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Between Maserati and misery

San Diego's ultra-cool Keating was designed by a famed car company. The hotel looks fab, but it often sputters.

June 10, 2007|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

I'VE never had the urge to switch the TV channel to NASCAR races, but I was at the Keating, San Diego's new high-concept hotel, and needed to hear the roar of engines to complete the experience.

The 5-month-old Keating, in a historic building in downtown's Gaslamp Quarter, is the first hotel designed by Pininfarina, the legendary Italian car-design company behind Ferrari and Maserati. If a hotel can be a sports car, then the Keating is one.

It has all the advantages and disadvantages of same: head-turning looks, precision engineering, steep price and a rough ride. For all the brilliant design and clever interpretations of car culture, the experience is less Ferrari, more Fiat.

And for the price -- the least expensive rooms begin at $319 -- the amenities (anemic) and the service (scant) didn't measure up on my late May visit. The place is noisy, under-equipped and not ready for prime time. Still, I admire the audacity and elegance of the design.

Were it not for the vivid red awning, you could drive right by the Keating and not know that beyond the doorway lies a four-story, 35-room luxury hotel. Pull to the curb and the valet will park your car two blocks away, which made my Porsche-driving pal nervous and, come retrieval time, gave us many minutes to study the lobby's auto-intensive design (a bit like an exotic-car showroom).

The friendly desk clerk helped haul our luggage to the room (there wasn't a bellman) and explained its features. While she pointed out the hyper-cool Bang & Olufsen sound system and plasma TV, the LavAzza espresso machine, DVD player and the Dornbracht bathroom fixtures, I had to reorient myself. For a moment, I thought someone had moved a big, fluffy bed into a third-floor garage -- or was it a dorm room for a Formula One racer?

The bare concrete floors were painted with the slick gray paint you see in car repair shops. The large shower enclosure was situated prominently in the bedroom; it's not opaque, so it's not for the shy, and there's no tub. The pebbly plastic sinks were set into a stainless-steel counter top; lotions and shampoos were in test tubes. Just as cars are built with compartments that hide and slide away, so was this room. The "dresser" is hidden in under-bed rolling drawers; the closet, too, rolls into an enclosure. The windows are shielded by blinds that look like the retractable sunshades in luxury sedans.

Soon, however, I felt transported to the Italy where sleek surfaces and modern, minimal design are revered. After spending years writing in Milanese rooms of the same Spartan efficiency, I had to fight the urge to plug in the laptop and dash out 200 lines. (Wireless Internet connection is free.)

Yet this is no business hotel. I'm not sure what it is, because, in these early laps, it's not keeping pace with the need for service, in-hotel amenities and comforts -- such as sleep.

Sure, there are Riedel wine glasses, $7 chocolates and a $14 Italian Lauretana water in the minibar. The service was swift; at least, it was at 10:34 p.m., when I requested a toothbrush and it arrived in 2 minutes, 2 seconds. But there's not much else to demand of a hotel that has no dining area, pool, fitness room, spa or -- the final insult -- shower cap.

The beauty and novelty of the Keating's design wear off quickly. The floors are hard, and there are only bathmats, not rugs. Turndown service was absent one night, quite late the next, and the housekeeper didn't tidy the bedcovers. The king-size bed was swathed in Frette linens and featured a feather bed and a goose-down comforter -- perfect for places bordering Alaska, not Mexico. I spent the night rotating from roasting to freezing when the industrial-blast air conditioning kicked on.

There's no room service and no incentive to stay in your stanza when the entire Gaslamp Quarter beckons with restaurants and bars. But at night it sounds as if the entire district has moved to the foot of the bed. The Keating's owners are restricted from altering the historic building's windows. These are 7-foot-tall, single-pane, painfully inadequate buffers that open onto what in local real estate lingo is called an "urban active view." So when the bars shut down, the sidewalk scene at 5th and F streets heats up.

At 2 a.m. on a Friday, the intoxicated danced in the street, accompanied by a wobbly violinist. Friday's wake-up call included a tambourine and pedicab drivers honking their Harpo Marx bicycle horns. The cacophony pierced the earplugs that I'd requested after the first sleepless night.

By Night 2, I had never wanted a supply of water balloons so badly.

Now sporting dark under-eye circles, I needed makeup, but I had tough luck applying it with the room's stark overhead lighting and distant wall mirrors. I revived with coffee from the hotel's free breakfast buffet. Still, I hoped a hotel this visually intriguing would offer some reward for enduring its difficult acoustics. Perhaps I'd find it at Minus One, the cool, car-centric subterranean lounge.

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