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Birthday Suite : The Hotel del Coronado: a little bit gingerbread, a little grande dame, and right for an important date

January 30, 1994|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer; Dean writes for The Times' View section.

CORONADO, Calif. — Birthdays that end with a zero, those serious fetes when mortality moves one closer to his Maker's place of business, seem to bring out the ageistic worst in friends.

There's that old thigh slapper of presenting a proxy enrollment in the American Assn. of Retired Persons. Reeeally hilarious gag gifts are birthday cards that force humor about dinosaurs, George Burns, proctologists, prunes, Medicare, headstones, descending body parts, Polygrip and, ha ha, Fabio at 80.

"So a surprise birthday party at Andy Rooney's Twilight Home for Doddering Journalists is out of the question?" asked my lady.

Absolutely. Her looks, of course, haven't budged since 1968. She admits to no life before Meat Loaf.

"Then I will kidnap you for a Dorian Gray weekend of champagne, salt and cholesterol-rich dining, tennis, the beach . . . in a place that has survived many more decades than you," she promised.

And so we drove two hours and change from Los Angeles to a package weekend at the Hotel del Coronado, that white-and-maroon wooden wedding cake on a Pacific peninsula just one bay and a bridge west of San Diego.

I've been coming here for 20 years and never met a room I didn't like. Being a sentimental traveler with a preference for inns before motels, and bed and breakfast weekends to four-star American plans, I have never stayed at the Del's modern but architecturally coordinated annex, raised in the '60s.

But its history is as tangible as beaches and breezeways recognizable from the movie "Some Like It Hot," which I've seen nine times. The past is as touchable as the handshake of 50-year tennis director Ben Press, an early tournament partner of the late Maureen (Little Mo) Connolly. Press still teaches.

I love the warm, musty smell of 106-year-old sugar pine paneling on the Del's walls, dark halls and ceilings. How many layers of paint on those balustrades? Probably one a year since 1888. The hotel should charge for riding and swaying in the bronze bird cages that pass for elevators, which are better in their way than the lifts in L.A.'s Bradbury Building.

Although the 400 original rooms have been restored, renovated and reproduced by the great chunk, their floors still groan and slope. Striped wallpaper, wainscoting and sconces are the antique way they were. Spectravision and mini-bars are there in deference to today, but don't really fit the aura. C'est la guerre.

My lady has her memories of the Del. She came here for Sunday burgers and Cokes on the ocean terrace when dad still held her hand crossing the street. Now I buy the burgers and hold her hand. C'est la vie.

I chose the hotel's Gourmet Delight package for my birthday kidnaping because of a price you feel tempted to call back and confirm in a disguised voice. It's that good.

The stay was two nights and three days, allowing a Friday afternoon arrival and a 2 p.m. checkout on Sunday. Dinners and extravagant brunches were included. So were spa privileges to work off any excess. The cost, for two, was a near-piddling $514. Including fresh flowers in a king-size room with a partial view of the Pacific.

Our room was 3325 and typical Del, which is huge and high-ceilinged Victorian. The wallpaper was a striped print and the chandelier grew out of a plaster sculpture in the center of the ceiling. With lights low, with windows staring into a Pacific sunset, with champagne hissing in flutes bought in the gift shop, a man forgets birthdays and considers staying young forever.

Our first-night dinner for two was at the clubby, pubby, very paneled Prince of Wales restaurant, with everything included in the package price except for lobster, caviar, liquor and the tip.

Now that Veal Oscar--supposedly first prepared at the Del--has passed away with Chef Oscar, Steak Diane is the replacement specialty. Ours was performed tableside, of course, didn't spare the truffles but was easy on the pepper and quite exquisite. We gave an honorable mention to a superb starter, wild mushrooms en croute .

With that lineup came a bottle of Silver Oak, a mellow red and the gift of a surprise dinner guest--my son PJ, a soon-to-be firefighter who had flown in from Phoenix.

"Silver Oak costs many pieces of silver and my guess would be $70," I protested. "You have five more months in college, an apartment lease to feed, Brigid to court, and a truck to pay for. Restraint is indicated."

PJ pulled out his wallet.

"I also have a brand-new Visa card to break in," he said. "Celebration is indicated. Hey, this is a serious birthday ending in a zero."

Lord, how quickly they grow up. Only yesterday we were eating fried fish sticks in a restaurant shaped like a stern wheeler and PJ blew his nose into his napkin.

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