang-y if you ignore Dr Epic’s advice to consume in moderation.
  • Caffe Cento is the place to grab a proper continental-style coffee while watching the trams come and go at the stop directly outside. It also has an excellent stock of Ghirardelli chocolate in case you need a sugar rush after climbing one of San Francisco’s hills.
  • The Fairmont Hotel is allegedly home to a number of ghosts including a group of WWII soldiers who once stayed on the seventh floor and a prostitute who was murdered in her room but now chats to guests whilst lounging in her red teddy on a ghostly four-poster bed.
  • Vertigo, The Rock and Midnight Lace are among the many films that have used The Fairmont as a location.
  • Famous guests read like a Who’s Who directory: 10 US Presidents are on the list, along with royalty from the Middle East, Europe and Japan. The Dalai Lama has stayed at the Fairmont, as has Muhammed Ali. Shirley Temple Black, Nat King Cole and Maurice Chevalier are past guests, along with Clint Eastwood, Cyd Charisse and Duran Duran. The Fairmont of San Francisco may now also add two more esteemed guests to their long list: The Epicurienne and her Monsieur.

The Fairmont Hotel has given its name to a group of luxury hotels throughout both North America and the world, many of them landmarks in their own right. For instance, London’s famed Savoy Hotel, home of the best Bloody Mary on the planet, is part of The Fairmont’s stable, as is The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Canada, with views over one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. From shaky beginnings, literally, the name ‘Fairmont’ has become synonymous with quality and that is why Monsieur and I chose the Fairmont San Francisco as the first stop on our honeymoon. Just wait until you hear about the breakfasts in the Laurel Court and room service with a view for a certain unfortunate invalid.

Just as I’d always known it would be, our stay at the Fairmont San Francisco was quite unforgettable, even if we didn’t have the chance to chat with the long-deceased prostitute in her cheeky red teddy or dance on a long-deceased ship’s original deck. You never know, though. Even if we wait another twenty-something years to revisit the Fairmont, I have a funny feeling that the hotel, the ghosts and the Tematangi Ubangi will still be there, for there are two immovable rocks in San Francisco and the Fairmont Hotel is one of them.

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