Travel

San Diego's Hard Rock Hotel goes with the formula

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It's been billed as a parable of successful urban revitalization, a testament to the strength of branding and a pretty groovy place to crash.

The Hard Rock Hotel San Diego is all those things, to a point. It's a modern hotel steps from Petco Park and the San Diego Convention Center that has translated an overplayed concept into an appealing, kinda hip spot.

But like a DJ sampling favorite tracks, the Hard Rock hasn't really written an original song; it's more like a hot playlist of hotel hits. Lay down a beat of dark, architectural furniture, add mood lighting, young staffers in black, a rooftop pool, then blast to a hopping bar scene.

With a pantheon of classic, and often dead, rockers on heavy rotation, the hotel also isn't pushing any boundaries musically. After a few too many rounds of the Beatles, the Monkees and the Doors, I was tempted to call it the Classic Rock Hotel. This hotel, the ninth of a planned 15 in the chain (including one set for Palm Springs), joins 123 Hard Rock Cafes.

Relying on a greatest-hits approach isn't always a bad thing, I realized. In early March, I headed south to visit the 5-month-old hotel, dreading the trip. I had expected a place as hokey, tired and crammed with bric-a-brac as the Hard Rock Cafes (the first of which opened in London in 1971). Instead, I found a 420-room convention and tourist hotel outfitted as a mass-market boutique hotel.

When the check-in clerk asked me what kind of music I liked, she wasn't just being polite but programming my pick into the 42-inch HDTV and integrated sound system nine floors up. She and other staff members were well-rehearsed on the hotel's particulars, citing dining and entertainment options or explaining the room's features -- including the platform bed's sharp corners.

Indeed, in a studio only 15 feet across, a king-size bed demands nimble navigation and space-saving layouts. The designers built the headboard, nightstands and bed platform into a compact module. The TV, desk, dresser, iPod dock and cable ports were integrated into a dark-wood wall unit.

That left more space for the in-room bar, which was well supplied with full-size liquor and mixers. Even the traditional treat left on the bed pillow has been influenced by booze culture: You get a pair of rock-candy swizzle sticks. Get it? Rock candy?

Trying hard to distill the essence of rock allure, the hotel is left with the guitar. Tiny ones are embroidered on the pillow shams, autographed ones are framed in display cases, and metal ones anchor spa locker keys.

Authentic rock cred is delivered in glass cases that display a bustier and a Jean Paul Gaultier dress worn by Madonna, Janis Joplin's hip huggers, a telegram from Elvis to the Beatles. Of the many signed guitars, perhaps the most telling is from former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who signed his with "Drugs Suck."

Sometimes, guitars are set in conference rooms, a rebel prop in a world of PowerPoint presentations. After all, this is a convention hotel, one with 40,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space.

The hotel is configured for partying, with nearly 40% of the rooms made into suites, including 17 "Rock Star Suites" that may feature a fire pit, an outdoor hot tub or décor by the Black Eyed Peas. The suites also illustrate a trend toward hotel rooms as private party spots. Though the more elaborate suites can host six to 12 at an in-room dining table, the beds hold only two. My king studio was comfortable for a weekend stay but too small for much longer.

The night I arrived, I noshed downstairs at Nobu, the latest outpost in Nobu Matsuhisa's Peruvian-Japanese sushi empire. It was buzzing with young couples, locals, conventioneers in blue blazers, military recruits and those old enough to have witnessed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

If Nobu is all night life and lean fish, the hotel's Maryjane's Coffee Shop is daytime comfort carbs: biscuits, potatoes, cinnamon buns. It's done up as a '50s Atomic Age diner, but the iconic table-side jukeboxes have been updated; you no longer listen but watch a small flat-screen TV playing "The Partridge Family," "The Brady Bunch" and 1959's "Some Like It Hot."

Still, I was hoping the hotel would offer an immersion experience in the latest in music. I found it, oddly, in the spa's treatment rooms, where more-current rock and pop played. (The Rock Spa is a short stanza: 10 lockers, five treatment rooms, steam room and makeup station, though no sauna or hot tub.)

The Rock Spa's waiting room seemed like one of the few forward-looking spots in the hotel. With its mirrored tables, shaggy throw rugs, streamlined chairs and glowing orb lights, it could be a prototype waiting room for suborbital space flights.

Naturally, the hotel likes to promote itself as on the cutting edge of music. Toward that end, during my stay its second-floor conference rooms became a tour stop for Toronto's Mstrkrft, a duo of dance-music mixers. The music of other artists played, loudly, from the sound system in the lobby's Sweetwater Saloon, one of the few Gaslamp Quarter bars with crowds and the requisite velvet rope and bouncers. Entering the hotel on a weekend night, guests must flash room keys, a.k.a. "backstage passes," to prove residency.

Though the lobby becomes too loud for conversation on weekend nights or during concerts, upstairs is quiet, except for some traffic sounds or doors that staffers allow to bang shut. With few exceptions, I experienced a well-run hotel. My room-service breakfast arrived in a surprising 10 minutes after ordering.

In an age when many hip boutique inns rely on their good looks to impress, the Hard Rock doesn't forget to be a hotel, one where service matters. I put several employees through their paces, including one named Megan. When I called early one morning for room service, the spa and the front desk, each time she chirped, "Hello, this is Megan. How may I rock your world?"

I laughed the first time and cringed by the third. It just goes to show, no matter how strong the concept, a little goes a long way.

valli.herman@latimes.com

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