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The Majestic: living up to its name

Photograph by Susie Biehler

SALOONS | Chris Barnett

Cars streak south on Gough toward the freeways. Unless snagged by the red light at Sutter, they pass a majestic Victorian hotel with landmark status and, to locals, a rollercoaster reputation for service, style, cuisine and cocktails.

Built in 1902 as the private home of railroad baron and state senator Milton Schmidt, it morphed into the Hotel Majestic two years later. Spared from a fiery death when the 1906 inferno rampaging west from downtown was stopped two blocks away at Van Ness, it now lays claim as the city’s oldest continuously operated hostelry.

Today, after its bar and restaurant have opened and closed countless times and hotel managers have come and gone, the 56-room Majestic is enjoying something of a renaissance. It’s worth a visit just to meet the new cast of characters.

General manager Bonnie Birk was a trapeze artist who soared without a net before climbing the ladder to hotelier. Bar manager John Harris just may be San Francisco’s smoothest and savviest mixologist, with 40 years behind the plank, including long stints at the late, elegant Alexis at 1001 California on Nob Hill and venerable Original Joe’s on Taylor. Louis Maldonado, 27, who spent the last year cooking at the French Laundry in Yountville, has taken over the stoves as head chef of the 58-seat Cafe Majestic, which has been magnificently redesigned in traditional Federalist style and resembles a private dining room in Washington D.C. or Boston.

Unfortunately, the hotel’s front-of-the-house service is not so majestic. Valet parking is offered at $20 overnight for hotel guests and $10 for restaurant guests, but finding the valet is no easy trick because he doubles as a bellman. The small front desk has a single receptionist and the welcoming spirit has been uneven in my last three or four visits. It’s sometimes warm and sometimes bush league. I’ve telephoned a few times and waited 20 rings for an answer, but the woman on the other end of the line was cheerful and apologetic for the delay.

Still, a creatively decorated, beautifully furnished historic guest room starting at $150 a night in this town is a fair tradeoff for a small staff.

The Majestic’s Butterfly Bar has been a favorite oasis for years. Just off the high Victorian lobby, tucked behind tall frosted beveled glass doors, the compact mahogany and black granite bar has just seven barstools, with three small tables nearby. Its intimacy is its charm. Named for the framed collection of 200 mounted butterflies of every species that adorns the walls — a donation from local lepidopterist Thomas William David — it opened as a thirst parlor in the 1930s after the repeal of Prohibition.

Lore has it the bar was an immediate hit — a tourist-free hideout and hangout for city powerbrokers who wanted privacy with their potables. Historians didn’t record whether actresses and sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, who lived quietly in the hotel during the ’50s and early ’60s, ever bellied up to the bar.

In the ’70s, the Chronicle’s iconic three-dot columnist, Herb Caen, and Hilton GM Henri Lewin and their pals and cronies were fixtures at the Majestic’s bar. Over the years, lotharios and their lovers discovered it as one of the town’s favored trysting bars, mainly because of its low profile and discreet location far from the meddling crowd. A check-in desk a few steps away and a key to a romantic room didn’t diminish the libido or the excitement.

Today, bartender John Harris has revived the Butterfly Bar and is taking it to a new level of sophistication. Hired out of retirement by Birk and given a free hand to deploy his personalized and professional style of bartending, Harris has a knack for treating each patron like his only customer. That’s old school mixology where excellent drinkmaking is only half the experience; graciousness and great conversation is equally important.

“Everyone who comes through that door is potentially my next best friend,” says Harris. He presides over the bar’s warm ambience as if he is welcoming guests into his home. The Butterfly Bar is comforting and actually looks larger than it is, thanks to tall mirrors behind the back bar. Seating is cozy but not cramped.

Harris makes a pledge: If a guest wants a particular liquor or a drink that requires a specific spirit he doesn’t have, “I will find it for you,” he says. These days, his repertoire includes about half a dozen specialty cocktails priced at $12 each. The signature drink is the Majestic Martini, a marriage of Belvedere vodka and the rich raspberry flavor of Chambord blended with pineapple juice and finished with a dollop of champagne.

Harris is a practitioner of subtly flavored cocktails, but he will whip up Sex on the Beach, Harvey Wallbangers or a lethal Long Island Iced Tea if pressed. When he makes, say, a vodka martini up, he pours a full four ounces of pricey but smooth Belvedere for $11. He doesn’t skimp on ingredients or quantities.

On these chilly days, Harris can warm up your innards with his hand-crafted Hot Buttered Rums. He combines brown sugar, grinds cloves, adds fresh cream butter and grates fresh cinnamon, $12. Try his Hot Apple Pie, a mixture of fresh apple juice, Tuaca and heavy cream that is hand-shaken and topped with fresh nutmeg. All drinks are shaken or stirred in vintage art deco cocktail shakers that whisk you back to the age of the flappers and the bar’s early days.

The Butterfly Bar also stocks a limited supply of premium beers and wines. The suds include Heineken, Sierra Nevada, San Francisco-brewed Anchor Steam, Fat Tyre and an India pale ale, all $6 a bottle. Wines by the glass range from $7 to $17 for Napa’s prized ZD Chardonnay.

Harris has a civilized bar menu available until 10 nightly that will sate any hunger. The list includes an Angus Sirloin cheeseburger with fries, $12, a cheese plate with honey and breads, $15, and even a steak frites, $24.

The triage of the Butterfly Bar, the Cafe Majestic and the seemingly sincere efforts to improve the hotel’s hospitality may return the Majestic to its past glories as a drink, eat and make merry refuge and a classic and classy retreat for the neighborhood.

The Hotel Majestic is at 1500 Sutter Street.