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S.F. 'boutique' hotels are 'magnifique'

Like other big cities, San Francisco offers visitors a wide range of lodging options. All the brand-name hotels are here, along with a number of high-profile, expense-account palaces.

What's different in the City by the Bay is that about 15 percent of its 32,000 hotel rooms don't fit either mold, but fall instead into the "boutique" category. Smaller properties (under 150 rooms) remodeled with a flair for design, the boutiques appeal to travelers who want something different, something memorable -- and something that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

Competition is fierce in this segment of San Francisco's lodging industry, a condition that tends to keep quality up and prices down. And the booming economy of the late 1990s saw remodels and renovations that brought many of the city's unbranded properties into the new millennium in the best shape of their often long lives.

I'm a big fan of San Francisco's boutique hotels, and over the years have sampled quite a few. On my most recent visit, I tried a new one near Union Square: the Kensington Park at 450 Post St.

This 90-room hotel, with its pretty, tudor-style lobby and primo location next door to Farallon (my hands-down favorite San Francisco restaurant), proved a happy choice. My 11th-floor room, newly redecorated in a quiet, Queen Anne style, was attractive and comfortable, with Union Square views, an in-room fax machine (didn't need it, but still) waffle-cloth bathrobes in the closet and, in the bathroom, a roomy tub, a hair-dryer, and good-quality soaps and shampoos. A newspaper was outside the door each morning, and the staff downstairs couldn't have been more friendly and accommodating. Plus, continental breakfast and afternoon tea were included in the rates, and the charge for valet parking was just (!) $22 a day -- a bargain in a part of town where the cost of ditching your wheels overnight can easily exceed $30.

The KP shares its building with some interesting neighbors -- though it's more accurate to say that the Elks Club, which built the structure in 1925 and has owned it ever since, has some interesting tenants.

Besides the hotel, which has a lobby at street level and rooms on the fifth through 11th floors, the building houses Elks Lodge facilities (including an enormous basement swimming pool), as well as Theatre on the Square, where Lily Tomlin is starring through Dec. 31 in the highly acclaimed one-woman show "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."

Farallon, one of San Francisco's top seafood restaurants, sits directly above the pool, on a street-level floor not original to the building. The vaulted, mosaic-covered ceilings of its dramatic main dining room originally were part of the palatial aquatic facility.

The opportunity to eat, sleep and visit the theater -- all under one roof -- struck me as reason enough to choose this sweet little hotel again.

The KP is one of five moderately priced properties in the Personality Hotels on Union Square group directed by Yvonne Lembi-Detert, one of San Francisco's few women hoteliers. All recently renovated, the lodgings are as different from one another as Queen Anne is from postmodern industrial, but all are notable for their emphasis on good value and designer detail.

Other properties in the group include the 131-room Hotel Union Square at 114 Powell St., one of the first boutique properties in the city; and the hip and irreverent Diva, at 440 Geary St., long noted for its avant-garde decor and its location right across the street from the Curran and ACT theaters.

Lembi-Detert's newest baby is the 105-room Metropolis, which opened two years ago in an old building (previously the Oxford-Cambridge Inn) in an iffy location: the corner of Mason and Turk streets, just off Market Street and on the edge of the gritty Tenderloin district. Upscale shopping and restaurants are just a block away to the left, but the neighborhood to the right is, shall we say, one of minimal interest to tourists.

"We give everyone who checks in a card telling them 'Everything left is right,' Lembi-Detert explained of how the hotel handles the delicate business of steering guests in the right direction.

"I love this property," she said, giving a quick tour that terminated on a rooftop deck with expansive urban vistas. "The views are of a side of a great city you don't often see. ... I know it's in the Tenderloin, but I've worked down here for years, and it doesn't bother me one bit."

The Metropolis is, indeed, the kind of place travelers on a modest budget can easily forgive for its slightly off-center location. It offers a lot to like in its quality furnishings (guest-room furniture, designed specifically for the hotel by San Francisco-based designer Colum McCartan, won a major award), creatively inspired decor (a colorful "forces of nature" theme is followed throughout) and appealing features such as a "holistic well-being room" for meditation or yoga, a loft library and a family suite with bunk beds for the kids.

In short, the Metropolis has personality to spare -- as does Lembi-Detert herself.

The mother of two young children, who balances family life and executive duties with ballerina-like poise, has yet another lodging project on the drawing boards: m31, a gallactic-themed hotel named for the galaxy nearest the Milky Way. If plans stay on track, it will break ground in 2003 at an Ellis Street site currently used as a parking lot, behind the Hotel Union Square.

I took a side trip to check out Personality Hotels' fifth property, the Steinhart, built in 1910 as an apartment house by Ignatz Steinhart, the San Francisco banker who founded the the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park. (Steinhart lived here until his death in 1917.) The elegant Edwardian building at 952 Sutter St. is architecturally significant enough to have earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places. It offers by-the-month rental of beautifully furnished apartments (400 to 1,000 square feet) that are generally occupied by business people on temporary assignments and actors in town for the run of their shows. Studio rentals run $2,200-$3,000 and include laundry service, phone and utilities.

I liked the place. A lot. Like the other four Lembi-Detert hotels, it was brimming over with personality, style and that certain little something that sets these properties -- and this great city -- apart.

Personality Hotels is offering two special packages this season. "Winter Rates," good through March 31 on a space-available basis, are $99 at the Hotel Union Square and $139 at the Diva and Kensington Park. A $95 winter rate at the Metropolis includes free parking, continental breakfast and wine hour in the library loft.

"Curb Appeal" packages, which include valet parking and continental breakfast, are $135 at the Metropolis and Hotel Union Square, $155 at the Kensington Park and Diva. (Rates do not include tax.) Specialized packages themed to each property also are available.

For reservations and more information: (800) 553-1900 or