SAN FRANCISCO — Of course you want to take a vacation here. But where to stay?
There are 176 hotels in the naked city (so says the convention and visitors bureau, anyway), and in the last two months I've seen 58 of them. I've also heard a few things, the way a nosy lodger does.
The hottest property with the rich, famous and discrete? The Sherman House, say several cabbies and others. The Sherman, an immaculate old mansion on Green Street, was converted into a luxury lodging 10 years ago, and the cheapest of its 14 rooms fetches $190 a night.
The best new hotel? Given the shortage of openings in these recent recessionary years, the answer is easy: the modern but understated Hotel Milano, which opened May 8 on Fifth Street near Market.
What does a typical visitor pay for lodging in the city? $103.17 nightly, says PKF Consulting, a hotel market research firm that calculated an average after surveying actual rates paid (not the higher "rack rates" that are often published) at four dozen "representative" properties over the first half of this year.
I came up here in August and September to gather and measure nuggets like this, in an utterly subjective sort of way. Having come to know several hotels in San Francisco over the last few years, I slept in half a dozen that were new to me, and took careful looks at public and private rooms in more than 50 others. I now have shampoo and matchbooks to last me years, and some good news: San Francisco, long celebrated for the volume, charm and variety of its hotels, is still well worth celebrating--plenty of high style and good value, but also their opposites, and more than a few mysterious quirks.
Sorting through all this, a guest forms more than a few opinions. (For my top-10 lists, read on.)
The single most handsome room, public or private, in any San Francisco hotel? I'd say the Garden Court off the lobby of the Sheraton Palace, where an iron-and-stained-glass skylight ceiling constructed in 1875 arches over a dining area half the size of a football field. Crystal chandeliers dangle. Potted palms throw frond shadows on floral carpet. And last month, each table wore a purple exclamation point--an iris in a vase. (Sunday brunch there is $39 a head; go instead for afternoon tea: $15.95 for tea, sandwiches, pastries and scones.)
The most disarming elevator notice: the brass plaque in the tiny lift of the budget New Abigail on McAllister Street. Though the property was renovated four years ago, the elevator dates to 1925, an old-fashioned metal cage with accordion doors, and the plaque reads this way: "Hi, I'm Elliott the elevator. I'm one of the Abigail's most unusual antiques, but I'm quite sensitive. So, if you have something bad to say about me, wait 'til you've exited me. Enjoy your stay!"
Other subjects are thornier. Why, for instance, are L.A. music industry types so smitten with the 5-year-old Phoenix Hotel on Eddy Street? Yes, the design is tropically funky and shrewdly promoted (by its owner Joie de Vivre hotels, the same company that runs the New Abigail, as it happens), and it houses a tasty, colorful Caribbean restaurant, Miss Pearl's Jam House. Yes, rock stars stay here (rack rate: $89 a night). But it remains an only semi-rehabilitated grungy old motel in the crime-ridden Tenderloin area, with outdoor hallways, minimal privacy and 44 rooms of ticky-tacky furniture lined up around a pool and courtyard. On many nights, I suspect, the Phoenix's guests are the only people in that neighborhood as the result of choice and not unfortunate circumstances. I say it's The Emperor's New Hotel.
And, while I'm complaining, what sort of hotel would welcome a new guest by leaving (deliberately or inadvertently) a list of "Acne Do's and Don'ts" in his bathroom? Answer: The Hotel Diva on Geary Street, an old-building-gone-modernist near Union Square. The room was 210, the guest was me on Sept. 20, and tip No. 1 was "Don't squeeze . . . " Call me crazy, but I'd prefer they just left the chocolates on the pillow and let me worry about the consequences.
For most visitors to the city, the first stop is Union Square, where the I. Magnin, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bullock & Jones, and Polo Ralph Lauren shops are, where the cable cars begin their round-trip route to Fisherman's Wharf, and where the city's greatest concentration of hotels is found. Traffic on the streets and sidewalks is heavy, noise at night can be an issue, and the numbers of homeless grow greater as you draw closer to Market Street, but there's no more all-around convenient location. Average nightly rates, the analysts at PKF say, hover around $105.