The bell sounded once, giving the signal to stop. The burly gripman pulled on the track brake and the cable car shuddered to a halt on the heights. "S-s-sn-o Nob Hill!" the gripman shouted.
Nob Hill has been irreverently called Snob Hill ever since the late 19th century, when western barons chose this mountaintop on which to plant their private palaces. When the cable cars were first built in the 1870s, the great unwashed of San Francisco could take a ride to the summit of Nob Hill, 376 feet above the Golden Gate, and gape at the mansions of the silver kings of the Comstock Lode and the Big Four of western railroading - Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins and Stanford.
The cable cars still run, and it takes no extraction more painful than a quarter to get to the top of Nob Hill. Remnants of the nabobs remain in elegant splendor and there have been a few additions established there by modern moguls.
The eyrie, with its dizzying downhill views of the harbor and some of the city's newest spires, is also a nest of some of the city's best restaurants and its finest hotels. It is even the home of the car barn where the Toonerville Trolleys are stored.
Memorials to the barons are everywhere. For Collis Potter Huntington, the elegantly naked peddler from Connecticut who became president of the Southern Pacific in 1890, there is the Huntington Hotel, preferred by artists and visiting royalty. It stands across the street from the stillness of Huntington Park.
Charles Crocker, who put together the Central Pacific Railroad, built his mansion on a site now occupied by the grandness of the Grace Cathedral, once the seat of the late Bishop James Pike. Its stained-glass windows send down a mottle of reflected reds and blues on sunny San Francisco days, but even when the sun doesn't shine there are the frescoes on view depicting California's history.
For Mark Hopkins, the railroader often confused with the Massachusetts educator who lived at the same time and bore the same name, the newly refashioned Mark Hopkins rises in refinished majesty, a remake of a 1925 monument. A cocktail at the Top of the Mark has been a ceremony for romantic couples for nearly 40 years.
Leland Stanford, the upstate New Yorker who moved west to sell miner's supplies and who was railroad president, governor and senator, lived in a mansion along the Mark. It is now the Stanford Court, which many itinerant appraisers of refinement think is perhaps the finest private hotel in the country.
Today's barons may store their wines in the private cellars of Fournou's Ovens, the elegant restaurant of Stanford Court. Here racks of lamb and ducks are cooked in brick ovens heated by wood fires. At breakfast in the Potpourri, the croissants come flaky and hot and the jam is served in small glass jars. No plastic containers in these parts. Upstairs, guest lave their hands with perfumed soap, watch television while shaving, repair to the marbled foyer for cocktails. The Stanford Court is civilized hotelkeeping at its American best.
Across the street the giant Fairmont occupies the site where stood the mansion of James G. Fair, also known as Bonanza Jim Fair, a partner of James C. Flood, the bonanza king of the Comstock Lode. Built in 1886 and rebuilt in 1906 after a fire, Flood's mansion was the first brownstone built west of the Mississippi. A 42-room expanse, is still stands as the home of the Pacific Union Club, a super-exclusive preserve for today's tycoons known by everyone else but them as the "P-U."
The Huntington Hotel provides real estate for two restaurants, L Etoile , a favourite of the ample gastronome, James Beard, and the Big Four, named for Croker, Huntington, Hopkins and Stanford, who made this hilltop as close as one could get to heaven.
Alexis, on California Street, serves Near Eastern delights at prices that may induce near-bankruptcy. Le Club on Jones Street, is dark, clubby and as French as a smoking Gaulloise Breast of Pheasant with champagne and truffle sauce and a bottle of '62 Margaux goes for $30 - like that. Figure $25 for dinner. And bring a miner's lamp if you want to see who else is there.
Everybody washes up on the jazzy shore of Mama's in the Gramercy Tower, which produces a mass of omelettes, glorified hamburgers and such in a welter of flowers, brass, mirrors and petted palms.
And don't miss the cable car barn, two blocks from the Fairmont and a block from Clay Street, where the first cable car route began in 1873. The barn has been turned into a free museum where gawkers from other parts can watch the huge wheels and gears turn, see old hand-crank movies about the San Francisco earthquake, examine models of cars from the 1880s and buy a T-shirt emblzoned with a succinct cable-car-rider's put-downs. "Go Climb a Street," it says.