It has had its share of reincarnations after being blown up by dynamite and twice burning to the ground, but now the Cliff House is turning 100.
The famed restaurant perched atop a cliff near Sutro Heights Park is the third building on the site since the first Cliff House opened in 1863.
A wing of an 1863 Cliff House was demolished in 1887 by a schooner that crashed while loaded with kerosene, dynamite caps and 42 tons of black powder, according to Mary Germain Hountalas, who has operated the restaurant with her husband, Dan, for 35 years, and whose book about the restaurant, “The San Francisco Cliff House,” was published by Ten Speed Press in August.
The building was put in its grave on Christmas Day just seven years later when a defective flue caught fire and flames took the structure to the ground.
A new Cliff House grew from the ashes in 1896 and withstood the 1906 earthquake, but it burned to the ground the following year, according Hountalas’ book.
Finally, a three-story steel and concrete building was resurrected in 1909. A few year after it opened, 15 cents bought a ham sandwich. Now a dinner entrée at Sutro’s at the Cliff House — the more upscale of the two restaurants on site — ranges from $28 to $38. The Cliff House also houses The Bistro Restaurant — a more casual venue — and a bar and lounge.
The phenomenal history and the location’s signature oceanic views are easier to appreciate as a visitor, said server Tiffany Seagren, who has worked at the Cliff House for 15 years.
She moved to the Bay Area from Hawaii, looking for the same “beachy” feel, and found a home at the Cliff House.
The mother of three dons black slacks, a vest and a tie to juggle seven or eight tables for hours at a time.
“It’s definitely work. We clock in. We put in hours. We do our job,” Seagren said. “But it doesn’t have that corporate feel and we all work together. And of course, it’s just beautiful.”
Seagren said she’s tried everything on the menu, and right now her favorite is the seared day-boat scallops with a classic scampi sauce with poached Laughing Bird shrimp and saffron pearl pasta. It’s $29 on the dinner menu.
She’ll be one of many staff on hand for a Nov. 4 centenary gala birthday bash.
In the meantime, the Cliff House is celebrating its 100 years with two prix fixe offers: a $19.09 three-course dinner menu at the Bistro every Wednesday evening through the end of 2009 and a $20.09 three-course lunch at Sutro’s every Tuesday.
IF YOU GO
Cliff House gala
- WHAT: Centennial black tie or vintage gala celebration with dinner, dancing and an auction of historic memorabilia
- WHERE: Cliff House, 1090 Point Lobos Ave., S.F.
- WHEN: Nov. 4
- WHO BENEFITS: Proceeds will go to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, supporting Lands End
- COST: $175
A view of the past
Significant dates in the history of the Cliff House:
- 1863 First Cliff House built by Sen. John Buckley and C. C. Butler
- 1883 Adolph Sutro buys Cliff House, about 10 years before becoming mayor of San Francisco
- 1887 The entire north wing is demolished by a schooner loaded with explosive materials that runs aground and blows up
- 1894 Sutro Baths open, with six indoor swimming pools, a museum, a skating rink and other amenities
- 1894 A defective flue in the chimney sets the Cliff House on fire Christmas Day
- 1896 Sutro spends $75,000 to build a Victorian-style, eight-story Cliff House, with photo and art galleries, 20 private rooms and an observation tower
- 1906 The Cliff House stands firm through the San Francisco earthquake
- 1907 Within two hours, a fire burns the building to the ground just before a grand reopening
- 1909 Sutro’s daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, and a group of investors spend $75,000 rebuilding a neoclassical-style Cliff House, out of concrete with steel reinforcement
- 1937 George Whitney buys the Cliff House
- 1977 Whitney sells the land for $3.8 million to the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- 2002 Mary and Dan Hountalas raise $14 million to reconstruct the Cliff House, with construction beginning in 2003
- 2004 Renovations completed