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Phoenix Inn Is San Francisco's Funky Alternative

April 09, 1989|JAMES A. MARTIN | Martin is a San Francisco free-lance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The Phoenix Inn stretches horizontally in a city famous for being vertical.

Think of San Francisco's numerous historic high-rise hotels crammed together atop sharply sloping downtown streets. There are the Mark Hopkins, the St. Francis, the Fairmont and many others--all of them conservative, elegant, expensive.

Now imagine, also in downtown San Francisco at the corner of Eddy and Larkin streets the kind of two-story, 1950s Sunset Boulevard motel that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo would have stayed in during a trip to Hollywood, and you're beginning to get the idea behind the Phoenix Inn.

Picture a funky, tongue-in-cheek urban resort.

Low Rates, Charm

Thanks to its low rates, unusual amenities and, most of all, its quirky charms, the Phoenix has become a favored alternative to San Francisco's buttoned-down hotel establishments, especially among the arts-and-entertainment crowd.

Since its May, 1987, opening, the inn has earned a reputation as the city's rock 'n' roll motel, along the lines of New York City's Chelsea and the Tropicana in Los Angeles, but with an upscale, polished touch.

First, there's the eight-foot-deep swimming pool. You'll be hard-pressed to find another hotel or inn in San Francisco where you can splash about in a heated outdoor pool. Set in a grassy courtyard landscaped with tropical foliage and a modern sculpture garden, the pool is the gathering place for the inn's clientele: visiting writers, rock musicians, comedians, film makers and other creative types.

For two weeks last November, for example, Linda Ronstadt and her "Canciones de mi Padre" company rented the entire place. Brenda Lee has stayed at the inn, and so have The Bangles, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Idol's band, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Italian National Ballet.

Debora Iyall, former lead singer with Romeo Void, sometimes rents a room at the Phoenix on sunny days, even though she lives in San Francisco.

"It's hard to get that horizontal feeling in San Francisco," she says. "Everything's up and down, old and Victorian. This has a nice big yard and a pool."

Feels Like Hollywood

"I feel like I'm in Hollywood, even though I'm in San Francisco," says Zane W. Levitt, a Los Angeles-based film maker.

"The last time I was there, people were reading scripts by the pool and The Roches were practicing for their next gig by the sculpture garden," Levitt said. "Just like home."

Aside from the potted plant that was once hurled into the pool, the Phoenix's rock 'n' roll guests usually behave. The inn, however, is careful not to book the Ozzy Osbourne aspirants, those reptilian rockers who dress exclusively in black, gargle with lighter fluid, and travel with a tarantula collection.

The Phoenix's uncustomary services are another attraction, such as the on-site massage therapists trained to work out those post-performance kinks. The concierge staff knows how to screen calls from groupies, point you toward the hottest night spots and arrange for obscure activities, such as a limousine-chauffeured tour of San Francisco movie locations.

In addition, the housekeeping staff is efficient and even entertaining. One of the domestics, Cathy Sorbo, also is a stand-up comedian and sometimes performs her chores while wearing Groucho Marx glasses.

The Phoenix goal is to provide an offbeat, contemporary San Francisco experience. Thus, pointing guests toward Fisherman's Wharf, sourdough bread and cable cars is not encouraged here. In fact, the Phoenix has produced its own San Francisco visitors guide: "Beyond Fisherman's Wharf."

The guide focuses on the city's "hidden sights, sounds and tastes," including a Moroccan restaurant with belly dancers, a nightclub frequented by Hispanic drag queens, a museum with 200 polyester shirts on display and the Aquarian Foundation spiritual healing services.

The Phoenix's surprising rates are perhaps the best news of all. Few places in pricey San Francisco offer a clean, comfortable suite, decorated tastefully in pastel colors, original artwork and live plants, for $110 a night. Room rates begin at $69 for a single (with two double beds), $79 double, and there is a 20% discount for "qualified entertainers."

The Phoenix is the brainchild of Chip Conley, 28, who with the help of his father and some 20 investors paid $1 million for the motel in January, 1987. It seems that Conley, who grew up in Long Beach, was frightened by a TraveLodge at an early age and never fully recovered.

"My family," Conley explains, "was the ultimate AAA family. We'd always take our guidebooks wherever we went on vacation. I'd ask my parents why all these lodges and motels looked just alike, no matter what city we were in. I never forgot my mother's response: 'That's just the way they are,' she said. I was fascinated."

Years later, when Conley went shopping for hotel property, he stumbled upon a deteriorated motel, the Garden Inn, that reminded him of all those look-alike lodges from his boyhood.

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