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Boston Uncommon

Buff Strickland Mini-bar Cosmopolitans at Nine Zero, in Boston.

Photo: Buff Strickland

Nine Zero
Like XV Beacon, its closest rival, Nine Zero has the looks and attitude to blend in on Collins Avenue. Yet somehow it landed in the blue-blooded heart of colonial Boston—smack on the Freedom Trail, no less. Location is a big part of its appeal: from your room you can gaze upon the soaring white steeple of the Park Street Church, or the lichen-cloaked headstones of the Granary Burying Ground, resting place of Paul Revere and John Hancock. Can South Beach give you that?

Four years on, Nine Zero still sparkles. This is one of the few design-oriented hotels that can balance cool, ultramodern details with a genuinely inviting ambience. The lobby is done up in rich golds and midnight blues, with boldly striped divans and armchairs that a person would actually feel comfortable sitting on. Sleek chrome and nickel accents and crinkly copper curtains offset the plush old-world carpets. Upstairs is the outstanding in-house restaurant, Spire, which has quickly assumed a place among Boston's best.

With soothing butter-yellow walls and sumptuous ebony-stained furnishings, guest rooms are at once supremely functional and sultry as hell. You get a five-foot-wide, hefty maple desk instead of the usual boutique-hotel wedge of fiberglass, plus free Wi-Fi access, desktop power, Ethernet ports, a halogen lamp, and, like manna from heaven, a fully adjustable, ergonomic, leather-upholstered Humanscale Freedom desk chair. For the sybarite, there's an overstocked wet bar with enough cocktail mixers for an after-party. The staff will customize your mini-bar with anything you can think of, be it Swedish Fish candy or Moxie soda. Bathrooms are outfitted with sizable, flatteringly lit mirrors and luxurious Mario Russo products. Handsome bedside tables have acres of surface area. And the goose-down pillows are some of the softest I've slept on.

There are some gaffes. A proper fan in the bathroom would be useful. So would a couple of hooks for hand towels, which are instead tucked beneath the sink. (What is it with design hotels and their aversion to towel racks?) My room, No. 1809, had a killer skyline view through floor-to-ceiling windows—so whose bright idea was it to run a valance across the top two feet, obscuring the Prudential Tower?Rooms are already cramped, and the valance made the eight-foot-high ceiling seem lower than it was. Request room 1705, 1805, or 1905, and, just for kicks, ask the staff to remove that annoying window dressing. 90 Tremont St.; 800/646-3937 or 617/772-5800; www.ninezero.com; doubles from $299.

Onyx Hotel
Love them or loathe them, Kimpton Hotels are a singular breed. With their trademark kitschy details (jaguar-print bathrobes, a mini-bar stocked with animal crackers and an Etch A Sketch), they exude youthfulness like few other brands. Kimpton's first Boston property, the 112-room Onyx, opened in 2004, one block from the TD Banknorth Garden, home to the Celtics. Developers say this area is "coming up," but it's hardly a bastion of hipness: there's a Hooters around the corner, plus a slew of Irish pubs and sports bars. Still, the Onyx is convenient to Faneuil Hall, the North End, and Beacon Hill, and it's among the better values in town. I was greeted by a zoot-suited doorman in a fedora. From there it just got cheekier. In lieu of a chocolate on the pillow, I was issued an Atomic Fireball. Room service offered pints of Häagen-Dazs. A free sampler CD featured cuts from Spearhead, Morcheeba, and Polyphonic Spree, and the TV lineup included a closed-circuit yoga channel. Other hotels may offer an evening wine tasting, but the Onyx hosted a complimentary "Rockstar Energy Drink Hour" in the lobby bar. Upstairs, fluorescent-lit corridors lead to modestly sized guest rooms, which hew to Kimpton's urban-bordello aesthetic. Bedrooms are carpeted in chocolate-and-beige checkerboard, papered in thick stripes, and accented in blood reds: red desk blotter, red ice bucket, red chenille throw on the bed. Bathrooms are awash in black marble. Although there are no views to speak of and scarcely any natural light, the rooms give off plenty of sex appeal.

Kimpton Hotels are known for their little extras, and the Onyx makes good on that promise, throwing in passes to the Beacon Hill Athletic Club, Wi-Fi access, and in-town limo service, all free. In the room you'll find 35-inch Sony flat-screen TV's and Aveda bath products.

Onyx Hotel, it turns out, was also the name of Britney Spears's 2004 concert tour. The moniker overlap precipitated a lawsuit; as part of the settlement, Spears's mother (!?!) designed the Britney Spears Suite for the hotel—a replica of the star's childhood bedroom. With plush-pile carpets, glass-beaded wallpaper, and a curio cabinet filled with ceramic figurines, it's goddamned hideous. Be thankful it's usually reserved for 13th-birthday slumber parties. 155 Portland St.; 866/660-6699 or 617/557-9955; www.onyxhotel.com; doubles from $289.

Hotel Commonwealth
Kenmore Square has long been considered the armpit of Boston. For decades, "Kenmaw" was the wasteland you traversed en route to Fenway Park. Besides the familiar citgo sign, its only claim to fame was the dingy Rathskeller (a.k.a. the Rat), Boston's equivalent of CBGB. Back in college I cut my head open on the Rat's ceiling pipes while crowd-surfing to Sonic Youth. All that's a memory now, as is the old Kenmore Square—for, in a remarkable twist, this is suddenly Boston's hottest neighborhood. Upscale restaurants have ousted skanky pizza parlors, and an elegant glass transit terminal is replacing the old bunker-like bus depot. Now that the Red Sox have committed to staying at Fenway, Kenmore's winning streak looks set to continue. The square's revival took off in 2003 with the opening of the Hotel Commonwealth, a mansard-roofed McChâteau (erected on the grave of the Rathskeller) with gables and bow windows, a full city block wide. The interior pushes the French Empire shtick further, with red-and-gold carpets, rococo tapestries, and a surfeit of fringe and brocade. Urban chic this is not, but the retro look is kind of refreshing in an era when every city hotel has gone Starck raving mod. Rooms are generously sized, with a large sitting area separated from the sleeping quarters by floor-to-ceiling curtains. The bed itself is a towering pile of goose down and 300-thread-count cotton, and the amenities are unimpeachable: Mascioni robes and linens, L'Occitane bath products, Voss bottled water, chocolate cookies at turndown.

The downsides: My bed got little, if any, natural light, because the windows were so far away. Said windows were sheathed in stiff patterned curtains reminiscent of a Holiday Inn's. (And the windows didn't open—is that too much to ask?) The spindly-legged bench at the foot of the bed was an afterthought, useless for sitting or placing luggage. And the reproduction-antique writing desk, with its celery-and-bronze scrollwork, looked downright silly. On the plus side, the Commonwealth is impressively tech-savvy: the entire hotel is set up for free Wi-Fi access, and each guest gets a dedicated VoIP phone line and handset, which works anywhere on the property. Clearly, this is where you'd take a colleague, not your mistress; aside from the rear views of Fenway's Green Monster, there's not much here to set the heart aflutter.

The Commonwealth's secret weapons, however, are its restaurants. In this corner, the estimable Great Bay, serving some of the city's best seafood. And in the opposite corner, Eastern Standard, a pulsing new brasserie modeled on Manhattan's Balthazar, right down to the frisée aux lardons, the wall-sized mirrors, and the epic bar. Lofty ceilings mean you'll never hit your head, even when crowd-surfing. 500 Commonwealth Ave.; 866/784-4000 or 617/933-5000; www.hotelcommonwealth.com; doubles from $349.

Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L editor-at-large.

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