The “1909” Cliff House Celebrates 100 years

To celebrate 100 years of serving locals and tourists alike in the landmark restaurant, General Manager Ralph Burgin and the team at the Cliff House are offering customers several reasons to stop by and celebrate like it’s “1909” again. For a limited time, each Tuesday and Wednesday will be special at the Cliff House for lunch or dinner.

On Tuesday’s, plan for lunch at “Sutro’s.” The downstairs restaurant” is featuring a fixed-price special for $20.09 per person, with the menu changing each week. For those of you that haven’t been to the Cliff House since the remodel, Sutro’s is located in the “Sutro wing”, a beautiful extension of the original structure that evokes the design and construction of Adolph Sutro’s famous baths. The glass and steel structural elements, the curved ceiling and the aqua tinted tiles being back a modern version of the look of the baths.Sutros

For Wednesday evening, “The Bistro” restaurant is where to go for dinner. Executive Chef Kevin Weber is continuing to offer a three-course “Prix Fixe” dinner for $19.09 per person. The Bistro, located at “street level” in the historic building, offers sweeping views of the Pacific and is a lively place with seating at both tables and at the bar.

The atmosphere in “The Bistro” is lively and informal. The restaurant and bar is generally busy with a mixed crowd of San Franciscan’s, other locals and visitors. Recently, my wife and I were there to sample the special menu (unknown to the staff and mgmt.), and were seated at the bar next to a couple from Santa Cruz, who were marveling at the view and the remodeled structure.

On that particular Wednesday evening, the menu consisted of an appetizer (Sonoma green salad dressed with a light and refreshing Walnut vinaigrette, goat cheese and chive croutons), the entrée (A classic and rich San Francisco Cioppino) and a wonderful dessert (a Banana Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce and Chantilly Cream). All three courses were delicious and, in my opinion, a bargain for $19.09 per person. Reasonably priced wines (by the glass or bottle) or other beverages are available, as is the traditional dinner menu with a large selection of appetizers/entrees and desserts.

BistroLater, I asked Chef Weber what he and his team were trying to accomplish with the special menu. “We really just want to give something back to the locals who have supported the Cliff House over many years”, said the chef, who has been at the seaside venue for 33 years, (24 as the executive chef). He added, “Although we serve many people from outside the Bay area, everyone who is local to San Francisco has a sense of ownership (of the Cliff House) and we wanted to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this structure by highlighting some of our most asked for recipes at an affordable price.”

In addition to the food specials, bottles of Millerick Road (Sonoma County) wines will be featured for $19.09. Both a red and white wine is available in the Millerick Road collection.

Sitting on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the Cliff House has been providing food, beverages and views to their customers since 1863 when the original Cliff House was opened. Almost everyone is familiar with the famous photographs of the “second” Cliff House (built by Adolph Sutro) standing majestically above the cliffs. It survived the 1906 earthquake and firestorm, only to be lost a year later in a fire on September 7, 1907, during a remodel of the interior. (The original Cliff House had also been lost to fire in 1868).

Like a phoenix, the “new” Cliff House rose from the ashes and celebrated a new beginning, opening on July 1,1909. Rebuilt at a cost of $75,000 by Sutro’s daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt and other investors, the building was designed in a two story neoclassic design rather than the eight-story French chateau design of its predecessor. Dr. Merritt had the structure designed using steel and concrete to guard against fire. Over the ensuing years, the property, part of the National Park Service since 1977, was owned and operated by different groups who changed the exterior as the decades passed. Some may remember when the Cliff House was remodeled under the “Whitney’s” empire. The family who also owned and operated the “Playland at the Beach” amusement park, covered the original “1909” walls in a wooden façade. This “dated mid-century makeover” can be seen in photos on the Cliff House website, (

The owners of the restaurant, Dan and Mary Hountalas, and the National Parks Service partnered on an extensive remodel/restoration and enlargement of the 1909 structure over 18 months from May 2003 to September 2004. Amazingly, the operation was open for all but 5 months during the process of stripping away the old façade and bringing the original 1909 exterior walls back to life, and strengthening them for seismic concerns, etc. The renovated building reflects the original neoclassic design (including the art-deco “CLIFF HOUSE” signage). The interior, a dated “clubby” wood-paneled and wallpapered design was swept aside to make way for a modern glass and steel based architectural design, although The Bistro still features an original antique “back bar”.

The (previously mentioned) “Sutro Wing” was added to the North end to house the stunning two-story Sutro’s Restaurant and Terrace Room. The light and airy design beautifully highlights the rare geography of the location and the beautiful views. (The wing replaced “Phineas T. Barnacle’s” one of San Francisco’s original “fern bars.”)

Owners Mary and Dan Hountalas, who have operated the Cliff House since 1973, and their staff, have created a “cool” and festive (not to mention romantic) environment at one of San Francisco’s most hallowed and historic sites. If you haven’t visited the Cliff House lately, the food, the views, and live Jazz on Friday nights make this a “gotta go there” place.

A book, written by Mary Hountalas, with Sharon Silva, and titled The San Francisco Cliff House details the rich history of the site from the first buildings in 1863 to the present. Published by Ten Speed Press (, the book is available at the gift shop, the restaurant, the website, or from The history detailed in the book is rich with San Francisco “characters”; the drawings and photographs are amazingly comprehensive and it also contains some of the best-loved recipes of the Cliff House, including their famous “popovers”, and Chef Weber’s ultimate “Bloody Mary”, of which the restaurant serves over 150 gallons per week.

“The Bistro” at the Cliff House is located at 1090 Point Lobos in San Francisco. It is open seven days a week, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 AM to 9:30 PM, and on Sunday from 8:30 AM to 9:30 PM. The “celebration” fixe prix menu and pricing is only available on Wednesday evenings. Seating at “The Bistro” is on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations accepted. Reservations may be made for “Sutro’s”, located on the lower level. For information concerning the hours of Sutro’s and the Zinc Bar, please contact the Cliff House at 415.386.3330, or visit their website at

September 2009