Campton Place Taj Hotel Rating: 4.5 Pearls
Housed in two adjoining century-old buildings, this 110-room boutique is a revelation in bustling Union Square -- a treasured high-end property that's also surprisingly casual. The sprightly doorman chats with you as he leads you to the small, gleaming lobby full of fresh-cut orchids and paintings by local artists. The lobby's lack of opulence belies the hotel's level of luxury, which includes an impressive array of services and premium in-room amenities. The restaurant, Campton Place, is an institution in its own right, complete with a master sommelier (one of 150 people in the world to hold that title) and a wine cellar with 1,500-plus labels.
The Scarlet Huntington Rating: 4.0 Pearls
Historic and discreet, this 136-room hotel in a 12-story, ivy-covered brick building in swanky Nob Hill woos guests with warm, attentive service and a quiet, intimate atmosphere that merges old-world elegance with contemporary comforts. The rooms, all former apartments, are spacious, and after a 2009 renovation, the in-room amenities are top of the line. The hotel's hilltop location means the rooms have great park or city views. And guests get free use of the pool, sauna, steam room, fitness room, and patio at the hotel's Nob Hill Spa, one of the best spas in town. The dimly lit Big 4 Restaurant -- think green-leather armchairs and a nightly piano player -- is a perfect place to unwind after a long day in the city.
Hotel Palomar Rating: 3.5 Pearls
The sexy 198-room Hotel Palomar doubles as a hip art gallery, with paintings from local museums lining the walls -- a collection of works by modernist master Marc Chagall, when we visited. The entrance and lobby are on a busy downtown street, but the hotel begins five stories up. While the Hotel Palomar is bigger in size than most boutique hotels, it turns on the charm with comfortable, stylish rooms, attentive service, and an upscale restaurant with a New American menu.
Clift Rating: 4.0 Pearls
Known for its Redwood Room bar and Asia de Cuba restaurant, the Clift's hip scene is typical of the Morgans Hotel Group, which bought the historic hotel from Four Seasons and reopened it in 2001 after a Philippe Starck makeover. The lobby and the 350 small but comfortable rooms are short on amenities but high on scene and style.
Hotel Rex Rating: 3.5 Pearls
This homey 94-room Union Square hotel designed to evoke 1920s and '30s literary salons feels like a bookstore/hotel mash-up. Its lobby is lined with shelves of antique books, retro reading desks, and armchairs fit for an afternoon of poring over the classics. Rooms are surprisingly modern, with wall-mounted, 36-inch flat-panel TVs, iPod docks, and plush pillow-top beds. The cozy lobby bar hosts a free nightly wine hour, and an on-site bistro offers up well-priced Californian fare.
Laurel Inn Rating: 3.0 Pearls
A small, sweet hotel among the art galleries and antique shops of residential Pacific Heights, the 49-room Laurel Inn has homey, apartment-like rooms, comfortable modern furniture, and loads of memorable and just-plain-cozy extras throughout -- free lemonade and freshly baked cookies in the lobby, flowers in the elevator, a free glass of wine at the bar next door, the Swank Cocktail Club. Removed from the tourist frenzy, this hotel is an ideal spot for long-term visitors or travelers who don't require a full array of services.
Hotel Tomo Rating: 3.0 Pearls
A giant Maneki Neko, or "Beckoning Cat," waves at guests from the side of the lobby in this cool Japantown hotel. Next to him (or her?), Japanese TV shows and anime films play on flat-screen TVs. And the rooms -- oh, these rooms -- were designed by acclaimed Japanese pop artist Heisuke Kitazawa, better known as "PCP." Even if you're not Japanese -- or an anime geek -- you'll find a lot to like about the Tomo. The rooms are larger than those at many far more expensive hotels downtown. The service is warm and friendly. And the restaurant, Mum's, serves up good enough Japanese fare to draw locals as well as Tomo guests. (Try the shabu-shabu, or Japanese hot pot.)
Good Hotel Rating: 2.5 Pearls
A step through this hotel's decidedly low-key entrance -- a single glass door on a side street -- is a reasonably priced leap into an atmosphere of brightly colored whimsy and irreverence. The lobby features a photo booth, and an entire wall is plastered with photos of past guests, like a yearbook's worth of goofy outtakes. Beneath the tongue-in-cheek sheen, however, lie some serious good intentions. The Good champions conservation, environmental consciousness, and community service, themes that extend from the hotel's decor to the guests' experience: The lobby's coffee table is made out of an old skateboard; bicycles for guests to use are parked near the front desk; and hybrid cars park free. Minimalist rooms have an IKEA-chic vibe, with vibrant city-scene murals and lime green accents.