A bright take on the Nines hotel in Oregon

LA Times | Travel

Guests checking into the Nines hotel in this city's downtown area enter a relatively nondescript space at street level and are then guided to the eighth floor for an appointment at the front desk. When the elevator doors open, \"non- descript\" no longer applies. \"Striking\" will occur to som...

By Alice Short // 06.26.09

Guests checking into the Nines hotel in this city's downtown area enter a relatively nondescript space at street level and are then guided to the eighth floor for an appointment at the front desk. When the elevator doors open, "non- descript" no longer applies.

"Striking" will occur to some; "bewildering" to others. The words "not-in-Kansas-anymore" might be uttered.

While guests recite the mundane details of their lives -- first and last names, address -- and reach for their credit cards, they will likely stare at a series of mannequins that dot the check-in area. Nude mannequins, painted white and shades of brown and tan.

The Nines

Where: 525 S.W. Morrison St., Portland, Ore.

Price: Doubles begin at $179 for a standard room, up to $850 for a vice presidential suite

Contact: (877) 229-9995

Website: www.starwoodhotels.com/thenines

A set of enormous jewel-studded chains -- a necklace worthy of the giant's wife in the fairy tale "Jack and the Beanstalk" -- hangs nearby. Many walls throughout the hotel are adorned with original art. But those mannequins somehow remain the most memorable of first impressions. They say "tradition be damned." They say "you probably won't find a gift shop on this property."

They say "hip hotel."

And yes, the Nines is just such a beast. The chicken and waffles in the hotel's Urban Farmer restaurant come with chile sauce and truffle honey, transforming a bit of comfort food into foodie fare. There is no gift shop stocked with Tylenol or junk food or bad costume jewelry.

But if the term "hip hotel" conjures notions of Philippe Starck-inspired rooms with spectacular design and no place in the bathroom for a makeup bag, fear not. The Nines employs a few conventional touches that will appeal to a slightly wider array of guests than the emaciated creatures and their escorts who populated the lobbies of Manhattan's Paramount and Royalton hotels in the 1990s.

The trip to Portland was occasioned by my son's college graduation, so I booked two rooms for the first two nights of our stay to accommodate the family, which includes my husband, Steve, and 17-year-old daughter, Madeline. Diploma Boy declined our invitation to abandon his friends and join his family at the Nines (what was I thinking?), but the double booking afforded an opportunity to assess two room styles.

One space was dominated by a king-size bed; a separate office cubicle offered a decent-size desk and wireless high-speed Internet access. The other room housed two queen-size beds and a turquoise velvet chaise that sat under a window. Standard rooms range from 370 to 481 square feet.

The hotel operates in the top nine floors of the old Meier & Frank Building, a former flagship store and headquarters of the now deceased Meier & Frank department store chain. The interior of the building has been hollowed out to allow for a seven-story atrium -- the entire renovation cost $137 million -- and the windows of all the guest rooms open onto the atrium or the street.

The décor in both of our rooms was a mix of modern and traditional. The king-size bed featured a white coverlet and a tufted white headboard. Black wood furniture was adorned with silver pulls. The carpeting, wallpaper and bed pillows, in shades of turquoise, tan and brown, complemented one another.

Room accouterments included a closet safe, a mini bar and a 42-inch flat-screen TV. A coffee pot was nowhere in sight, but room service is available 24 hours a day.

The bathrooms were comfortable, with marble tiled showers, extra-large towels and a resting place for a makeup bag, but the lighting was average at best.

The Nines is home to two restaurants and the Library Room, a space where cocktails and snacks are served. The Departure Restaurant & Lounge, open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., sits atop the facility and offers pan-Asian fare. The first night of our stay, a Saturday, the valet area and ground-floor entrance were packed with well-dressed guests who appeared to be ready for a rockin' good time on the 15th floor.

The Urban Farmer restaurant (and bar), on the eighth level of the hotel, is open from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. On weekends, breakfast and lunch fare is combined into a brunch menu that includes the aforementioned chicken and waffles. One of my traveling companions ordered a "farm burger" on a homemade sourdough English muffin and fries lightly dusted with lemon zest. I splurged with eggs Benedict served on Dungeness crab cakes.

Most of the eighth floor, which includes the check-in desk, is one open space, divided into function by furniture groupings and room partitions. As Saturday afternoon progressed to Saturday evening, chairs and couches and booths were populated with the types of people you would expect to find in a hip hotel in Portland: sleek couples in black, many pierced and tattooed. A couple of families with young children seemed misplaced as they traipsed past the mannequins.

The floor boasts two semi-private sitting areas defined by three glass walls (some with opaque curtains) and topped with an open grid. By 4 p.m., the newspaper-reading, coffee- drinking patrons had been replaced by guests who apparently preferred beer and wine.

Most of the staff members we encountered seemed pleased to see us. Patient, polite waiters. A beaming hostess. Bellhops and valet runners who professed to be interested in our schedule of activities. Perhaps they shared our joy over college graduation. Perhaps they too were overwhelmed by the beautiful weather. Or maybe it was the 12.4% unemployment rate in Oregon.

Everywhere we ventured downtown, salespeople, doormen and wait staff appeared eager to assist us. A clerk in a jewelry store in Pioneer Place, a nearby shopping mall, complimented our good taste as we examined some of the merchandise. (We attempted to stimulate the economy, and she wrote me a thank-you letter the following week.) We walked to the Veritable Quandary restaurant for Sunday brunch, and our waiter listened patiently to our many questions about the menu. We called him back to change our order. Twice. We broke a chair. No problem.

When we returned to the Nines after brunch, the valet dudes were still smiling -- and we hope that's the case on our next trip to Portland. The Nines is worth a repeat visit, and besides, I forgot to have my photo taken with that giant gold chain in the lobby -- to say nothing of the mannequins.