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Hotel Providence strives to bring more to the capital

Email|Print| Text size + By Joe Yonan
Globe Staff / April 24, 2005

PROVIDENCE -- Ads for the new Peerless Lofts in the Downcity arts district are an exercise in hyperbole, calling the area ''New England's hottest shopping destination" and home to ''the best restaurants in Providence."

Someday that may all be true, but the day hasn't arrived. Hot shopping requires more than a Design Within Reach showroom down the street and a Nordstrom in a nearby mall, and the folks at Al Forno or any number of spots on Federal Hill might take issue with that restaurant claim.

Superlatives aside, one thing Downcity does now have is a stylish lodging alternative to the Providence Biltmore. The new Hotel Providence is dressed to the nines in gilded style, with service and dining to match, and it stands to help the capital city jump-start the mission to revitalize its historic downtown, where grand old buildings stand as testament to Providence's past.

Attention to detail at the 80-room hotel is apparent from the street. The developers combined two brick Classical structures from the late 1800s with a contemporary building. Inside, the decor is more ornate: In the lobby alone are a jade carving of horses, an Eastlake grandfather clock, and a pair of 19th-century marble and mahogany pier tables.

The design may be over the top for some tastes, especially in the dining room, where a crystal chandelier big and flashy enough to fill a room on its own instead shares space with others just like it, and where giant reproductions of the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance paintings give the space a somewhat Disneyfied feel.

Still, everyone loves comfort, and that's where The Hotel Providence shines as brightly as the polished brass railings along the staircase. My standard room, a moderately priced $179, was less baroque than the common areas, with a green settee, oversized desk with ergonomic chair, and gold-framed mirrors. Among its amenities were a 27-inch TV, easy-to-hook-up high-speed Internet access, and the silkiest robe I've had the pleasure to slip into.

Even the hotel's fitness center, while typically small, was more completely outfitted than most. Besides the usual complement of hand weights and a circuit machine, there are six aerobic machines: two bikes, two elliptical trainers, and two treadmills, all looking at three flat-panel TVs. Some water and fruit would be a welcome touch, as would working TV remotes (these were bolted to the machines in positions that blocked their beams).

Any full-service hotel depends mightily on its restaurant, and L'Epicureo came to Downcity armed with a great reputation from its many years on Federal Hill. The excellence has survived the transition. My dinner with a friend included a perfectly cooked seafood risotto, meaty lamb shanks over a tart gorgonzola polenta, and a dessert that paired creamy and rich panna cotta with a sweet wine jelly. Afterward, I crawled up to bed a happy man.

But I woke up cranky, especially when I realized the hotel's biggest shortcoming: no room service, at least not yet. For someone who prefers a hotel over a bed-and-breakfast partly so I don't have to shower, let alone socialize, before I've had coffee in the morning, this came as a disappointment. Adding insult to injury were bells that chimed so loudly every 15 minutes, starting at 8 a.m., that it sounded as if the church were in my room, not merely next door. Nonetheless, I made it downstairs for the complimentary continental breakfast, and while there was a nice frittata on the table (along with the usual muffins, bagels, and fruit), the coffee was as weak as tea.

Thankfully, the desk clerks and doormen came to the rescue, pointing me to nearby coffeehouses where I could down a few shots of espresso. Even though the hotel is only a few months old, its employees have already mastered the balancing act of courtesy without pretense that would put any guest at ease.

The desk clerk who initially checked me in greeted me by name and with a smile every time I passed by. Another clerk unblinkingly offered honest advice on shopping, dining, and directions -- although Downcity advocates might not appreciate her caveat, ''There's not really much shopping right around here."

She is to be forgiven. After all, it took only a couple of hours to score a floor-sample rug at the Design Within Reach showroom, browse art and architecture tomes at the wonderful Symposium Books, and pick out a handmade platter at the RISD Store. Then it was off to the Providence Place Mall and to Thayer Street near Brown University. That night, my friend and I heard the call of Al Forno's grilled pizzas, and answered it with gusto.

I imagine the next time I'm in Providence, Downcity will keep me occupied for more than an afternoon. And once The Hotel Providence adds room service, which it promises within six months, it will be the perfect perch from which to enjoy the neighborhood's transformation.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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