San Francisco Cliff House

Welcome to the Cliff House!

Consistently named the “Best Restaurant with a View,” the legendary Cliff House is one of the most iconic restaurants in San Francisco. Cliff House’s restaurants and lounges regularly please the diverse palates of locals and travelers with an assortment of excellent wines, spirits and fine food using the freshest local ingredients.Aptly named, this cliff-top restaurant over the Pacific offers a truly memorable setting with stunning, unobstructed views of the California coastline, including the famous Seal Rocks, the Sutro Bath ruins, the entry to the Golden Gate Bridge, and—of course—the ocean. When in visiting San Francisco, the Cliff House is the place to be for admiring beautiful sunsets reflected on pure liquid drama while watching cruise ships sailing by.

The Cliff House is a restaurant perched on the headland above the cliffs just north of Ocean Beach, on the western side of San Francisco, California. It overlooks the site of the former Sutro Baths and is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service. On the terrace of the Cliff House is a room-sized camera Obscura.

Here comes the History of the Cliff House. The first Cliff House was a modest structure built in 1863 by Senator John Buckley and C. C. Butler. Captain Junius Foster eventually leased the Cliff House Restaurant from C. C. Butler and under his management wealthy San Franciscans flocked to the coast to enjoy the unique restaurant and wonderful views. The guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents as well as prominent San Francisco families such as the Hearsts, Stanfords, and Crockers, who would drive their carriages out to Ocean Beach for horse racing and recreation.Captain Foster renovated the Cliff House in 1868, adding a promenade and two new wings. It became the meeting place for local politicians as well as less savory citizens from the Barbary Coast. High society locals abandoned the Cliff House, although it remained a favorite attraction for tourists and the less wealthy. It became known for scandalous behavior, which greatly disturbed one prominent and well-known San Franciscan. Adolph Sutro, a self-made millionaire, philanthropist, and later, mayor of San Francisco, had built his estate at Sutro Heights overlooking the Cliff House.

Sutro purchased the Cliff House in 1883 and tried unsuccessfully to manage it himself. He then leased it to Sroufe and McCrum, a local wholesale liquor company. In 1885 Sutro leased the Cliff House to J. M. Wilkins, directing him to clear out the riff raff and bring back the local families. In 1887, the Cliff House was severely damaged when the schooner Parallel, abandoned and loaded with dynamite, ran aground on the rocks below. The explosion was so powerful it was heard all over the Bay Area. A patched-up Cliff House continued to operate until 1889 when the exterior of the building was treated to a new paint job, and the interior received modern water closets and a new kitchen closer to the dining room. A chimney fire destroyed it on Christmas day in 1894.

Adolph Sutro spent $75,000 to rebuild and furnish the Cliff House in grandiose style. Fashioned after a French chateau, the second Cliff House opened in February of 1896 and boasted eight stories, four spires, and an observation tower 200 feet above sea level. Though never a hotel, it served as an elegant site for dining, dancing, and entertainment. The third floor held a photo gallery, reception room, and multiple parlors with beautiful panoramic views. The second floor held 20 private lunchrooms, an art gallery, and a gem exhibit. At ground level, there was a large dining room, parlor, bar, numerous private dining rooms, and the kitchens.Visited by two U.S. presidents, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as many other famous citizens of the world, the Cliff House remained a favorite of the local population. Sutro’s streetcar line and his desire to share the luxury and splendor of his new Cliff House with the general public combined to bring crowds of San Franciscans to the coast. In 1898 Adolph Sutro died after a long illness. In June of 1907 the Cliff House was leased to John Tait of Tait’s at the Beach, and seven partners. On September 7, 1907, after extensive remodelling and just prior to reopening, the most resplendent and beloved of all Cliff Houses burned to its foundation. This exquisite building had survived the 1906 earthquake only to succumb to a raging fire that destroyed it in less than two hours.

Dr. Emma Merritt, daughter of Adolph Sutro, along with John Tait and his group of investors rebuilt the Cliff House on behalf of the Sutro estate at a cost of $75,000. It was neoclassical in design and carried on the tradition of sumptuous dining and great entertainment. Built with steel reinforcing bar and poured concrete, this Cliff House was certain to still be standing 100 years later. Tait reopened the third version of the Cliff House on July 1, 1909; although more modest in design, it still provided a ballroom for dancing as well as fine dining rooms and its breathtaking views.

In 1918 the Cliff House was shut down due to military orders signed by the President of the United States, “all establishments within a half mile of military installations are to halt the sale of liquor.”John Tait and his group of investors did not believe the Cliff House could continue to operate without liquor and decided to close it. In December of 1920 Shorty Roberts leased the Cliff House from Charles Sutro. During prohibition a dry Cliff House lacked its previous draw, so Roberts shut down all operations in 1925. Roberts was famous for Roberts-at-the-Beach restaurant located at the Great Highway and Rivera Street and later opened Roberts-at-the-Beach motel, which continued to operate until 2008.

Purchased by George and Leo Whitney, the owners of Playland, in December 1937, the Cliff House was extensively remodeled and reopened in August of 1938. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area acquired the Cliff House in 1977.

When the Cliff House became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977, the National Park Service contracted with Dan and Mary Hountalas as official concessionaires of the property. The NPS renewed its contract with the Hountalas family, under the name Peanut Wagon, in 1998. Peanut Wagon continues to manage Cliff House operations and worked with the Park Service for the extensive site restoration that was completed in 2004. Dan Hountalas notes that the renovation unveiled discoveries, including a marble staircase and part of the original carriage road from 1914, which is now a walkway around the property. Natural materials—concrete, copper, slate, and glass—were used to blend the new building into the scenic coastline. Some of the Cliff House history can be seen in the more than 200 autographed pictures of dignitaries and movie stars on display for public viewing.

The Cliff House offers distinct and stylish settings to suit occasions of every ilk. Sutro’s is at once both casual and chic, offering a blend of modern style and architecture inspired by the rich history of the Sutro Baths. The new Sutro Wing houses an amazing two-story dining room with stunning panoramic ocean views. The ceiling of steel beams recalls the Sutro Baths architecture, establishing a connection between the past and the present. Skylights and grand picture windows accentuate natural light in all public spaces; spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean are emphasized in both the neoclassical design of the restored 1909 structure and the soaring modernist space of the new wing. There is also a gift shop in the building. During the site restoration, the Musée Mécanique was moved to Fisherman’s Wharf.

The award-winning wine list compliments the seasonally changing menu, which focuses on organic produce, locally and sustainably harvested ingredients, and the freshest, highest quality seafood. Also, the adjacent Balcony Lounge comes to life every Friday night with live jazz and outstanding acoustics allow guests to enjoy the music, whether they’re having dinner in Sutro’s or sipping cocktails in the lounge.

A Local’s favorite, the Bistro restaurant serves San Francisco classics for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Omelets, sandwiches, salads and famous options like the popovers and clam chowder are served in front of the same magnificent views the rest of the Cliff House enjoys. Since 1863, the Cliff House has been one of the finest destinations for special events ranging from rehearsal dinners to high-end business meetings. The Terrace Room—another elegant space—hosts the Cliff House’s famous San Francisco Champagne Brunch Buffet on Sundays. This fantastic brunch, the “talk of the city”, features unlimited food, unlimited Champagne and live Harp music. In addition, the Terrace Room also offers floor-to-ceiling windows, a private outdoor terrace, modern amenities, flexible seating designs, and a neutral color scheme, making it the prime choice for San Francisco events. Whether you are planning a wedding, a family celebration, or a corporate function, the world famous Cliff House will be sure to provide the quintessential San Francisco experience.

During the 2013 government shutdown, the US Park Service ordered the restaurant closed. The owners defied the order, but were forced to close again. They reopened with permission on October 12, 2013. It has been said that more than thirty ships have been pounded to pieces on the southern shore of the Golden Gate below the Cliff House.

The area immediately around Cliff House is part of the setting of Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Plague(1912).

Perched on spectacular cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Cliff House is one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The GGNRA is the largest urban park west of the Mississippi River and offers a wide array of activities. Currently the GGNRA is restoring the coastal walkways and paths that lead to the Cliff House and overlook both the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The world famous Cliff House with its long and colorful history remains a favorite for both locals and tourists alike.


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