Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Cliff Notes 

Wednesday, Nov 12 1997
The Cliff House
1090 Point Lobos (at the top of Great Highway), 386-3330. The upstairs dining room is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m.; downstairs is open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. On Sundays, the downstairs room serves brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then reopens from 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. There's also a champagne brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Minimal parking in a lot up the hill. Muni via the 18 46th Avenue. The dining rooms are not wheelchair accessible.

"You're actually going to eat at the Cliff House?" asked our cool corner grocer, Bill, when I stopped in for milk in semi-dress-up garb. "I take business contacts there for drinks," he said. "But isn't the food kind of -- stodgy?"

I'd thought so too, but I'd lately caught wind of a menu update, preceding an upcoming architectural fix-up. After spending the second half of the century dozing in the Eisenhower Era, the kitchen management had apparently awakened to find the Pacific Rim on the horizon. I still wasn't that keen to go, until an old friend -- an amateur historian -- blew through town. As I listed our restaurant choices, Marti waxed gaga at mention of the Cliff House. "That beautiful, historic setting! It's one of the oldest restaurants in the city -- along with Jack's and Tadich, it's been around since the first years after the city changed its name from Yerba Buena to San Francisco. And a wonderful, racy past -- the Stanfords and Hearsts and Crockers going there to misbehave," she said. "It's fine if they've updated the menu, but even the old food was nice in its own old way."

Arriving on a foggy evening, we took a hard look at the beautiful, historic Cliff House and found it -- besmirched. A barnacle-layer of excrescences tacked on during the '30s and '40s includes a Barstow-motel-style extension housing a funky cafe and souvenir shop. We passed by the bar, laden with young Richmond Russians, to find the main entry lit like a Fisherman's Wharf tchotchke emporium. Behind the building, the oceanside terrace holds a tiny Visitors' Center and the delightful Musee Mecanique, where Playland's "Laughing Sal" is enshrined amongst spooky old penny-arcade fan dancers and fortunetellers. Nearby is the Camera Obscura, a room-size re-creation of Leonardo's photographic prototype.

There are two big dining rooms with different menus. Both are handsome, quiet, and comfortable, with lots of space between tables. On a subsequent visit, a downstairs waitress described the difference: "Upstairs is dressy. Here, we just ask that you be dressed." The downstairs room is slightly more expensive, has more desserts, better views, and a wider range of patrons, recently including the Princess of Tonga and Snoop Doggy Dog. But for our first dinner we chose the more formal upstairs room, with its gorgeous paisley ceiling -- the daytime lair of blue-haired ladies lunching on the substantial salads, sandwiches, and omelets that Cliff House has been serving for 20 years.

Seated at a window table with a view of speeders on the Great Highway, we enjoyed extra-sour bread with cold but classy salted butter. Our bowl of thick, soothing clam chowder ($3.45/$4.95) tasted free of cornstarch thickener (although potato starch is possible) and was brightened by fresh herbs, including sweet tarragon up front and thyme on backup. "You said the Cliff House has a racy history?" I asked Marti, between mouthfuls.

"It's been racy in at least two senses of the word," she said. "When it was built in 1863, it was a sandy six-mile drive along the Point Lobos Toll Road (now Geary) from the western edge of the city. Ocean Beach was nearly inaccessible if you didn't own your own horse and buggy, and Golden Gate Park didn't exist. The first Cliff House wasn't much architecturally, but the rich flocked there and raced their carriage horses along the beach. It's rumored that in bad weather they brought their mistresses instead of their wives."

"Then Adolph Sutro bought it in 1879, along with a thousand acres of prime oceanfront," she continued. "Sutro was a self-made millionaire and high-minded philanthropist, who was later elected mayor. He financed a steam railway connecting to the downtown cable car system, making Cliff House accessible to everybody. But of course no good deed goes unpunished. A schooner full of dynamite crashed on the rocks in 1887 and destroyed part of the structure, and the rest went up in flames seven years later on Christmas Day. So Sutro rebuilt it, and as soon as it was done -- whoops! burned again."

"How come it kept burning -- couldn't they douse it with ocean water?" TJ asked.

"There was no fire department this far from town," Marti answered. "Just waiters with soup pots."

We tried a Boston lettuce salad ($6.45) with a dollop of tame goat cheese, adorned with apple slices, pecans, shredded carrots, and a cloyingly sweet orange vinaigrette. "This strikes me as a Californicated update of the fin de siecle 'Waldorf salad' that hardly anybody makes anymore," I said. "Wasn't there a fancy fin de siecle version of Cliff House?"

"When Sutro rebuilt it again, in 1896, he went all out, with a gorgeous eight-story French chateau-style building -- the one you see in old photos," Marti said. "Just to the north, he built the fabulous Sutro Baths. Three acres under a glass dome, swimming pools with fresh water, salt water, heated water. Hot and cold running dressing rooms, restaurants, promenades. To expose the masses to culture, Sutro included art galleries, natural history exhibits, and a theater. But two years later, he died, and the Cliff House itself deteriorated fast and became pretty raunchy. Instead of just bringing your mistress for a discreet tryst in the fog, you could probably rent one on the spot."

Our appetizer of garlic and rosemary gnocchi ($5.95) had a light herbed cream sauce and summer squash slices alongside, but the dumplings were doughy. "So if virtue is punished, then the Cliff House should have come nicely through the '06 quake," I said.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

Related Locations


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"