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This image of the exterior of the Cliff House, enhanced to bring out the sign against the San Francisco sky, shows the fourth version of the landmark restaurant.
San Francisco can’t exist without the Cliff House
The famed restaurant was first built in 1863, and today's version, the fourth, opened in 2004
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Travel west from San Francisco and suddenly it's all ocean, a ragged spit of land as if the continent were simply torn off at this point, as if nature were just too busy to polish up the landscape. Point Lobos is a work in progress. This is where the vastly rich developer -- and San Francisco mayor -- Adolph Sutro owned thousands of acres in the late 1800s. There he built fabled structures, grandiose Victorian visions that have become legends.
The structures are largely gone now, but enough remains that Sutro's legacy is a fascinating place to visit.
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Since it opened in 1863, the restaurant has been destroyed three times by explosion and fire.
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Even the locals refer to the area as Land's End, but basically you get on Geary Street and keep driving west until you can't go any more west without getting wet, and right there you'll find the famous Cliff House restaurant. It's next to a wave-racked pile of islets collectively called Seal Rocks, after the permanent inhabitants. The Cliff House is on sheer bluffs that also feature the remains of Adolph Sutro's other architectural wonders.
The Cliff House
Location: 1090 Point Lobos, San Francisco
Reservations: Sutro's restaurant prefers reservations; the Bistro is walk-in. Reservations highly recommended for Sunday Champagne Buffet in the Terrace Room.
Parking: Free on nearby streets, but the hills are steep.
Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Information: (415) 386-3330 or www.cliffhouse.com
But, unlike the other structures, Cliff House has persisted because it keeps being rebuilt. San Francisco, it seems, can't do without Cliff House.
"The Cliff House has always been where my family spent important holidays and family milestones: Christenings, first Communions, Easter Sunday brunches and every Mother's Day breakfast during the entire Eisenhower administration were celebrated on its white tablecloths," recalls San Francisco historian John Martini, an expert on local architecture. "I think my parents even held their wedding reception there. We weren't alone; virtually every other Catholic family in San Francisco apparently had the same traditions.
"First Communion Sundays were especially notable, with virtually every table occupied by a stoic family grouping with a nervous 7-year-old in an ill-fitting white suit or frilly dress as the centerpiece. Somewhere, I've still got a reel of 8 mm home movie film showing mini-me on that big day, flanked my mom in her cats-eye glasses and dad in his charcoal-gray Brooks Brothers special-occasion suit. Grandpa was the cameraman -- of course -- because everyone at the table is underexposed, and only the Seal Rocks outside the windows are in focus."
To this day, dining at Cliff House has been a communal rite of passage. The current building is actually the fourth iteration of the restaurant, and, judging by what happened to the first three, the location seems to have a hex on it.
The first Cliff House, built in 1863, was blasted in 1887 when the schooner Parallel grounded on the rocks just below and exploded. The cargo happened to be a load of dynamite, and the blast was heard more than 100 miles away. What was left -- and it wasn't much -- was burned up in a Christmas Day fire in 1894. The following year, Sutro built a new Cliff House, and it too burned down just a few months later.
Sutro rolled up his sleeves and tried again in 1896. The result was a remarkable vision of Victorian excess, a gigantic chateau-style structure that towered over the landscape and perched over the ocean, seemingly defying gravity, like a cloud of wooden dreams. It was called the "Gingerbread Palace."
It lives in thousands of photographs, becoming one of the great architectural wonders of the western United States, even shrugging off the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But it too was consumed by fire, in 1907.
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The oceanside view of Seal Rocks, just south of the Golden Gate, hasn't changed much over the years, although the Cliff House restaurant has.
The current building was constructed in 1909, made of materials that don't burn easily. It's not an architectural marvel; It's noted mostly for outlasting other buildings in the area. As a landmark, though, it's noted for its contributions to San Francisco's cultural legacy.
"The Cliff House was the swankiest restaurant my folks ever took me to," recalled Martini. "I knew it must have been high tone because the tables sported real linen table cloths, fresh carnations in silver vases and sugar cubes that you had to pick up with a tiny set of tongs. Even the plates were special, marked with the legend 'The Cliff House Since 1854.'"
The location was notable for viewing sunsets, but the sun eventually set on the Cliff House. For a time it was debated whether it would ever reopen.
"The main restaurant went dark in the late 1960s and didn't reopen for a good 15 years," said Martini.
"In the interim only the funky Redwood Bar remained open and became notable for serving 50-cent Irish coffees to a loyal cadre of locals. Decorated with maritime artifacts and historic photos, and with its great windows looking out over the foggy Pacific, the bar was a great place to spend the '70s."
Then the National Park Service acquired the property, adding it to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and decided that its contribution to San Francisco culture was primarily gastronomic.
The original building was restored, renamed Cliff House Bistro and opened in 2004 after a $19 million face lift jointly footed by the park service and the restaurant operators. Nestled in the Bistro wing is the Terrace Room, a 140-seat private dining room, and the walls are decorated with hundreds of autographed pictures of happily fed movie stars and other dignitaries. This wing looks down on Seal Rocks and recalls the classical era of fine dining.
Even more dramatic is a wholly new construction called the Sutro Wing, on the north side of the structure, a multistory dining room with dramatic panoramic views of the ocean. San Francisco architect C. David Robinson was responsible both for the restoration of the original dining rooms and the modern techno spaces of Sutro's, incorporating construction details that mirror the design of the long-gone Sutro Baths and using natural materials to blend the wing into the seaside cliffs.
The interior space is light and airy, due to zealous use of skylights and picture windows; the dining space has virtually doubled; and the upgrade added three outdoor observation decks and easy access to the charming Muse Mechanique in the building's "basement" -- a vast array of antique, coin-operated mechanical games. On one terrace is a full-size camera obscura, projecting images of Seal Rocks and Ocean Beach onto a parabolic screen.
The three restaurants housed together under the Cliff House banner offer a variety of dining and pricing variations, ranging from trendy Pacific Rim cuisine at Sutro's -- we're talking fresh seafood and locally grown produce -- and main courses like Pan Roasted Day Boat Scallop Salad ($29) and Masami Ranch Wagyu Eye of Ribeye ($44).
The Bistro is more traditional. Dungeness Crab Cakes with Roasted Red Pepper Aioli ($13.95) and Steamed Clams with Thyme, Garlic and White Wine Broth ($13.45) are pretty typical.
The Terrace Room is noted for a Sunday champagne brunch buffet with items like flank steaks, eggs Benedict, Smoked Prawn Pasta, Spicy Thai Beef Salad and dozens of other dishes.
Or you can have a glass of wine or a boutique brew at the bar and watch the sun set on the foggy ocean. Native San Franciscans, spoiled by an overload of excellent restaurants, deem the dining at Cliff House to be average fare, but tourists -- well, tourists just eat it up.
What's under the hood is interesting as well. Recently the Cliff House became "carbon neutral," offsetting the estimated 1,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide generated by the restaurants by devoting a portion of its income to forest restoration and plankton repopulation. All menus, bottles and cans are set aside for recycling; paper items are unbleached and otherwise chemical-neutral; there's a compost site for leftovers; used oil is converted into fuel; cleaning items are biodegradable; and garbage bags aren't used at all -- the staff simply rinses out the trash cans every day. The waste produced by Cliff House restaurants is 20 percent of what it used to be.
Whenever possible the restaurants use local and organic produce, with an emphasis on local. The carbon footprint generated by trucking green produce hundreds of miles isn't worth the cost. On the other hand, with the ocean at the Cliff House's front door, seafood has become a house staple, as it has been for a century and a half.
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Adolph Sutro's fabulous Victorian structure was one of the most photographed buildings in San Francisco, although it lasted only 11 years before being consumed by fire in 1907. The view here is from Sutro's estate on the bluffs above; it is also lost to history.
Sutro made his homestead a cultural park for the public
On the highest bluffs, Adolph Sutro built his home, which included sprawling European-style gardens and a conservatory, the whole of which was rimmed with a stone parapet. Public-minded -- and publicity-conscious -- the politician/businessman made his homestead an open park where San Franciscans could browse, soaking up continental art, sculpture and culture. Sutro wanted San Francisco to become one of the great cities of the world, and Step 1 involved educating the local populace.
The Sutro homestead contained exacting copies of classical Greek and Roman statuary, gardens and pavilions modeled on those of Britain and France, and Sutro used his political swing to add a streetcar line to his property.
The city acquired the property in 1938 and promptly yanked out the house and most of the statues. All that remains is a section of parapet, a statue of Diana -- often garlanded with flowers placed by Bay Area pantheists -- and a pair of stone lions salvaged from the original gate. The area remains a park with a spectacular view, particularly at sunset, but watch your step. Animal-loving San Franciscans have encouraged urban gophers to take over the grounds, and it's easy to step into a hole.
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Sutro also built a huge bathhouse that burned down in the 1960s. The new Sutro's restaurant, added to the Cliff House restaurant, has architectural echoes of the bathhouse design.
Below, in the lee of a natural valley at shoreside, even less remains of an even grander structure. Inspired by ancient Roman baths, Sutro built the world's largest indoor bathing palace in 1896, including a freshwater pool, five saltwater pools (all heated), a ginormous saltwater pool kept at ocean temperatures (in other words, chilly), more than 500 dressing rooms, three restaurants, theaters, viewing platforms and spectator stands for 8,000, museums and art galleries. It was all housed under a cathedral-size, soaring wood and glass latticework featuring mighty rafters of laminated hardwood. It was such a sensation that some of Thomas Edison's first motion-picture tests were shot at the location.
The ocean-water pool was actually "fresher" than the freshwater pools: At high tide, water flowed directly from the ocean into the main pool, taking an hour to replace 2 million gallons; at low tide, pumps hidden in seaside caves replaced all the water in five hours.
By the mid-'50s the attraction had petered off into a single ice-skating rink, and during demolition in the 1960s, the building mysteriously caught fire. Today, all that is visible are the shattered remains of the concrete and stone foundations, being reclaimed by nature. Ironically, it now most resembles the ruins of an ancient Roman bath.
The architectural style of the beam, truss and bracing-cable Sutro Baths has been replicated in the new restaurant added on the side of the famous Cliff House. The new eatery is called, naturally, Sutro's.
Perched directly above the crumbling baths, jutting out from the bluff, is a small restaurant called Louis', built by Greek immigrants Louis and Helen Hontalas in 1937. Seventy years later it's still a family-owned and operated business, a sentimental favorite among San Franciscans. The menu is reasonably priced, hearty fare that includes steaks, omelets, burgers and fried seafood or any combination of the above. Any rumor that Louis' might close causes alarm among the neighboring residents.