For all its left-field heritage, San Francisco is strangely lacking in a decent supply of imaginative, cool hotels with which to satisfy the needs of curious tourists of an "alternative" bent. In fact, no boutique hotel has opened in the city for several years. Instead, multinational chains predominate. But, this being San Francisco, they come with a twist.
Hotel Tomo is Best Western – but not as you know it. After dovetailing with California-based hoteliers Joie de Vivre, the one-time Best Western Miyako Inn has been given a makeover. The result is Hotel Tomo (meaning "friend" in Japanese), a playful homage to its location on the cusp of San Francisco's Japantown and a quirky but comfortable and affordable experience. Banish preconceptions of the "World's Largest Hotel Chain"; inside are colourful Anime murals, iPod docks, LCD TVs – even a special suite for gamers, the so-called "Players Suite", complete with PlayStation 3, Wii and an 8ft television.
All this makes it popular with families – the hotel emphasises the enjoyment children glean from their assorted gizmos – but, in reality, it's just as good for the lone traveller. The iPod docks, beanbags and glow-in-the-dark desk blotters ensure a young, funky feel – a contrast to the more refined luxury of Tomo's nearby Japanese-themed sister establishment, Hotel Kabuki. But the sensation isn't overwhelming. Everything one might want from a traditional hotel visit is there – the dressing gown, toiletries, amenities – only sometimes they're rendered in neon.
The hotel restaurant, called Mums, serves the usual breakfast staples. However, it also specialises in Shabu-Shabu, the oh-so-trendy Japanese hotpot which sees diners cook their own rib-eye and vegetables in a bubbling broth at their table, then eat with an array of dipping sauces. And if that wasn't enough, guests are given discounts at the nearby Kabuki Springs & Spa, which offers an array of treatments derived from traditional Japanese bathing houses. Back in the guestrooms, even the dressing gowns conform to the theme, with bright blue Japanese lettering.
Much is made of the hotel's Japantown location – though there are many more potent reasons why one would choose Tomo. Despite its regular presence in local guidebooks, Japantown is an area of roughly two blocks by two blocks and once its restaurants and gift shops have been surveyed, there's little else to stumble upon.
Of more interest is Fillmore Street, the main drag of the up-scale Pacific Heights. Just two minutes' walk from the hotel, Fillmore Street offers a seductive selection of cosy cafés, stylish bars and appetising restaurants – from the haute-trendy SPQR to the cheap and cheerful La Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Marc by Marc Jacobs jostles for attention alongside an array of independent boutiques and vintage stores.
For enthusiastic gamers and lovers of the visual culture spawned by J-pop, Tomo has more than enough to satisfy, with its murals, Japanese snacks (a bag of rice crackers awaits you in your room) and Far Eastern touches. But the hotel has more to offer than just gimmicks.
On first inspection, a rather lacklustre exterior – grey signage, concrete-block design – is followed by an artificially lit lobby. To enter it, you have to descend from street level; the impression – particularly in contrast to the bright Californian sun – is rather gloomy and cavernous.
Ascend to your accommodation, however, and the scene changes. With their impressive panoramic windows overlooking the spiralling rooftops of Japantown – exotic amid the hub of central San Francisco – the 125 rooms are scrupulously clean, spacious and light. They range from the Deluxe King Room to the gizmo-laden Players Suite. All have been recently renovated and come with every modern convenience you could expect. The only thing lacking is a well-stocked mini bar. Instead, a bare fridge awaits – though for the budget-conscious that's no bad thing. High-speed Wi-Fi is also accessible free of charge.
Hotel Tomo, 1800 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California, US (001 415 921 4000; jdvhotels.com/hotels/sanfrancisco/tomo).
Double rooms start at $116, (£77), room only.