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Boutique Hotel Boom

The Kimpton Hotels offer boutique-hotel style without boutique-hotel prices—or attitude.

So you check into your magazine-ready hip hotel room. You admire the wacky angles of the furniture and the concrete bathroom, then sit on the rock-hard bed as you call down for extra pillows. Nobody answers. By the next morning you have a headache from the 50-minute wait for room service, the 78 degrees the thermostat is stuck at and the eye strain from reading in the shadow of the black lampshade. What kills you, though, is when a 22-year-old with a beautiful sneer hands you a bill for $628.43.

That's the trouble with so many style-driven hotels: What they gain in style, they lose in comfort—without being any easier on the wallet. All too often, the extravagance of the lobby is in inverse relationship to the warmth of the welcome, and a see-and-be-seen restaurant has no notable chef in sight. Fortunately, since the dawn of the boutique-hotel era, there has been an alternative: You can book yourself into a Kimpton hotel. And it's becoming ever easier to do so, since new Kimptons are popping up all over the place, with five in Washington, D.C., alone. In a slow business period, these midprice boutiques seem to be suddenly saturating the market.

From the start—some 22 years ago—a Kimpton hotel has been not only striking visually but also cozy and playful, a place with the atmosphere of a membership-free club. Many boutique hotels charge $300 and up a night; a standard Kimpton guest room starts at $129 and peaks at $299. The company's recent name change from the Kimpton Group to Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is a tip-off to another plus: It takes its restaurants very seriously. Some are among the best in their cities.

That list of cities has grown exponentially since the late Bill Kimpton opened his first hotel, in San Francisco, in 1981. The current period is especially hyperactive: eight debuts in four new cities since late 2001, with three more new hotels due this year, including the long-awaited Argonaut, in San Francisco, housed in a historic Fisherman's Wharf warehouse—the 17th hotel in the company's hometown. Bill Kimpton died in March 2001, but his merry irreverence—symbolized by his eternally jazzy sweaters—is very much alive in the leadership of Tom LaTour, who became his business partner back in 1983. LaTour is no more your average hotel mogul than Kimpton was. He's from a Lansing, Michigan, family of 10 children. He makes wines for his own label from grapes he grows at his Napa Valley estate. He is not the kind of guy who would stay in a cookie-cutter chain, let alone create one. In fact, as LaTour points out, Kimpton is not a chain at all but rather a collection of individual hotels with a common spirit—a buzz that appeals to what he calls the experience-oriented traveler.

Anybody who's stayed in one of Kimpton's 6,717 rooms will understand. The typical decor is whimsical, whether it's designer Cheryl Rowley's wild stripes mixed with graphic prints in crayon-box colors and zebra-print bathrobes in the seven Monacos (the nearest to a brand that Kimpton gets); or scores of different riffs on red in Washington's Hotel Rouge; or something more restrained, like the warm Mediterranean interiors at the recently renovated Vintage Park in Seattle; or veering toward camp, as at Aspen's new Sky Hotel, where the quiet elegance of the spacious stone lobby is punctured by immensely silly white leather wing chairs with insanely elongated 10- and 12-foot backs.

This decor—particularly Rowley's distinctive style—was absolutely of the moment in the '80s, when boutique hotels were in their infancy. Now, after a few years of midcentury minimalism and subtle palettes, the early Kimptons may appear somewhat dated, overbusy, in-your-face—especially to travelers accustomed to the white-beige-taupe-with-a-tray-of-wheatgrass-juice look of a W room. Still, even if the decor isn't always cutting-edge, something about a Kimpton will definitely make you laugh, or at least smile. It's all part of LaTour's plan to create a "moment of truth" for every one of Kimpton's guests, a little shock of joy at expectations fulfilled (or surpassed) in a way that feels personal.

To that end, the Kimpton team is constantly dreaming up packages and programs and extras that range from adorable to downright goofy. One very popular offering is the free-wine hour in every lobby every evening; another is the pet-friendly policy at the various properties that welcome dogs along with their owners. (Lily Sopris, the house Jack Russell at the Denver Monaco, extends them an especially warm welcome.) The Triton, the music-biz favorite in San Francisco with suites designed by Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, has a So Hip It Hurts package that includes a free tattoo or piercing. At the other extreme, the sybaritic Topaz in D.C. has special Yoga Rooms and supplies in-room manicures and pedicures and gifts for its women guests. My favorite "moment" comes at the Monaco hotels, when a glass bowl containing a goldfish—creatively named for the night by the housekeeping staff—arrives. It's part of the package they call Guppy Love.

But it's the Kimpton restaurants that are the empire's crowning touch. They are more than hotel adjuncts—they are stand-alone destinations, reflections of a nationwide trend that Kimpton, in fact, may have started. It's entirely possible that you have dined in one of the 33 Kimpton restaurants without being aware of its affiliation. Since the company's home is San Francisco, it's not surprising that the choicest picks are in that food-obsessed city. Ron Siegel, at Masa's, and Laurent Gras, at Fifth Floor, are perhaps the starriest chefs of the lot, but there are also Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal at the ever-popular Postrio, John Beardsley at the mod-Asian Ponzu and the up-and-coming Paul Arenstam at Grand Café. Among the newest batch of restaurants, one chef is attracting attention with his innovative American food: John Wabeck at Firefly, adjacent to Washington's Madera.

Part of what makes Kimpton properties so appealing is that their scale and ambience are so varied—largely, no doubt, because many were not originally hotels. A number are fashioned out of historic buildings, like the upcoming Argonaut, the 18-month-old New Orleans Monaco (which was a Masonic temple) and the D.C. Monaco (in the majestic old Tariff Building); the designers have been careful to retain and enhance their salient architectural characteristics. Others, like the four additional D.C. properties—the Madera, the Rouge, the Helix and the Topaz—were once apartment buildings, a provenance that lends them a homey feel even before the lush, plush decor gets to work. According to Tom LaTour, this reappropriation of existing buildings is quite deliberate. It's what makes him able to offer a lot for a little while continuing to expand in an economic climate that isn't exactly favoring the hotel industry. Kimpton, LaTour explains, goes shopping for properties when others aren't looking. ("After all, straw hats in the winter are a lot cheaper than straw hats in the summer.") That way, the expense of fitting out a snappy boutique property works out to less than half the cost of developing a typical new four-star property. A top-of-the-line Kimpton can look just as regal as a grand luxe hotel—an effect, LaTour explains with a laugh, that Kimpton achieves by spending the money where it shows. In the D.C. Monaco lobby, for instance, the eye is instantly drawn up to a spectacular quartet of custom-made emerald-green Murano-style glass chandeliers, then down to a herd of gigantically inviting velvet sofas—and after that, nobody notices if there's a gilded ceiling or a handwoven carpet. Many aspiring fancy hotels, LaTour believes, waste millions on superfluous ornamentation "because they think they have to." He finds that a little goes a long way. And these savings, of course, are reflected in the room rates.

Still, in hotels—as anyone who's suffered the privations of a hip dungeon knows all too well—architecture and interiors are only half the picture. A place stands or falls by its service and ambience; here, too, Kimptons shine. Requests are honored, room service is fast, and staff are jolly. When you earn a living fluffing pillows on mutant wing chairs, booking guests for nose piercings and naming goldfish, it must be hard not to smile.

For information, phone 800-KIMPTON or visit www.kimptongroup.com.

Published March 2003
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