HOTEL ARGENT - San Francisco

by Annette Bignami

We've enjoyed most of the best San Francisco hotels for several decades. Tasting dinners and a suite at the Ritz, the views, cable car access and wonderful public areas of the Fairmont or St. Francis, and the quiet luxury of French or Redwood Rooms at the Cliff Hotel all come to mind. Each is in the traditional downtown on what used to be the "good" side of Market Street around Union Square or atop Nob Hill.

Today SoMa, or South of Market offers au courant competition with Union Square. Granted the Palace Hotel has been on what used to be the "bad side" of Market since back to the days of the 1906 earthquake and fire, and there's still no better place to enjoy Sunday brunch than its Palm Court. Still, on our last visit in search of something new we tried the Argent Hotel, which like the new Giants-Pacific Bell Park, better accesses new attractions near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the second largest modern museum in the country, just steps from Market Street.

Teens and electronic buffs can enjoy the 350,000 square feet of the rather oversized and overrated Sony Metreon Entertainment Center on the bayside of the hotel; it offers 15 movie screens plus an Imax. There are herds of upscale shops, small cafes and fine restaurants in this revitalized area. The bucolic, yet downtown pleasures of Yerba Buena Park are just down the street and, at the Market Street corner, you can ride on San Francisco's antique trolley cars or submerge to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) to the East Bay.

We do favor hotels with a unique flavor. Happily, at the Argent Art Deco replaces the cookie cutter hotels where you wake up, and if you travel a lot, have no idea of where you are. Argent Hotel entranceThe Argent seems very San Francisco. Things look up at the street where solid service calms visitors after the dubious joys of today's air travel and the overpriced cab ride from the San Francisco Airport -ask about their airport shuttles.

While over 600 rooms handle the usual visitor with urban sophistication an on-site health club, sauna and more, POSH starts with the 26 suites on the top four floors that come with an executive lounge for complimentary breakfasts and evening cordials. The full-time concierge can even arrange guided runs through San Francisco! The two bedroom/two bathroom Yerba Buena and SOMA Penthouses with whirlpool tubs top the suite heap, and the hotel. Like the Diplomat suites with one or two bedrooms or the Bay View Suites, these come with telescopes to check out the action on the Bay or in the park and amenities like three telephones in guest rooms.

At least one meal Jester's, or drinking in the Jester's Lounge, is hot and reservations a must, because Chef Joel Gillion is one of only 300 French Master Chefs. As a rule we don't favor "fusion" or the Euro-Pacific food that runs to oddments like lemon grass ice cream, but Jester's menu applies traditional French techniques to local ingredients like petrale, a wonderful sole, with just enough Asian influence to yield a pleasant surprise. I should note here that my husband and I have written or contributed to more than a dozen cookbooks, given cooking demonstrations, and written food columns and food articles to many major magazines and newspapers. So we treasure good food.

However, it's people that make a place special. Last visit to San Francisco I jumped for a cable car, missed, and hit my head. When we returned to the hotel the front desk went far beyond "commercial care" and demonstrated a real concern that extended throughout our stay and a world-class headache. Professionalism extended to waiters that were attentive without intruding, wonderful Aveda and Hermes bubble bath and much else. Simply put, this is a POSH place in the best sense of the word.