During Prohibition, it turns out that the Sir Francis Drake Hotel was offering people more than a luxurious place to spend the night.
Up the stairs, left at the red Beefeater statue and just above the elevator lobby was the home of the Prohibition Room, where bottles of booze were stored during a period the nation once called “The Noble Experiment.”
Tours are very much off the books, because one of the elevators has to be taken out of operation for one to commence.
But if you come at a slow hour and ask front office supervisor Weidrwon Lin politely, he might just show you the secret room that cannot be found in any of the original blueprints from 1928, when the hotel first opened.
“The hotel was built around this room; this place was a bootleg hotel,” Lin said. “Word around town was that if you stayed at the Drake, you’d receive a bottle of booze when you checked in.”
Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until it was repealed in 1933, left many to hit the “speakeasies” to get a drink. For the original owners of the Sir Francis Drake, this was an opportunity.
And they had the process of getting booze into the hotel and into guests’ glasses down to a science.
It all started in San Mateo, where Canadian bootleggers would drop off boatfuls of whiskey to the Moss Distillery. The booze was hidden in luggage and driven down into the underground garage at the Sir Francis Drake. From a single elevator that’s the only one that can access the room, booze was brought up and stored right above the elevator lobby. Peepholes were drilled through the floor so that a bellman could keep a lookout for curious officers.
A bellman would make the rounds and deliver through modern features like servidor doors — hollow doors that allowed guests to retrieve a room service order or dry-cleaned items, or booze, without having contact with an attendant.
Blame could neither be placed on the hotel nor the guest because of the sly in-between. Makes you wonder what other innovations came about during Prohibition.
“The bellman never directly gave the booze to the guest — and that’s what made their system flawless,” Lin said. “After multiple raids, officers couldn’t tell if the hotel was distributing the booze or the guests were bringing it in.”
The servidor doors are no longer there after the hotel went through a remodel. The hotel once hosted more than 600 small rooms. There are now 400.
After scouring the town to see what other San Francisco hotels did during Prohibition, Lin discovered that the Chancellor, Palace and Fairmont hotels had similar operations. It was not easy to pry out those details.
“When I went around, the people at other hotels really keep these rooms a secret,” Lin said. “We’re proud to show this space off.”
When you arrive at the tiny room, Lin’s selection of haunting tunes from the 1920s fills the space, while mannequins in suits greet you, creating a fantasy of young bootleggers protecting the valued booze. The original shelving where bottles were once stored are still there, along with the additions of martini glasses and local distillate 209 gin.
All in the name of raising your glass.