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Phoenix Inn Is San Francisco’s Funky Alternative

<i> Martin is a San Francisco free-lance writer</i>

The Phoenix Inn stretches horizontally in a city famous for being vertical.

Think of San Francisco’s numerous historic high-rise hotels crammed together atop sharply sloping downtown streets. There are the Mark Hopkins, the St. Francis, the Fairmont and many others--all of them conservative, elegant, expensive.

Now imagine, also in downtown San Francisco at the corner of Eddy and Larkin streets the kind of two-story, 1950s Sunset Boulevard motel that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo would have stayed in during a trip to Hollywood, and you’re beginning to get the idea behind the Phoenix Inn.

Picture a funky, tongue-in-cheek urban resort.

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Low Rates, Charm

Thanks to its low rates, unusual amenities and, most of all, its quirky charms, the Phoenix has become a favored alternative to San Francisco’s buttoned-down hotel establishments, especially among the arts-and-entertainment crowd.

Since its May, 1987, opening, the inn has earned a reputation as the city’s rock ‘n’ roll motel, along the lines of New York City’s Chelsea and the Tropicana in Los Angeles, but with an upscale, polished touch.

First, there’s the eight-foot-deep swimming pool. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another hotel or inn in San Francisco where you can splash about in a heated outdoor pool. Set in a grassy courtyard landscaped with tropical foliage and a modern sculpture garden, the pool is the gathering place for the inn’s clientele: visiting writers, rock musicians, comedians, film makers and other creative types.

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For two weeks last November, for example, Linda Ronstadt and her “Canciones de mi Padre” company rented the entire place. Brenda Lee has stayed at the inn, and so have The Bangles, Arlo Guthrie, Billy Idol’s band, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Italian National Ballet.

Debora Iyall, former lead singer with Romeo Void, sometimes rents a room at the Phoenix on sunny days, even though she lives in San Francisco.

“It’s hard to get that horizontal feeling in San Francisco,” she says. “Everything’s up and down, old and Victorian. This has a nice big yard and a pool.”

Feels Like Hollywood

“I feel like I’m in Hollywood, even though I’m in San Francisco,” says Zane W. Levitt, a Los Angeles-based film maker.

“The last time I was there, people were reading scripts by the pool and The Roches were practicing for their next gig by the sculpture garden,” Levitt said. “Just like home.”

Aside from the potted plant that was once hurled into the pool, the Phoenix’s rock ‘n’ roll guests usually behave. The inn, however, is careful not to book the Ozzy Osbourne aspirants, those reptilian rockers who dress exclusively in black, gargle with lighter fluid, and travel with a tarantula collection.

The Phoenix’s uncustomary services are another attraction, such as the on-site massage therapists trained to work out those post-performance kinks. The concierge staff knows how to screen calls from groupies, point you toward the hottest night spots and arrange for obscure activities, such as a limousine-chauffeured tour of San Francisco movie locations.

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In addition, the housekeeping staff is efficient and even entertaining. One of the domestics, Cathy Sorbo, also is a stand-up comedian and sometimes performs her chores while wearing Groucho Marx glasses.

The Phoenix goal is to provide an offbeat, contemporary San Francisco experience. Thus, pointing guests toward Fisherman’s Wharf, sourdough bread and cable cars is not encouraged here. In fact, the Phoenix has produced its own San Francisco visitors guide: “Beyond Fisherman’s Wharf.”

The guide focuses on the city’s “hidden sights, sounds and tastes,” including a Moroccan restaurant with belly dancers, a nightclub frequented by Hispanic drag queens, a museum with 200 polyester shirts on display and the Aquarian Foundation spiritual healing services.

The Phoenix’s surprising rates are perhaps the best news of all. Few places in pricey San Francisco offer a clean, comfortable suite, decorated tastefully in pastel colors, original artwork and live plants, for $110 a night. Room rates begin at $69 for a single (with two double beds), $79 double, and there is a 20% discount for “qualified entertainers.”

The Phoenix is the brainchild of Chip Conley, 28, who with the help of his father and some 20 investors paid $1 million for the motel in January, 1987. It seems that Conley, who grew up in Long Beach, was frightened by a TraveLodge at an early age and never fully recovered.

“My family,” Conley explains, “was the ultimate AAA family. We’d always take our guidebooks wherever we went on vacation. I’d ask my parents why all these lodges and motels looked just alike, no matter what city we were in. I never forgot my mother’s response: ‘That’s just the way they are,’ she said. I was fascinated.”

Years later, when Conley went shopping for hotel property, he stumbled upon a deteriorated motel, the Garden Inn, that reminded him of all those look-alike lodges from his boyhood.

“It seemed like a great idea, suddenly: an AAA motor lodge from the ‘50s with contemporary decor as well as upscale services,” Conley said.

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Despite the fact that the Garden Inn was in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s poorest inner-city neighborhoods, and that it courted a licentious clientele searching for hourly rates and vibrating beds, Conley and investors acquired the property and spent $500,000 in renovations.

As part of the face lift the two-story motel was accented with such festive ‘50s colors as deep Bermuda pink and lagoon blue. Conley placed original artwork, strictly from San Francisco artists, throughout the inn. There are no $5.95 oil paintings of Union Square on these premises.

In addition, the Phoenix instituted a series of creative arts seminars and was the host hotel for Syd Field’s noted screenwriting workshop last January.

The location of the 44-room Phoenix has a long history of serving America’s car culture. By 1913 the lot was the home of the 108-car Alaska Garage. In the early ‘50s there was Dobb’s Drive-In, a 24-hour eatery and the Boomerang Room, a lounge where the cocktails “bring you back.”

About 1960 the Caravan Lodge opened on the site. Designed as a Palm Springs-style hideaway, the lodge was billed as “San Francisco’s most beautiful garden hotel.”

In its early days it attracted the likes of comedian Buddy Hackett and film star/beauty expert Arlene Dahl. But as the ‘60s moved on, so did the motel’s customers; the neighborhood went to seed and buried the Caravan with it.

From that seed now sprouts a rebirth, hence the name “Phoenix.” While the area is still predominantly lower-class and ethnic, the Phoenix’s new neighbors include the California Culinary Academy and the Sierra Club’s national headquarters.

Further gentrification is bound to occur late next month when Julie Ring, proprietor of the hugely popular Julie’s Supper Club in San Francisco’s South of Market area, transforms the restaurant and cocktail lounge at the Phoenix.

The restaurant, called Miss Pearl’s Jam House, will be a tropical takeoff on ‘50s supper clubs, a kind of ‘50s Caribbean kitsch. Conley describes the cocktail lounge as a “poor man’s Trader Vic’s.”

With its many unexpected touches--the in-house cable channel, for example, shows only movies made or set in San Francisco--the Phoenix Inn is a refreshing tonic for travelers weary of overpriced, unexciting accommodations.

Aside from the pool, the affordable rates and the Sunset Boulevard style, part of the fun of staying there is the people-watching.

“The Phoenix is designed to be a crossroads for an eclectic set of people,” Conley says. “You never know who might come out from behind one of these doors.”

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The Phoenix Inn, 601 Eddy St., San Francisco 94109, (415) 776-1380.


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