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Saturday, June 7, 2003
Special to The Globe and Mail

SAN FRANCISCO -- In European cities, it is not uncommon to find hotels beginning on the sixth, ninth or even 15th floor of a building. In North America, however, these upper-level lodgings are rare. The Kimpton Group, the American boutique hotel chain that features individualistic properties in a range of comfort levels, as well as the design-heavy Hotel Monaco line, may be of a mind to change that. If the Hotel Palomar in San Francisco is any indication, Kimpton has given the matter some long and serious thought.

Perched atop a typically boisterous Old Navy store at Market and Fourth Streets in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the four-year-old hotel begins on the fifth floor of a 1908-era building and runs through to the ninth. The lobby -- if that's the right word to describe the office-sized reception area -- is hidden away about half a block south on Fourth Street, and if you approach the hotel from Market, you may wonder what has become of the entrance. Once found, however, the front door of the Palomar is a portal into one of the city's most distinctive hotels: elegant yet not fussy about the fact; hip without the hurt; and a fusion of style and comfort, form and function. Regular patrons of cooler-than-thou boutiques may be surprised by some of the Palomar's homier touches. Not many hotels can, for instance, boast a resident black Labrador sprawled lethargically behind a neo-deco registration desk.


In all respects but size, the one-room reception hall sets the tone for the atmosphere of the four floors above. Lines are kept sharp, surfaces are uncomplicated and, while the colour scheme is predominantly black, brown, tan and cream, the brighter hues that are also employed play off one another as in a painting by Piet Mondrian. The overall effect is engagingly retro-1940s without falling into the trap of aping the mid-century look, which is honestly preserved and displayed in other parts of town. Clientele

With numerous ultra-luxury hotels in the city, the Palomar doesn't bother competing for the high-end dollar. Instead, it appeals to a range of guests, from business travellers who appreciate the complimentary shuttle to the Financial District to tourists eager to browse the shops of Union Square.


The style of the lobby is echoed in the rooms, although the colours are neither as dramatic nor as severe, and the attitude is more whimsical.

A constant throughout the 198 rooms and 16 suites is leopard-print carpeting, and while the earth tones of the downstairs continue on the upper floors, blacks and deep mahoganies give way to lighter woods and softer shades. Asian-influenced touches, such as cubes of colour embedded into the headboards of the beds and super-deep tubs in the suites, further soften the contours of the hotel's design.

Amenities in the rooms include the expected -- high-end toiletries, data ports, high-speed Internet -- as well as more thoughtful touches such as VCRs, CD players, combination fax/photocopier/printers and phones that work in both speaker and cordless modes. For the spiritual traveller, copies of both the Bible and The Teaching of Buddha are stocked.


A welcoming letter left in the room touts the merits of nearby neighbourhoods that would otherwise fly under the radar of most visitors, and offers the help of Guest Services at the touch of a button. From there, the service stays as sharp or gets even better.

Food and drink

When the Palomar's restaurant, Fifth Floor, opened in September, 1999, it created a local stir behind the spoon of chef George Morrone and the nose of sommelier Rajat Parr. All the more disturbing, then, was the departure of both men in, respectively, 2001 and 2002. San Franciscans worried.

They needn't have. New chef Laurent Gras and sommelier Belinda Chang have more than acquitted themselves since their arrival, and the Fifth Floor is, by all accounts, as good as, or even better than, ever. Gras's intriguing menu -- uniquely arranged under the headings Ocean, Field And Forest, and Farm rather than as appetizers and mains -- borrows from the cuisine of Alain Ducasse, for whom Gras worked for five years, while offering such unconventional twists as foie gras sautéed with licorice and lobster broth emulsified with chestnuts.

The sum total is an inventively delectable meal served in intimate surroundings by almost perfectly attentive staff. Chang complements the food with sometimes surprising but always appropriate selections from the restaurant's 10,000-bottle cellar.

For those days when the Fifth Floor may seem a little much, the Palomar has the innovative Dining Passport Program, which offers guests the opportunity to sign for their meals at select neighbourhood restaurants.

Things to do

Shopping may live above Market Street in the city's fabled Union Square, but the arts definitely reside in Soma, the former warehouse district named for its location south of Market.

Within a short walk of the Palomar are the outstanding San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, arguably second in the country only to New York's MOMA for the breadth of its collection; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, with its adjoining, oasis-like Yerba Buena Gardens; and the 20-year-old Cartoon Art Gallery, a must for people who turn first to the funnies when they open their morning paper.


Hotel Palomar: 12 Fourth St., San Francisco; phone: (866) 373-4941; fax: (415) 348-0302; or visit the Web site: http://www.hotelpalomar.com. Rooms start at $149 (U.S.) a night, based on availability. There are also numerous package deals available, which can be found through the hotel's Web site.


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