The Long And Interesting History Of The San Francisco Cliff House, The Restaurant That Refused To Quit

A restaurant at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the northern tip of San Francisco, California, has been in operation for more than 150 years, on and off.

The Cliff House was erected in 1863 by Senator John Buckley and C. C. Butler. It was once difficult and expensive to get there due to its location on the steep slopes of Land’s End facing the Pacific Ocean. Point Lobos Avenue was established to allow a stage coach to transport passengers from San Francisco.

The Cliff House was transformed into an exclusive resort for rich visitors such as US Presidents and the Hearst family.

“Cliff House and Seal Rocks. Photo Credit
eal Rocks and Cliff House, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views. Photo Credit
The Cliff House Hotel burns. Photo Credit

By the end of the 1870s, the resort was losing money and had to include gambling and alcohol to attract new customers. Unfortunately, the new clients were not of the same level as those who had previously visited the resort, and the Cliff House was no longer regarded respectable.

In 1883, Adolph Sutro, the soon-to-be mayor of San Francisco, purchased the Cliff House. He initiated repairs and hired new employees with the intention of restoring the resort to a reputable family-oriented environment. Sutro also built a train to increase accessibility.

After failing to manage the restaurant on his own, he leased it to a wholesale liquor business, Sroufe, and McCrum. By 1885, it had been leased to J. M. Wilkins, who was tasked with bringing families back to the resort.
The schooner Parallel became aground on the rocks below the resort in 1887, and a quantity of dynamite in the ship’s hold exploded, demolishing the building’s north wing. The Cliff House was restored and remained open until Christmas Day 1894, when a chimney fire destroyed the whole structure.

A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company. Photo Credit
A photochrom postcard published by the Detroit Photographic Company.. Photo Credit
Cliff House and Seal Rocks, from the sea beach, showing the tide coming in, San Francisco, Cal, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 Photo Credit

Sutro reconstructed the Cliff House, spending $75,000 to build a facsimile of a French chateau, and reopened the venue in February 1896. Guests may use the observation tower, which was erected 200 feet above sea level and offers views of the Pacific Ocean.

The eight-story new resort featured restaurants, a photography studio, an art gallery, reception rooms for rent, a gem show, multiple private dining rooms, and numerous bars. The home had reverted to its former prominence as a gathering place for the upper crust, hosting Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley as well as inhabitants.

After Adolph Sutro’s death in 1898, the Cliff House was leased to John Tait once more. It escaped the 1906 San Francisco earthquake during restorations and was set to reopen in September 1907, but it caught fire again and was completely destroyed.

Cliff House, circa 1900 Photo Credit
San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 San Francisco’s Cliff House Restaurant, ca.1900 Photo Credit
Cliff House from Ocean Beach, 2010 Photo Credit

Sutro’s daughter Emma Sutro Merritt bought the property in 1908 and renovated it with fireproof concrete and steel. It was a modest structure that fit in with the terrain rather than blocking the view of the water. It reopened in 1909, still serving the upper crust.

During Prohibition, the resort’s popularity plummeted, and it closed in 1925. George and Leo Whitney, proprietors of an adjacent amusement park, bought it. In 1938, the Cliff House was restored and reopened. The enterprise continued, and the Cliff House was bought by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977.

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