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In San Francisco, new destinations over the top

The 192 rooms — sorry, “chambers” — at the Virgin Hotel in San Francisco are succinct without feeling cramped, helped in no small part by floor-to-ceiling windows letting the sunshine in.
The 192 rooms — sorry, “chambers” — at the Virgin Hotel in San Francisco are succinct without feeling cramped, helped in no small part by floor-to-ceiling windows letting the sunshine in.

It’s become fashionable of late to bemoan the gilded excesses of San Francisco, land of the $8 doughnut, and where tidy neighborhoods busily fortify against new affordable housing. Similar things could be said about New York and London, but the Bay Area gets special grief for its streets being paved with gold.

There’s no missing the white-hot energy of the place right now, flying into SFO and witnessing the new downtown skyline, where the iconic skyscraper is no longer the TransAmerica building but the shiny, 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce tower. Once-dicey neighborhoods like Dogpatch seem to reassemble almost overnight: the Dutchman’s Flats cannabis dispensary, as tidy as a museum gift shop, is across from Magnolia Brewing Co., and just down from Velocipede Cyclery and a leather-rich hip-hop boutique.

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Recently, inevitably, several new places to stay are attempting to join this party, but for those with conscience, the risk is one of caricature. How to be over the top, but not obnoxiously so? If there’s a way to do indulgence tastefully, the new Virgin Hotel comes close.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group chose an unassuming site at 4th Street near the corner with Folsom in South of Market to open the second property in the Virgin Hotels portfolio (the first was in Chicago; many more are planned, including in Boston). The 12-story new construction is a perfect spot to contemplate the “new” San Francisco, overlooking the Yerba Buena gardens and Moscone convention center complex, which is so low-slung it allows unfettered views to the burgeoning metropolis.

The Virgin Hotel was my choice of accommodations for a big urban planning conference in the spring. It’s literally one block from where most of the sessions were. Let others stay in the Marriott; this conventioneer was all-in returning to the red-splashed hipness of the lobby, bar, coffee shop, and restaurant, and grand staircase shrouded in 30-foot-tall velvet curtains. I just needed to keep reminding myself to remove my geeky lanyard.

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The 192 rooms — sorry, “chambers” — are succinct without feeling cramped, helped in no small part by floor-to-ceiling windows letting the sunshine in. Lots of white, but not so much you feel like sleeping in ABBA’s dressing room. The red Smeg retro mini fridge in the corner is stocked with drinks, snacks, and other items at what the property proudly calls “street prices.” Free Laughing Man coffee, cofounded by actor Hugh Jackman, is prepared using the British method of water boiled in an electric tea kettle and poured over a filter-topped mug. The rates are reasonable, starting at $200, there are no pesky resort fees or charges for WiFi, and the place is 100 percent pet-friendly with no size or breed restrictions. Indeed the “Pet-Menities” include dog beds, food and water dishes, and a Virgin Hotels bandana.

The property’s description of the intent of the designers (Gensler San Francisco, Hager Design International, Matthew Rolston) sums it up: “an ultimate hospitality destination for the savvy, tech-forward business and leisure traveler, merging an eclectic architectural and decorative mix between San Francisco’s Victorian-era past, the city’s 1960s rock ’n’ roll appropriation of Victorian styling, and a 19th-century British feel.”

Big ambitions, to be sure. The British part certainly rings true, what with the red London telephone booth outside the front doors, already a well-established Instagram moment.

And boy, is this place a scene at night, when the velvet ropes go up and beautiful people arrive. The rooftop bar, Everdene, has quickly become a destination for locals; raw speculation, of course, but that had to be a group from LinkedIn or Twitter lounging around the couches over Far Niante chardonnay. It takes a long time to get the bartender’s attention, making any veteran of SoHo nightclubs feel right at home.

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The Commons Club, under the direction of head chef Adrian Garcia, is quite serviceable, and the bars and restaurants in walking distance make for a lovely post-prandial stroll. Options include Zero Zero around the corner, Tropisueno, Fang, and of course, the House of Shields, site of the demise of a philandering president (no, Warren Harding).

Among the other new options for boutique and “micro” hotels are the Yotel in Mid-Market, and the Proper Hotel, with yet another super-hip rooftop bar. The SOMA Mission Bay hotel is set to open next year. Suffice to say, there are many more choices beyond the Fairmont and the Kimpton, for both business and leisure travel. San Francisco anticipates steep growth in both, all the while determined to keep its heart and soul.


Anthony Flint can be reached at anthony.flint@gmail.com.