Historic Holbrooke Hotel Grass Valley: detailed makeover refines experience
An historic Gold Country California hotel, the Holbrooke Hotel has been the grande dame on Main Street for nearly 170 years. After a meticulous renovation, the Grass Valley hotel now exudes simple elegance with its historic charm for a truly top-notch experience.
Residents and visitors pressed their noses to the windows for months, trying to catch a glimpse of the renovation that was happening inside the historic Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley, California. The pride of the small Gold Rush town, the Holbrooke Hotel was beloved for its noisy bar, tales of ghosts, and legendary charm, but had admittedly lost some its luster after nearly 170 years.
Although dubbed the oldest continuously operating hotel in California, it was shut down in early 2019 for a top-to-bottom scrubbing. We are not just talking a little facelift, mind you. We are talking about a major undertaking that lasted 18 months (with a little COVID-19 delay tossed in for good measure). Headed up by Acme Hospitality, the refurbishment at the Holbrooke Hotel took out walls, gutted some sections, ripped up a back terrace, scraped out the rooms, stripped walls, and then put all the pieces back together in a meticulous makeover that preserved the history while lending a much-needed upgrade to the experience.
The historic Holbrooke Hotel, a lady in waiting
As area residents, we had visited the bar and the dining room over the years and found them to have a certain small-town charm. But the Holbrooke Hotel frankly deserved more than to be remembered primarily as a saloon (more of a local’s sports bar with TV blaring) with a dim interior. Although Michael and I had not overnighted at the Holbrooke Hotel, we had once toured the upstairs and visited a couple of rooms as a part of a “ghost walk” in town, and found them to be old-fashioned, creaky, a bit worn, and likely not so comfortable.
Now, the historic Holbrooke Hotel was back with even more to offer: Like other locals, we had peered in windows just a few months earlier. In a small town, residents do have a sense of pride and even ownership of such historic landmarks. Just a few days prior to its real opening, I had the chance to tour the hotel, while Michael and I both had the chance to spend a night there soon afterward to experience the redesign first-hand. We had hoped the new Holbrooke Hotel would indeed keep its historic flair and local charm while adding upgrades to create a simple luxury congruous to a small Sierra Nevada foothills town.
We were not disappointed. The Acme Hospitality group in partnership with Eastern Real Estate has created a boutique hotel out of the California Historical Landmark that locals will love to frequent for drinks, dinners or staycations, and visitors will find offer a refined yet casual Gold Rush town feeling for weekend getaways. Many of the touches were there before:
- the main “Golden Gate Saloon” with a couple of mini table-for-two sized street-level balconies that allow you to watch the goings-on on the street. Grab one if you can since they are the best seat in town.
- a lower-level so-called “speakeasy” bar area called the “Iron Door” that is still dark but now warmer and a bit mysterious (at this time private parties only – when those are possible post-pandemic).
- a large book that shows the signatures of famous guests, now under the glass top of a table in the main lobby area. Rumor has it that five U.S. presidents have stayed at the Holbrooke Hotel since it opened in 1852 (or maybe it was 1853 or 1862, depending on who you listen to), as well as the likes of Jack London, Mark Twain and Lola Montez.
- original stone masonry walls that used to be partly covered and hidden behind a reception desk, now open wide in the lobby.
Once Gold Rush grit, now rustic refinement at the Holbrook
With just 17 rooms inside and another 11 in the so-called Purcell House – allegedly the former livery building – the hotel is not huge but definitely anchors the small town. From our balcony facing Main Street in our King room, we enjoyed a view over town. In keeping with older hotels, all of the rooms are shaped and sized differently, but the touches remain the same – clawfoot tubs, exposed wood beams and period lighting fixtures and décor. Even room phones are look-alike antiques (a rotary dial? Whew, there are buttons!). Rooms in the main house are a bit larger and feature mini-fridges and coffee/tea-making facilities, while the Purcell House rooms are a bit smaller without a few of these amenities, such as mini-fridges, but are just as nice. Some of those rooms are also adjoining for larger parties traveling together.
We would highly recommend the main house king room No. 2, in part because it faces the front street and has a balcony, but also because it has an exposed brick wall adding to the historic warmth. One caveat: If you are sensitive to traffic sounds, there is an intersection right below that room, so you will hear cars and trucks stopping for pedestrians or slowing and starting again. Another king room to consider is No.14, also with large covered balcony, albeit over the back terrace where patrons will be dining or hanging out. Although we didn’t have the luxury of a suite, the king suites facing Main Street are like two rooms with a living area and HUGE uncovered balconies facing the main street.
We have already promised ourselves a staycation when the weather is warmer so we can enjoy our own happy hour and lounging on a balcony.
Since our stay was in COVID-19 times, amenities like robes and an honor bar, and décor such as throws, pillows and magazines have been removed, but you can ask for them. Also, part of the focus of Acme is a more environmental approach, so individual bottles of bath and body products will soon be replaced with refillable canisters. We particularly loved that the coffee and tea making did not relay on a one-cup machine that oozes plastic and paper waste. Instead, you get a tin of fresh ground coffee, a ceramic filter, ceramic cups, and paper filters to make your own cup using an in-room kettle.
There are no TVs in the rooms (yay!), but there are iPads that you can use if you must to watch some programming, as well as access hotel information. The bedside device on a stand also serves as your in-room clock, and extra USB ports and plugs cater to today’s traveler. Plus, Wifi worked great. There was no hand sanitizer in the room, but these days who doesn’t pack their own supplies.
Staff well-trained, well-tuned, welcoming and warm
Not to be forgotten is how well-trained every last staff member seemed to be. Several we talked to had solid experience in broader regional restaurants and hotels. Every last one knew precisely what customer service meant and how to make it happen. Of course, COVID-19 times made that more complicated, but it was carried out with aplomb.
Dining too has been carefully choreographed, albeit was relegated to the outdoor terrace on a chilly November night (with heat lamps that are placed so high on the wall the warmth just tickles your head). Chef Zach Ahrenholtz has a long resume including at fine establishments in Napa Valley. On my pre-opening tour, as he cleaned the large smoker BBQ he made, he called the Golden Gate Saloon’s cuisine “Old California,” but our server two weeks later called it “Californio.” Whatever the name, it melds the flavors of house-smoked meats with the likes of steaks and tamales as well as fresh masa and rustic house-made sourdough (which is to die for by the way), and Mexican chili and spices.
One oops in our opinion was the lack of any local wines on the menu in an area and region that has plenty of offerings. Sure, we appreciated fresh bubbles from Spain and a less-frequently seen fruity yet herbal Gruner Veltliner from Austria, but our suggestion would be to add a few local fermented beverages to complement a couple of the local beers on the menu.
The breakfast and dinner menus also do not ignore vegans or vegetarians, promising a daily seasonal soup that is always one of the two, for example. The crispy Yukon gnocchi with roasted vegetables did a marvelous job at blending flavors; however, on the other hand we thought the trout Veracruz lacked the full flavor of a mild Veracruz sauce while the “crispy” mountain trout was all but. It’s difficult to truly describe breakfast when have to pick it up and bring it to your room (thanks, COVID) and then unpack little brown boxes, but the Ricotta Toast I had was a yum combination or herbed ricotta, broccoli rabe, chili flakes, radish and poached egg on the aforementioned sourdough toast.
Indeed, as we talk about limitations due to COVID-19, that also underscores that the historic Holbrooke Hotel and its management take guest and staff safety and cleanliness seriously in how they adhered to good hotel safety standards. And for that we thank them profusely.
The Holbrooke in historic Grass Valley once sat at the edge of dirt streets, entertained ladies of the night and grimy gold miners, hosted gunfights and gambling, burned down a few times and was rebuilt a few times, and over the years has always been a part of town. Now, its charm has been refreshed in a way that will I think appeal to both locals and visitors. What a great central base to visit the Gold Country, Grass Valley, Nevada City, or other regional areas on a California road trip or area staycation.
And, no, we won’t miss the blinking Budweiser sign in the corner of the old Golden Gate Saloon.
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