San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House restaurant that has served tourists and locals for more than a century from atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean is closing its doors at the end of the year.
Dan and Mary Hountalas, the restaurant’s proprietors since 1973, said in a post Sunday on the restaurant’s website they are closing on December 31st because of losses brought on by the pandemic and a dispute over renewing their long-term operating contract with the National Park Service.
Built in 1863, the seaside restaurant has been a San Francisco institution and a top tourist attraction. It has gone through several transformations.
The Cliff House at the very western end of San Francisco as it sat perched overlooking the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco, California, late 1890s. It was opened in 1896 by Adolph Sutro, the mayor of San Francisco
This photograph shows horses and carriages on a path in front of Cliff House and a view of what’s known as the Sea & Seal Rock. Pictured in 1869
The second Cliff House survived the 1906 earthquake only to be swallowed in flames a year later, pictured here in 1907
A crowd of people on the beach below the Cliff House enjoy the sun, the surf, and a view of Seal Rocks. The Gothic Revival style resort was built in 1895 by Adolf Sutro
The first iteration of the Cliff House is pictured here in 1867 just a few years after its opening
The first modest, wood-frame structure was destroyed in a fire in 1894. It was rebuilt and fashioned after a French chateau that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but burned down the following year. The third and present Cliff House, neoclassic in design, was built in 1909.
Cliff House was the scene of a number of historic events, including several shipwrecks. A wreck in 1887 caused damage to the second Cliff House when the dynamite on the ship exploded. The first ship-to-shore transmission, using Morse Code, was received here in 1899 and in 1905; the first radio voice transmission was sent from the house to a point a mile and a half away.
The popular venue has been visited by five U.S. presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The National Park Service bought the property in 1977, four years after the Hountalas began leasing it. Their last long-term contract with the Park Service expired in June 2018, and the restaurant had been operating since then under short-term contracts, the couple said.
The Hountalas said the National Park Service should have selected an operator on a long-term basis ‘to ensure the continued operation of this national treasure.’
‘This is certainly not the way to thank us, a local small business owned and operated by native San Franciscans, for taking care of this San Francisco treasure this past year at a significant financial loss,’ they said.
In 1894, the third, and most photographed, incarnation of the house was built by Adolph Sutro, a successful mining engineer. Sutro built the seven-story mansion in Victorian style, an elaborately decorated structure dubbed the ‘Gingerbread House’
The Cliff House restaurant, popular since 1858 is pictured here in 1980
The restaurant is pictured here in 1989 in a picture from the archive
The view of the Cliff House and Seal Rock from the top of Sutro Heights Park
The iconic Cliff House restaurant that has served tourists and locals for more than a century from atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean is closing its doors at the end of the year
Dan and Mary Hountalas, the restaurant’s proprietors since 1973, say they are closing because of losses brought on by the pandemic and not being able to renew a long-term operating contract with the National Park Service
Diners have lunch in the Sutro’s dining room at the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco, pictured here in 2004
General Manager Ralph Burgin walks through a dining area of the Cliff House restaurant last week
Boxes sit in a dining area of the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco as the place prepares to shut
The couple said 180 employees will lose their jobs and they encouraged customers to show their support by sending an email to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s superintendent.
The Cliff House first closed in March due to the pandemic. It reopened in June to offer takeout service but closed again after 10 weeks because of ‘unbearable losses.’
‘It costs tens of thousands of dollars every month to maintain and guard the massive Cliff House building,’ the couple wrote.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s spokesman Julian Espinoza said in a statement the National Park Service had hoped to continue working with Peanut Wagon, Inc., which operates the Cliff House restaurant and Lookout Café, housed in the same building, but that they have honored the proprietors’ request to let the existing concession contract expire on December 31, 2020.
‘We too are disappointed about this temporary suspension of services, however we remain committed to providing an exceptional experience for residents and visitors to the Bay Area and look forward to welcoming the public back in the future,’ he said.
A view of the Cliff House as seen by Google Earth’s 3D imaging
People look inside the front entrance of the Cliff House restaurant to learn of the news that the place is closing in less than two weeks
Framed photographs and boxes sit on the ground at the Cliff House restaurant
Art Bradley, a chef at the Cliff House restaurant, looks toward chairs and boxes in a dining area
Espinoza didn’t say whether a restaurant will continue to be housed at the Cliff House building.
The National Park Service, which owns the property, said in a letter obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s reevaluating ‘the feasibility of anyone operating’ the scenic waterfront space as a restaurant in the near future due to the state of the food industry.
‘The COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly and vastly changed the food and beverage market in the San Francisco area and throughout the country,’ read the letter from Linda D. Walker, acting regional director of the National Park Service.
‘As a result, the NPS is actively reevaluating the possible future uses of the Concession Facilities and the feasibility of anyone operating it as a restaurant in the near future, whether under a concession contract or a lease.’
Framed photos of some of the famous celebrity diners are shown behind glasses and boxes
Art Bradley, a chef at the Cliff House restaurant, walks past framed artwork on the ground
General Manager Ralph Burgin sits behind the front desk at the Cliff House restaurant
The grand, iconic structure holds countless memories for generations of San Franciscans and visitors
The closure of Cliff House marks the end of an era for a place that has transformed over more than a century