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By Karen

Updated September 13, 2023.

The Cliff House

A San Francisco Classic

A restaurant has perched on this cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean since 1863.

Generations of San Franciscans and countless visitors have dined at the Cliff House and enjoyed the gorgeous ocean views.

The Cliff House in a nutshell...

Another Cliff House calamity...Covid

Some very sad news arrived in December of 2020. The Cliff House was closing, permanently, largely due to the difficulty of operating a restaurant during the Covid closures.

The long-time tenants took the name, "Cliff House", and even the sign, with them when they left.

So whatever is coming next won't be called the "Cliff House", unless the current negotiations are successful in selling the name to the new operators.

A New Tenant for the Cliff House!

The new tenants for the Cliff House have just been announced on September 13, 2023.

Sutro Lands End Partners, LLC, has reached an agreement to lease the former Cliff House from the National Park Service, which administers the land where the building is located.

The new tenant has a 20-year lease and plans to do significant remodeling. The building will reopen with several restaurants inside, similar to what was there before.

They plan to be open again in late 2024.

A local attorney and native San Franciscan, Alexander Leff, will likely be in charge of the operation. 

Sutro Lands End Partners are inviting public input on their website, cliffhousefuture.com

Cliff House in San Francisco, Seal RockCliff House and Seal Rock

There have been a whole series of Cliff Houses over the years, the style changing with the times.

It burned down twice, and was closed during Prohibition, but the Cliff House survived (until now), and it's been a wonderful place to come and have a meal and admire the view.

View of Point Lobos from the Cliff House San FranciscoView of Point Lobos from the Cliff House

The Cliff House sits at Point Lobos, right at the entrance to San Francisco Bay. This was a prime spot for shipwrecks before radar; strong currents, rocks and dense fog made for a lethal combination, especially at night.

The SS Ohioan, a cargo ship, ended up on the rocks near the Cliff House on a dark night in 1936.

Aver 300 ships have gone down near there or in the channel leading to the bay. Some of the wrecks can still be seen along the Lands End Trail.

Aerial view of Cliff House Sutro Baths and wrecked SS Ohioan in 1936Cliff House & Sutro Baths, Shipwreck 1936

How the Cliff House Used to Be...

The Cliff House Restaurants

There were three restaurants and two bars in the Cliff House.

Sutro's: elegant-casual and somewhat expensive dining, with two stories of glass windows looking out over Seal Rock and the Pacific. Serene and beautiful.

Sutro's Restaurant at the Cliff House, ocean viewSutro's Restaurant
Cliff House lunch entree at  SutrosSalmon & Polenta at Sutro's...yum

The Bistro: casual dining, less expensive, in the older part of the building, also with views.

The Terrace Room: Sunday brunch buffet, delightful setting with live harp music and flowing champagne. 

Also Sutro's Bar and the Zinc Bar. Live jazz Fridays.

Zinc Bar at the Cliff House San FranciscoZinc Bar

History of the Cliff House

The first Cliff House was built in 1863 and became a place for the wealthy residents of SF to come out to the ocean in their carriages and dine.

The first Cliff House, San Francisco, 1894First Cliff House, 1894

Adolph Sutro, creator of the Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights Park, bought the Cliff House in 1883 with the idea of pulling it out of a slump and making it family-friendly again. Apparently it had gotten a bad reputation for riffraff and scandalous behavior.

The Cliff House was badly damaged in 1887 when a ship carrying dynamite ran aground nearby and blew up. Sutro fixed up the building again, only to have it burn down in 1894.

This time, Sutro carried out an elaborate construction plan and created a marvelous Victorian confection on the cliff, which included a ballroom, several restaurants, museums, etc.

Second Cliff House, San Francisco, 1897Second Cliff House, 1897

The Victorian Cliff House survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but burned down a year later.

Cliff House burning, 1907

An attractive neoclassical version was built, by Sutro again, in 1909, but it closed during Prohibition and didn't reopen until 1938 after another remodel.

Third Cliff House, San Francisco,1938Third Cliff House, circa 1938

Two ugly remodels followed. A brown, "modern" Cliff House appeared in 1950, then an even uglier blue and orange one in the 1970's.

Cliff House San Francisco, 1950Cliff House 1950
Cliff House San Francisco, 1970'sCliff House 1970's

The current Cliff House was created in 2004: a reconstruction of the 1909 classical shape, with a modern wing added on.

This time they got it right! It's an attractive building and the restaurants are very pleasant places to eat and enjoy the beautiful views.

The building is still there, but the sign is gone because the previous tenants owned the name.

Cliff House San Francisco, front with signCurrent Cliff House (sign gone now)

You can see the little Go Cars visiting. Lots of fun! Check out my tips on renting the Go Cars to tour San Francisco.

View of Sutro Baths from Cliff House, San FranciscoView of Sutro Baths
Sutro Bath swimsuit model, Cliff House, San FranciscoModeling the Sutro Bath Swimsuit

Seal Rock

There used to be a large colony of seals on the large white rock just offshore, hence Seal Rock.

The whole colony moved to Pier 39 after the 1989 earthquake, but some of them returned in 2007 and hang out there during the summer.

View of Seal Rock from the Cliff House San FranciscoView of Seal Rock from Sutro's Restaurant

The Camera Obscura

This odd camera-shaped building sitting next to the Cliff House is a remnant of the amusement park that used to be just down the hill along Ocean Beach.

Cliff House San Francisco and camera obscuraCliff House and Camera Obscura

The Camera Obscura, or "dark room", uses a series of lenses and a mirror to produce a live, 360 degree view of the surrounding area. The scientific principle was studied and sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Is the Camera Obscura open? Yes, even though the Cliff House is closed, you can still get into the camera.

Open 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. Adults $3.

The large collection of mechanical games that was here moved to Fisherman's Wharf in 2004. See Musee Mechanique.

Cozy Diner Up the Road. Coming Back?

Louis' Restaurant was also a Covid casualty. But the Park Service, which owns the land and building, apparently has found a new tenant, so at some point it will reopen. Not as Louis', though. Probably the same entity that will be running the future Cliff House. 

How it used to be...
An alternative to the Cliff House is the classic American diner up the street: Louis' Restaurant, at 902 Point Lobos Avenue, next to the parking lot.

Great burgers and breakfasts, and a wonderful view of the Sutro Baths and entrance to SF Bay. Family owned since 1937, low key and friendly, and cheaper than the Cliff House.

Cash only, but there's an ATM in the restaurant.

Louis' Restaurant, San FranciscoLouis' Restaurant
View of Sutro Baths from Louis' Restaurant San FranciscoView From Louis'

What to see nearby...

The Sutro Baths

Ruins of the largest indoor swimming place in the world. Haunting, but a beautiful setting. See Sutro Baths.

Sutro Heights Park

Adolph Sutro's gardens above the Cliff House, with amazing views of the coast. I've watched whales from up there. See Sutro Heights Park.

Lands End

A wild and beautiful hiking trail from the Cliff House towards the Golden Gate. Amazing views of the bridge and the entrance to San Francisco Bay. See Lands End Trail.

Ocean Beach

The vast beach stretching along the entire western edge of San Francisco. Starts just below the Cliff House. I've listed a number of other places to eat in the area since the Cliff House isn't available. See Ocean Beach.

How to Get There...

The Cliff House is at the end of Point Lobos Avenue, just below the parking lot for the Visitor's Center at Point Lobos and 48th Avenue.

By Bus: The 38-Geary bus will takes you there; get off at the last stop on the route, Point Lobos Avenue and 48th Avenue, then walk downhill to the Cliff House.

You can catch the bus downtown, on Market Street at First or Third Streets (a block from the Montgomery BART station), or right on Union Square on Geary Blvd.

By Car: there is a large parking lot at Point Lobos and 48th Avenue, just uphill from the Cliff House. There are also parking spaces in front of the building and down the road, but they tend to fill up.

Note: this area has been particularly hard-hit by the rash of car break-ins occurring in San Francisco recently. Best not to leave anything visible or valuable in your car when you park here.

Map of Cliff House, sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Park, Ocean Beach, San Francisco

More to explore...

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