Give Me a Little Kitsch, Will Ya, Huh? Weary Rockers Find R&R at San Francisco's Phunky Phoenix Hotel

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first glance the Phoenix Inn looks like the last place you'd choose to spend the night. Situated near the massage parlors and X-rated movie houses of San Francisco's seedy Tenderloin district, its location leaves a lot to be desired. There's no room service or valet parking, although a few of the neighborhood's residents might offer to take your car off your hands at no charge. And don't count on any breathtaking views of the Bay; the best room overlooks a parking lot and a used tire shop.

But those shabby environs are exactly what makes the Phoenix the hippest hotel in town. Since 1987, rock stars like Sinéad O'Connor, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tracy Chapman, and other celebs including John F. Kennedy Jr., have checked into the former flophouse looking for anonymity, not amenities. Proto-punker Johnny Rotten once hid out at the Phoenix and registered under a phony name, and Oakland's own chart-buster M.C. Hammer has been known to crash at the Phoenix after recording sessions in town. Sure, they could all spring for posher digs, but it's the kitschy, $79-to $125-a-night charm of the Phoenix that keeps them coming back. "It's the most sexually, intellectually and culturally stimulating hotel in San Francisco," says Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "It's warm, homey and cozy. It has a feeling that makes you very comfortable—like the patchwork blanket you were wrapped up in as a kid."

Outside, the salmon pink-and-turquoise hotel looks like a 1950s motor lodge. Inside, the ambience is pure Fantasy Island. Each of the 44 rooms, all of which look out on a 35-foot-long egg-shaped pool, is a pastel pastiche of peaches and blues and pale greens, and the decor runs to bamboo furniture and six-foot-tall bird-of-paradise plants. The in-house movie channel only shows films shot in the Bay Area, including Bullitt, Dirty Harry and The Maltese Falcon. In the courtyard guests are soothed by the piped-in sounds of tropical birds, waterfalls and crickets.

So it's not the Ritz. But owner Chip Conley, 29, and his 17-member staff do provide those little extra services. When JFK Jr. came to town for a wedding last October, he lost his cuff links before the ceremony, so a resourceful staffer stapled his shirt cuffs. "He's a bit absent-minded," says Conley, who has supplied long Johns for Chubby Checker and babysat O'Connor's infant son, Jake, back in 1987. Another service the hotel provides is Shiatsu, the trendy Japanese massage technique, which runs $50 an hour and, says Conley, was used by the aging Doobie Brothers more than any other band.

But mostly the Phoenix is a place where road-weary rockers can get some rest and, says one staffer, "no star attitude." When William Hurt hung out with German filmmaker Wim Wenders at Miss Pearl's Jam House, a funky restaurant adjacent to the Phoenix, last May, bartender Luis Barbero kept a discreet distance. "It wouldn't have been cool to bother them," says Barbero. "That's why people stay here." And generally Conley balks at dishing his famous clientele—although he will spill a few tidbits. When Linda Ronstadt checked in for 18 days in 1988, Conley himself served her breakfast in bed. "She's cuter in the morning than she is on the stage," he reveals. And because his office is next to the VIP suite, Conley says he couldn't help but overhear when Linda was burning up the phone lines with ex-beau George Lucas.

A preppy-looking Stanford MBA who wears khakis and loafers, Conley doesn't exactly fit the part of rock and roll's funkiest innkeeper. Four years ago, while working as a real estate developer in San Francisco, Conley dreamed of running a hotel where urban hipsters could stay for cheap. He found the rundown Caravan Lodge on Eddy Street, known for its hourly rates, prostitutes and drug addicts. With the help of 20 investors, including his father, Stephen, a former Los Angeles banker, Conley put up $1.1 million and began renovating the place. He bought 250 pieces of contemporary art, set up a sculpture garden and began offering 10 to 25 percent discounts to performers. Sixties pop star Brenda Lee became the Phoenix's first celebrity guest after she stopped to ask for directions to another hotel. Other big names on the register have included Emmylou Harris, Laurie Anderson, Ziggy Marley and each and every one of the 10,000 Maniacs.

So what kind of guests do rockers make? Conley has had to put up with a reggae band that threw plants into the pool and punk Rotten, who crawled under the table after downing 10 rum-laced tropical drinks at Miss Pearl's. But contrary to their rowdy image, says Conley, "A lot of rockers are surprisingly mellow." So the owner, who runs two other hotels in the city and lives with a roommate in a two-bedroom house in the infinitely more upscale Potrero district, welcomes almost everybody. He does, however, draw the line somewhere. Says Conley: "We won't take Metallica."

—Andrew Abrahams, Liz McNeil in San Francisco

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