Big isn't the only adjective to describe these three superlative retreats in the Lone Star State's capital of style

If all you knew of Dallas was the long-running television series that borrowed the city's name, how would you go about choosing a hotel there?That was the dark dilemma I found myself in recently. Sue Ellen, strung out by the pool at Southfork, offered few clues, so I had no option but to dive without a safety net into the local hotel scene. As it turns out, the net would have been superfluous. There are as many satisfying ways to spend the night in Dallas as there are ways to make a million.

Just a complimentary five-minute ride from downtown Dallas in the hotel's limo, the Crescent Court reveals itself in numbers. Make that big numbers. We are, after all, in Texas.

At the core of a swaggering retail and office complex-- would kingdom be a better word?-- the hotel was designed by Philip Johnson on a 101/2-acre plot that feels like an urban island encircled by roads. Ten types of Italian and Spanish marble adorn the ensemble of buildings, which are disposed in a triangle that enforces the kingdom concept (all that's missing are ramparts). A typical centerpiece in the hotel lobby might be 10 dozen long-stemmed chocolate roses, each weighing more than a pound and requiring two hours to make. The development's underground garage holds 4,000 cars. And though the purchasing agent lost count of the limestone after the umpteenth block, management maintains that no single construction project ever consumed more. Did somebody say grandiose?

Slick and polished to a fare-thee-well, with crackling service, the Crescent is one of the diamonds in the tiara of Caroline Rose Hunt's Rosewood Hotel & Resorts, which also owns Las Ventanas al Paraíso in Los Cabos, Mexico, and the Lanesborough in London, not to mention the Crescent's toughest local competitor, the Mansion on Turtle Creek. (How like Mrs. Hunt to keep herself on her toes by becoming her own biggest rival.)

Working in a loose French château idiom, Johnson endowed the Crescent with mansard roofs of English slate pierced by dormers. Details are similarly pedigreed in the 175 guest rooms and 41 suites. Real keys instead of flimsy electronic cards open the doors. Light switches flick on and off the way light switches used to. Pillows are filled with luxurious goose down, walls painted a soft Dior gray. Bath gel is dribbled from honey wands dipped into crystalline honeypots. (Incidentally, items to re-create the Crescent Court's English-country-house-meets-Dallas look can be purchased next door at Mrs. Hunt's antiques shop, Lady Primrose's.) Only the tangled wad of telephone and fax wires strikes a sour visual note in my room.

If you have always dreamed of doing the cha-cha on a leather dance floor, don't miss your chance at the swank, paneled Crescent Club, which also serves up copious portions of Dallas tycoon-watching. The club is located atop one of the three office towers, which, at 18 stories, cruelly cut off the crouching seven-story hotel from one of the city's greatest assets, its skyline. As a result, guest rooms at the Crescent have views that hardly merit a postcard home.

The Crescent's spa, with its Mind/Body Wellness Center, is one of the finest in the Southwest. Among the more exotic niche offerings is a Teenage Facial. Only in Dallas.
400 Crescent Court; 800/654-6541 or 214/871-3200, fax 214/871-3272; doubles from $320.

No matter how much you love the Crescent, the Rosewood collection won't let you call it their flagship. That distinction belongs to the Mansion because of its longer history and the hotel's restaurant, a culinary mecca. When Dean Fearing started talking up four-alarm chiles in the mid-1980's, laying the groundwork for what became known to every supermarket shopper as "Southwest cuisine," he was a firebrand in chef's whites and Lucchese cowboy boots.

With 126 guest rooms and 15 suites, the Mansion is more intimate and less geared to business travelers than its neighbor the Crescent. It also prides itself on being more personal and stylish, on having a residential feel that humanizes sprawling, sometimes anonymous Dallas. This is accomplished with mega-infusions of glamour-- if the Mansion were a television show, it would be Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Year after year the hotel scores at or near the top of rankings conducted by Mobil, AAA, and Travel & Leisure, whose readers voted it number two in the world for service in the 1998 World's Best survey.

It's not hard to see why, not with bellmen who announce at check-in that you can have your clothes pressed at any hour of the day or night. Passion-fruit tea and chocolate-and-coconut confections arrive minutes after you take possession of your room. And how about that double-cassette player?Am I the first Mansion guest ever to run out to the Galleria to buy his favorite tapes based on the splendor of the equipment?

With their plush, traditional furnishings-- nothing at the Mansion is designed to scare the horses-- rooms earn high marks for decorative coherence. Walls in an inviting shade of ocher make reference to the hotel's rosy stucco façade. Lights pop on in the closets when you open the doors. Bathrooms, dazzling essays in multiple marbles, have oversize shower stalls with built-in corner seats. Upholstered stools slip neatly under the vanities between twin sinks.

For the history that gives the Mansion a degree of soul, it can thank oil magnate Sheppard W. King. His 1920's residence, a Renaissance wannabe, was transformed into the hotel's bar and restaurant, and the hotel opened in 1981 upon the completion of the adjoining tower, which contains the guest rooms. Among King's rich legacy are 19th-century Spanish cathedral doors and corkscrew columns carved with spidery grapevines.

Alas, though Fearing's cooking may have once been zingy and incisive, my meal looked and tasted a muddle. One dish was called "carne asada of ostrich filet and papaya mole-glazed quail with smoked corn enchilada and a basket of traditional Mexican condiments." You see the problem.

Two other incidents marred my stay. When at dinner I corrected the maître d'hôtel in his pronunciation of my name, his response was a loud vaudeville-style joke that included three new mispronunciations. Twelve hours later, at breakfast, he staged the same routine. It was humiliating.
2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 800/527-5432 or 214/559-2100, fax 214/528-4187; doubles from $330.

Under an inky Dallas sky, I returned to the Adolphus after a dinner out. The doorman, who'd seen me off earlier, asked how I'd liked my meal.

"Absolutely terrible," I said. Joey's had fallen disastrously short of a guidebook listing that promised good Italian food in a buzzy atmosphere.

"I'm sorry," replied the doorman, dressed in a smart navy blue belted jacket with short sleeves and a red collar.

"It wasn't your fault," I assured him. "I chose it."

"Yes, but I still wish it had been perfect."

When you consider that some hotels don't even take responsibility for what goes wrong under their own roofs, the Adolphus should get an award-- the As Long as You're Staying with Us We're Accountable award. How the hotel attracts so many thoughtful, exuberant employees is a mystery. Busy with a guest when I arrived, the concierge was not about to let me slip by. His "Welcome!" followed me across the Adolphus's famously overwrought fin de siècle-flavored lobby, a pastiche of potted palms, Flemish tapestries, dueling fabric patterns, and an 1893 Steinway art piano that once belonged to a Guggenheim. For the waiter who brought enough ice to my room to chill the beer at a ranch barbecue, one "Welcome" wasn't enough. He fired the word three times, rat-a-tat-tat.

If you object to a fever pitch of hospitality, look elsewhere.

The Adolphus's location delights two constituencies. It is in the middle of Dallas's financial district and a couple of doors down from the granddaddy of all luxury merchants, Neiman Marcus. The hotel was built by St. Louis beer baron Adolphus Busch in 1912 as a valentine to his adopted home, on the site of Dallas's first city hall.

These days, the rooms are strangely underappointed. One positive step would be for the Adolphus to invest in more queen Anne- and Chippendale-style furniture to relieve the emptiness. Still, what the hotel lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in size: at an average of 500 square feet, the 300 guest rooms are among the biggest in town. (There are also 120 suites.)

Size isn't the only thing earning the Adolphus repeat customers. The hotel is prized for its afternoon tea: cucumber and watercress finger sandwiches, cream-filled choux-pastry swans, the works. And many consider the French Room, which serves French cuisine with a triple haute, the best restaurant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. (I'd like to report more, but it was closed the night I tried to reserve.) The room is decorated with Murano crystal chandeliers, gilded sconces, and arching frescoed ceilings: Louis quinze does Dallas.
1321 Commerce St.; 800/221-9083, fax 214/ 651-3561; doubles from $200.