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Weekend Escape: San Francisco : SOMA (So much Art, So Little Time) : It used to be downtown and declasse, but new South-of-Market thrums to a hip, artistic beat

June 25, 1995|KRISTINE McKENNA | McKenna writes frequently on the arts and entertainment for The Times Calendar section

SAN FRANCISCO — With the January opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's slick new quarters south of Market Street, the city's profile as a mecca for art went up several notches. Especially significant is the fact that the museum is below Market, the main artery dividing uptown from downtown, and its presence there has revitalized an area traditionally dismissed as too grungy for civilized tastes. Within walking distance of San Francisco's most prestigious galleries, which tend to be clustered on Geary and Grant streets, the museum makes for an expanded art ghetto that's still comfortably manageable. If you stay at a properly located hotel you can walk to most of the art in the city worth seeing.

Though the current hotel of choice is the recently opened Hotel Milano on 5th Street near Market, the Hotel Triton at the corner of Grant and Bush is actually a better location. Situated at the gateway to Chinatown (several rooms have views of the gate), the hotel is a short walk from the gallery district, the new museum, Chinatown, prestigious printmaking workshop Crown Point Press on Hawthorne Street, the financial district, and North Beach, the neighborhood where the Beats converged at the Citylights Bookstore and Vesuvio's Cafe. A short cab ride will get you to the Asian Art Museum and the De Young Museum, both in Golden Gate Park, or the Maritime Museum at Fisherman's Wharf.

In addition to being conveniently located, the Triton is rather hilarious. You're apt to feel as though you're in a B-52s video when you're there; the kitsch decor looks as though it was conceived by film director Jacques Tati and the idea of "less is more" obviously never crossed anybody's mind. Styled in what's best described as faux Baroque Moderne, the Triton is big on purple, weird angles, harlequin patterning, elaborate ironwork and gilding.

The rooms themselves are tiny, and equipped with bathrobes, irons and ironing boards, but no hand lotion or shower cap. How's the Triton for sleeping? The beds are a bit mushy, but it's remarkably quiet considering that it's located on a major corner in the heart of the city. For those with special needs, the hotel offers the Jerry Garcia Suite, a room decorated by the guiding light of the Grateful Dead and, for a $10 upgrade, 23 rooms on the Eco-Floor, which the hotel explains is a "specially designed floor that's environmentally sound and toxin free."

*

After settling into a toxic room on Memorial Day weekend, I hit the streets and loved what I found. This is a city where cab drivers all have something interesting to say, homeless people all seem to be reading and everyone is helpful. My companion, the absent-minded screenwriter, lost his wallet in a cab, and half an hour later the cabby walked into the restaurant where my friend was fretting and returned it. I opened my hotel room window in the morning and discovered a street musician playing a piece by Satie on an upright piano he somehow managed to drag to a corner at a major intersection. International newsstands, great bookstores and restaurants abound--and of course, there's all that art. This all came as a surprise to me as I've never really experienced San Francisco, having always dismissed as too quaint and provincial. Now I know I was missing something.

If you plan to see as much as possible in a weekend, do galleries Saturday and museums Sunday (the logic of this is obvious--most galleries are closed on Sunday). Galleries you might want to check out include Gallery Paule Anglim, Fraenkel Gallery, Rena Bransten Gallery, Haines Gallery, Daniel Weinberg Gallery and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, all of which are on Geary. The John Berggruen and Jack Hanley galleries are both nearby on Grant Avenue, and the Braunstein/Quay Gallery on Sutter Street is usually worth a look. Get through all that and you should be exhausted and famished.

The two restaurants that service the Triton--Aioli and the more casual Cafe de la Presse--have decent enough food, but the rooms aren't too pleasant, so you might want to go elsewhere for lunch. Directly across the street is a modestly priced, serviceable Chinese noodle bar, Katana-Ya Ramen, which is where we ended up. If Chinese doesn't sound good, North Beach's legendary Italian restaurant, Tosca's, is just up the hill through Chinatown. Formerly the hangout of the Zoetrope Studios crowd when Francis Ford Coppola was based in the Bay Area, the restaurant has served as a location in lots of films. I can't vouch for the food, but if it's good enough for a serious Italian like Francis, I assume it's pretty good.

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