There are other such venues tumbling about the San Francisco consciousness, each fulfilling a particular need: exotic Tommy Toy's, alpine Julius' Castle, the ever-velveteen Palace Hotel. They have been here forever and will continue on forever, striking familiar poses. They are to San Francisco what Lüchow's is to New York, Antoine's is to New Orleans, and Maxim's is to Paris: restaurants that have attained such legendary municipal status over the course of their respective careers, across-the-board, laurel-resting mediocrity is a practical inevitability. A few years back I ate at Botin's in Madrid because Jake Barnes and Lady Brett had dined there 65 years earlier; the resulting disappointment was as keen as it was predestined.
But dust and mold are rarely tolerated out here on the edge of the continent. Subtle strains of culinary evolution have reinvigorated the kitchens of both Tommy and Julius, and the Palace has undergone an elaborate facelift. And the Cliff House, the oldest of the bunch, has not only taken a new culinary direction of late, its landlord, the National Park Service, is overseeing a major two-year architectural-historical rehabilitation project with Page & Turnbull, the preservation architects behind the Palace's Garden Court restoration.
San Franciscans have embraced the Cliff House concept -- fashionable dining beside the roaring, sea lion-populated Pacific -- since the restaurant's original incarnation in 1863, traveling via horse-drawn carriage or railroad across three or four miles of sand dunes for an excursion to the dining room as well as the racetrack, the Sutro Baths, Playland-at-the-Beach, and other neighborhood fossils. Going to the Cliff House today can still feel like a trip to the country, especially if you board the 38 Geary at Kearny and Market on a broiling afternoon and emerge an hour later amid cypress and seagulls, the wind scented with brine.
After such an excursion, in fact, it's a bit startling to find so many people dining beside you; clearly, the trek was not solely your own. The Cliff House is made up of two restaurants, two bars, and the Terrace Room, the site of a buffet brunch every Sunday. Over the course of two visits we took in a good sampling of the Cliff House ethos, particularly the views that sweep from the Marin Headlands across Seal Rocks and down the coast past the Golden Gate Park windmills towards Half Moon Bay, the gray, tempest-tossed Pacific a fluctuating constant. The tourist element is surprisingly absent; the clientele feels more local-celebratory, a graduation party here, an anniversary date there, with a few Outer Richmond locals treating themselves to dinner and a view of the western horizon, its parade of container ships absorbed in the fog.
Atmosphere does not a restaurant make, however, and despite the aforementioned menu overhaul, the Cliff House's food rarely rises above the desultory. The complex's pricier alternative, Upstairs at the Cliff House, offers the best views in the building, thanks to its aerial perch and big plate-glass windows, but while the food isn't as lackluster as at, say, Spenger's (another revered local landmark-fish house), it could certainly use a little zip, a little -- yes -- ring-a-ding-ding. Examples: the black-and-blue ahi tuna triangles ($9), a dried-out starter pleasantly jazzed with a wasabi vinaigrette; clam chowder ($4.25 cup, $5.50 bowl), a thick, pasty but bivalve-packed interpretation; California red abalone ($29), two small, chewy slices of the greatest mollusk on Earth, burdened here with a thick breading of grease and starch; and sliced duck breast ($18.50), its overcooked nature redeemed by a delicious ring of crisp fat and a dribble of aged balsamic syrup. The desserts, however, were uniformly good: a dense, semisweet cheesecake ribboned with cranberries ($6.50) and, best of all, a comforting, light-as-air gingerbread cake sweetened with fresh apple ($6.50).
Things improved when we headed downstairs to the second restaurant, the Seafood & Beverage Company. Although much of the food here is still underwhelming, the high spots are more frequent and the mood is more expansive. It's like sitting in a sunny Victorian parlor, chintz curtains and all, with comfortable chairs, ornate accoutrements, and less expansive views of Seal Rocks interspersed with a few hundred personally inscribed eight-by-ten glossies of William Powell, George Raft, Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, and other satisfied Cliff House patrons: a pleasant place to unwind and enjoy the sunset.
As the venue's name suggests, the thrust here is seafood: fish and chips ($16), broiled salmon ($19), steamed filets of sole ($20) and the like. We began with a tricky endive salad ($7.75) in which shreds of Granny Smith apple and fresh chervil, mixed up with Maytag blue cheese and caramelized pecans, are served in concave lettuce leaves; the result is overly sweet and (walnut) oily, but tasty for all that. The hot prawn appetizer ($10), like most of the seafood, suffers from overcooking, but the shrimp are nevertheless sweet and plump, and their sauce is creamy and tart with the taste of melting feta. The skillet-roasted sea scallops, prawns, and clams ($23.50), served paella-style in a flat round pan, are, again, overcooked yet briny-sweet, with basil-scented mashed potatoes instead of rice and a watery "cioppino sauce" submerging all and sundry.
But the grilled sturgeon ($19.25) is deliciously satisfying: Rich and meaty, its simplicity is accentuated with a smoky roasted tomato relish and earthy, juicy grilled portabellos. To conclude the meal we had a real old-fashioned Gilded Age extravaganza of a dessert: Baked Alaska for two ($13). The ship-shaped hillock of meringue and ice cream is presented tableside for a dousing in rum, subsequent ignition and, once the flames have died down, consumption. Result: a huge and sugary confection of booze-soaked egg whites, vanilla-bean ice cream, macerated strawberries, and sponge cake supporting the whole: the ideal Cliff House dish.
The restaurants' wine list, a past winner of Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, offers a hundred California selections (and a few French champagnes) ranging in price from $13 to $169 (the '95 Stag's Leap cab). After your meal you can walk off your wine with a brisk stroll along the seawall, checking out the ruins of Sutro Baths, marveling at the terrifying jollity of Playland's Laughing Sal, conveniently ensconced in all her plump-cheeked horror just downstairs from the Cliff House in the Musee Mecanique. Or enter the coast-hugging camera obscura, a timeless, tranquil evocation of San Francisco's westernmost boundary, where even so-so food can't discourage the surrounding mists.