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Urban B&Bs

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page E01

   


    Gold Coast Guest House, Chicago The private garden at Chicago's Gold Coast Guest House. (Photo courtesy Gold Coast Guest House)
The opera suite at the Inn New York has a good half-dozen niches for sprawling out like a spoiled child on a rainy day. But the most sublime is surely the queen-size, antique four-poster bed. You can sink into that yacht of a bed and take in the aroma of coffee brewing, the shimmer of the art nouveau chandelier 18 feet overhead and the orange glow of the fireplace. I found this out a couple of weeks ago when I dropped in at the inn, an intimate Upper West Side guest house that specializes in pampering of the oh-this-is-how-royalty-lives variety.

When co-manager Ellen Mensch left me alone, I sniffed around the place like a cat in a new home. The baby grand in the front parlor was so tempting I played a bit of Chopin before heading for the whirlpool tub, where I sat on the edge, imagining myself blowing bubbles all the way out the back garden. By the time Mensch returned, I felt ready to claim squatter's rights.

But I had a long list of other bed-and-breakfasts in New York to check out. Among them: a Victorian brownstone in Harlem, a cozy low-rise in the heart of Greenwich Village and a sunny studio overlooking Central Park on the Upper East Side. In all, I visited two dozen New York B&Bs and stayed overnight in a couple.

Beyond New York, I performed test sleeps in guest houses in Philadelphia, Montreal and Chicago. Tom McNichol, a Travel section contributor who lives in San Francisco, checked out several places there.

Our mission was to explore the urban B&B, a peculiar and often overlooked subgenre of lodging that intends to offer an intimate, homestyle atmosphere in the midst of America's biggest (and not so big) cities. We suggest three or four places in each city (see story, Page E6). I have also thrown in some general information about how to find other city B&Bs to suit your tastes.

Along the way, I learned a thing or two. For one thing, urban B&Bs are more common than you'd think, and growing in number. Long the residence of choice for visitors to such out-of-the-way towns as Eureka Springs, Ark. (which boasts 125 B&Bs, more than any other U.S. city), B&Bs are becoming a trendy lodging option in major cities all over North America.

There seems to be a perfect one somewhere for every manner of traveler. For parents who want to show the kids the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia's family-friendly Thomas Bond House is just the place. For business executives visiting Atlanta who wince at the prospect of mingling with tourists, the discreet but friendly Beverly Hills Inn in Buckhead would be hard to beat. For those seeking intimacy, the host at Mr. Mole's in Baltimore seats every couple at their own breakfast table. For African Americans looking for ethnic ambiance, black-owned Akwaaba Mansion in Brooklyn, full of African artifacts, is a good choice.

As a frequent traveler who has stayed in hostels, Ritz-Carltons and most types of lodging in between, I felt as if I was in a good position to compare in-town hotels and B&Bs. (I should acknowledge that I packed some inside knowledge: For a couple of years, a friend and I ran a two-room B&B on the third floor of my Washington town house. We stopped largely because it was too hard for two people working outside of the home full time to handle on the side.)

Many urban B&Bs have rooms available when hotels do not. With demand for lodging in some cities rising more quickly than supply, the Westins and Marriotts in Chicago, New York and San Francisco sell out weeks in advance, particularly on convention and holiday weekends. At such times bed-and-breakfasts, which offer an estimated 100,000 rooms in New York City alone, can be a worthwhile alternative.

With doubles averaging $125, urban B&Bs usually are cheaper than decent hotels. Since they rarely have more than 10 rooms and often only one or two, B&Bs offer an intimate atmosphere few hotels can match.

To be sure, they're not for everyone. But many who don't use B&Bs probably haven't tried one in a while--or in a city. In the past decade, many have evolved beyond the stereotype of a spare attic room in the home of a pair of retirees who talk too much in the morning. In a bid to compete with hotels, particularly for business travelers, cutting-edge B&Bs provide such conveniences as in-room faxes, CD players, VCRs and the option of ordering takeout meals.

Mr. Mole Bed & Breakfast, Baltimore The Print Room at Mr. Mole Bed & Breakfast in Baltimore. (Mr. Mole Bed & Breakfast)
   
"In the past couple of years, the best of B&B owners understand that they must provide everything a hotel does, in a more homelike atmosphere," explained Eric Goldreyer, founder of the Bed & Breakfast Channel, a Web site that lists more than 20,000 properties.

One big problem with urban B&Bs is finding one that's a good match. Only a few advertise widely. B&B guidebooks are useful, but none is comprehensive and few offer rigorous, independent judgments. In a half-dozen books I used, only two included listings of my favorite inns in New York. The Bed & Breakfast Channel is useful, and some B&B owners have developed their own Web sites. But not everyone has access to the Internet, and most electronic information is promotional in nature.

One resource worth tapping is the network of B&B clearinghouses, which collect information about local bed-and-breakfasts and, for a percentage of the rental charges, act as a referral service. Many accommodations are in private homes that have a spare room or rental unit. Typically, a prospective B&B guest will telephone the service and explain what kind of place he has in mind. The service then secures the reservation. In my experience, guests should work closely with the B&B service to communicate their needs and desires.

I learned this the hard way. In an experiment to snag a decent room in a New York B&B at short notice, I called At Home in New York, one of several referral agencies, a week before my visit. The agent recommended Vaikunta, a yoga and meditation center on First Avenue in the East Village. "It's a nice place that has a few rooms to rent, and of course, breakfast is included," he said. "It's run by a religious order, if you don't mind that kind of thing. And the price can't be beat: around $60 a night." As a former resident of the East Village, I was curious to revisit my old stomping grounds. And I was intrigued by the unusual form of management.

Upon arrival, I instantly grasped what a funky place I'd chosen. Kevala, my host, met me on the fourth floor of a clean if charmless building. He led me to a minuscule room with a single bed, made of plywood, the mattress atop a foam box spring. There was also a kitchen chair and a desk made of plywood.

I gulped and listened to the traffic on First Avenue four stories below. "It seems a bit noisy," I said. "Do you have anything else?"

He didn't. I put my bag down and unpacked a few things. After a while I got used to the rumble of trucks below, the November breeze seeping through the window and the occasional worshiper coming to pray at the Buddhist altar in the adjoining living room.

Then came breakfast. Following my morning jog around Tompkins Square, Kevala asked whether I was ready to eat. He then showed me the kitchen and pointed out a bag of muesli, a sack of bananas on the counter and a carton of soy milk in the fridge. "Help yourself," he said.

"Okay," I answered. "Are there any bowls?"

"Oh," he responded, turning to the sink of dirty dishes. "I'll wash you one."

In rating the B&Bs, I took into account four criteria: 1) general ambiance, including interior decoration and location; 2) quality of the innkeepers--including their hosting skills and ability to make good recommendations about restaurants and other local features; 3) quality of breakfast; and 4) price.

The minimum I sought was a basic room with clean sheets and floors. It had to be quiet. For the most part I stuck to places with private bathrooms, though many B&Bs have shared baths. The neighborhood had to be safe and the location central or within easy reach of public transportation. For breakfast I expected hot coffee or tea, juice and a roll or muffin. Anything heartier was welcomed but not required.

In the cities I visited, the average cost of a place that met all the criteria was $100. Rooms with shared baths ran $10 to $20 less a night. From there, per-night rates rose gradually according to location, quality of amenities and service. The Inn New York was the priciest place I visited; each of four suites went for $415. Even accounting for the grandeur, that's a lot to pay. Compared with San Francisco's Sherman House, however, it was a bargain: Doubles there go for $850 a night.

Aside from decor and location, the most important factor in choosing a B&B is the host. Unhappily, other than word of mouth, there are few ways to gauge a host's temperament until you arrive. My visit to a Chicago B&B--a pleasant, nicely decorated basement apartment in a private home in a trendy North side neighborhood--was instructive. African masks graced the walls, artifacts from Central America were displayed here and there, and the bathtub seemed the perfect place to end a day of sightseeing.

But the host was, to put it kindly, passive. His suggestions for places to eat out were blase. He forgot to prepare breakfast one morning until reminded. The place seemed more business-like than homelike. Before I left, he acknowledged that he was planning to discontinue the business, largely because his wife was unhappy about sharing the house with strangers.

Other hosts were positive assets to their properties. When I arrived at the Pierre du Calvet, owner Gaeten Trottier met me at the door, grabbed my bag and took me on a rambling tour. He welcomed me like an old friend and engaged me in conversation about everything from the effects of the hurricane in Honduras to Quebecois politics.

But the most inviting host I encountered was Sally Baker, owner of Chicago's Gold Coast Bed and Breakfast. A diminutive Midwesterner with an easy smile and a brain whizzing with information about the city, she engages her guests as a mother hen does her chicks. The moment I started to sniffle, she brought out a box of herbal teas. When she sensed my interest in literature, she gave me a copy of Carl Sandburg's "Chicago Poems," which she regularly offers guests as a keepsake.

"I try to get the pulse of a guest early on," she said. "If they seem like the type who like to be left alone, I'm very happy to do that. But if they need assistance I make myself available."

Unlike their countryside counterparts, most urban B&Bs don't offer much in the way of petit dejeuner. "I find that most of our guests have plans for brunch outside or are in too big of a hurry, and often leave breakfast untouched," said Mary Shaw, a Chicago B&B owner. "We serve fresh-baked goods from the local bakeries, but we tend more on the continental than the full breakfast side."

But I found that a good breakfast need not consist of eggs Benedict. One that I liked was served at Montreal's Le Chasseur, which caters largely to gay travelers. When I checked in the host said the inn served a choice of croissants, including plain and chocolate. "Which kind would you like, how many and at what time?" he inquired.

The next morning, at the appointed hour, a waiter arrived with a tray of cafe au lait, orange juice and the fresh warm croissants. Another favorite breakfast was at Waverly Walk, a charming apartment near the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia. The hosts stocked the place with English muffins, juice, cheese, fruit, freshly ground coffee, an assortment of teas and a basket of muffins. I could eat what and when I wanted.

With all the talk of breakfast, I do not want to diminish the importance of the other half of the B&B equation: the bed. Inquire before making a reservation to see if they're singles or king-size, soft or hard, cushiony or flat. I never seemed to have trouble falling asleep on any of them.

For a night in the four-poster at the Inn New York, however, I just might even be tempted to shell out $415.


A Selection of Urban B&Bs – and Advice for Finding Others

Below we offer three or four recommended B&Bs in five North American cities. We've visited all of them and assigned each a rating based on the following scale:

{*} Clean, safe, reasonably located choices for budget travelers.

{**} Places we can recommend to just about any traveler, usually with some special touches or a very good location.

{***} Over-the-top, luxury accommodations for special occasions.

Most places require a two-night minimum stay. All are amenable to couples of any gender.

To help you investigate other urban B&Bs, we've included references to B&B associations in the cities listed. Of the guidebooks we used, the Annual Directory of American Bed & Breakfasts (Rutledge Hill Press) seemed the most comprehensive. On the Internet, the Bed and Breakfast Channel (www.bbchannel.com), featuring more than 20,000 listings, is a good resource. Reader beware: Many online sources, and many printed guidebooks, publish information that is provided by the inns themselves and is not independently verified. And unlike hotels, where a brand can be taken to mean a certain price and quality, B&Bs come in a wide range of qualities and personalities.

Philadelphia

{*} Society Hill Hotel (301 Chestnut St., 215-925-1919). This 12-room property is above a popular pub and restaurant in one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods. It's a walk-up, with guest rooms spread over three floors. All rooms have one double bed and range from $88 to $175 a night. Continental breakfast is brought to the room.

{**} Thomas Bond House (129 S. 2nd St., 1-800-845-2663). This historic 18th-century building is elegantly appointed and within easy reach of top attractions. The 12 rooms range from the simply furnished John Adams ($95) to the Dr. Thomas Bond Jr., with a fireplace and whirlpool ($175).

{***} Waverly Walk (2030 Waverly St., 215-545-5819). This charming love nest is an apartment with its own entrance on the first floor of a town house five minutes from Rittenhouse Square. Amenities include a large living room with CD player and a garden. Proprietors Keith Bliss and Jim Moore, who live upstairs, are eager hosts. $135 a night.

For Other Options: Association of Bed and Breakfasts in Philadelphia, 610-783-7783, or Bed & Breakfast Philadelphia, 1-800-448-3619.

New York

{*} New York Bed & Breakfast (134 W. 119th St., 212-666-0559). The Harlem address scares off some, but it seemed as safe as any other New York street. Rooms in this simple brownstone are basic but clean; breakfast is continental. This place is made special by the hostess, Gisele, a chatty and helpful Canadian. Doubles are $45 a night.

{**} Incentra Village House Inc. (32 Eighth Ave., 212-206-0007). This place, offering 12 suites with kitchenettes, has a cozy atmosphere enhanced by a grand piano in the lobby and a charming staff. The friendly Greenwich Village neighborhood is a plus. No breakfast; the hosts encourage use of the kitchenette. Doubles are $150 a night.

{**} Bed & Breakfast on the Park (113 Prospect Park W., 718-499-6115, www.bbnyc.com). The art deco decor is classy, the breakfast spread is sumptuous, and the Brooklyn neighborhood offers plenty to explore. A great choice for couples who want to visit the big city but keep a distance from the bustle of Manhattan. Rooms start at $125; it's $195 for a double with private bath.

{***} Inn New York (266 W. 71st St., 212-580-1900). Each of the four suites in this Lincoln Center town house is decorated in a different, exquisite style. More than a B&B, "this is really the kind of place for someone who might choose the Ritz or Plaza but would prefer a more intimate environment," says co-owner Ellen Mensch. A selection of gourmet breakfast foods is left in state-of-the-art kitchenettes. $415 per night

For Other Options: Urban Ventures Inc., 212-594-5650, or Bed and Breakfast Network of New York, 1-800-900-8134.

Chicago

{*} House of Two Urns (1239 N. Greenview Ave. 773-235-1408). A rambling, well-kept, comfortable house with five rooms, four with shared baths. Were it not for the neighborhood--Wicker Park, very much in transition--it would probably rate two stars. The nearby stylish but cheap restaurants and clubs make it perfect for a young fun-seeking couple. Winter special: studio with private bath, $89 a night for a three-night stay.

{**} Gold Coast Guest House (113 W. Elm St., 312-337-0361, www.bbchicago.com). This is a bright, airy house in Chicago's most famously upscale neighborhood. There's a wonderful garden out back, but the real draw is host Sally Baker. Nine rooms, ranging from $139 to $199 a night.

{**} The Windy City Inn (615 W. Deming St., 773-248-0005). This newly opened place with five well-appointed rooms sits on a quiet North Chicago block. Owner Mary Shaw has a wealth of city information. Rates range from $115 to $155 a night.

{***} Flemish House (68 E. Cedar St., 312-664-9981, www.bestinns.net). A wonderfully luxurious, high-Victorian town house with vintage wood paneling throughout. Located near Lake Michigan on a calm street, it's about as good as it gets in the Windy City. Each unit comes with a nicely appointed kitchenette, where breakfast is stocked. The owners, who live upstairs, are cheerful and helpful but also happy to leave guests in peace. From $125-$150 a night.

For Other Options: Bed & Breakfast Chicago, 1-800-375-7084.

San Francisco

{*} The Country Cottage Bed and Breakfast (5 Dolores Terrace, 415-479-1913). This country-style place is on a cul-de-sac in the Mission, one of the city's most vibrant, if slightly dicey, neighborhoods. There are four rooms, including one with a private bath and three with a shared shower. The rooms are small and somewhat dark, but the house is clean and the location good. A hot breakfast is served. Doubles are $79.

{*} The Herb'n Inn (525 Ashbury St., 415-553-8542). A half-block from the famed corner of Haight and Ashbury, this laid-back place is run by a brother-and-sister team that keeps the hippie flame alive. The four rooms are homey and named after (legal) herbs--cilantro, coriander, rosemary and tarragon. One has a private bath. The kitchen is generously stocked and overlooks a back deck and garden. Rooms are $70 to $85 a night.

{**} The Bed and Breakfast Inn (4 Charlton Ct., 415-921-9784, www.1stb-bsf.com). This 11-room place, on a mews off busy Union Street, claims to be the city's first bed-and-breakfast. Four small, no-frills pension-type rooms have shared baths; five others have private baths, telephones and TVs. Two penthouse suites have spa tubs and private decks. $80 to $150 a night.

{***} The Archbishop's Mansion (1000 Fulton St., 415-563-7872 or 1-800-543-5820). This grand 1904 mansion, once the residence of the archbishop of San Francisco, is now a cross between an elegant European-style hotel and a feudal estate: crystal chandeliers, heavy oak paneling, gilded mirrors. Each suite has its own Jacuzzi. There are enough modern touches--phone, cable TV, VCR--to keep things from getting too musty. $159 to $219; suites from $279.

For Other Options: Bed and Breakfast San Francisco, 415-931-3083.

Montreal

{*} Le Bed & Breakfast (3950 Avenue Laval, 514-844-5897). This simple house not far from downtown is a first-rate budget option. I found the dozen rooms just large enough to hold a big bed, bureau and nightstand, but the furnishings are stylish and the house is clean. The owners, Carole Sirois and her husband, Allard Cote, seem willing to share their vast store of information about Montreal. Breakfast is served family-style. At $50 (U.S.) a night, it's a bargain.

{**} Auberge de la Fontaine (1301 Rachel St., 514-597-0166). The location, across from Parc Lafontaine, is just one feature making this an evergreen choice. With 21 rooms, it is bigger than most B&Bs, but it retains an intimate atmosphere. Rooms include private baths and TVs. About $90 (U.S.) a night.

{***} Pierre du Calvet (405 Rue Bonsecours, 514-282-1725). The best bet for those harboring fantasies of 17th-century splendor. The nine rooms are outfitted with antique beds high off the floor, elegant writing tables and oak chests. The richly appointed, carved-wood sitting rooms and crannies are all free for visitors to snuggle into with a book. A good French restaurant on the premises makes this a kind of cocoon where guests can ignore the outside world--but Montreal's Old City, right outside the doors, is sure to tempt you out. A full American breakfast of egg dishes, fresh fruit and breads round out the appeal. No TVs. Doubles start at $130 (U.S.).

For Other Options: Gite Montreal (1-800-267-5180) is an association of nearly 100 B&Bs, mostly in Victorian houses in the Latin quarter.

San Francisco writer Tom McNichol contributed to this report.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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