Saturday, May 28, 2016

Memories - The Cliff House in San Francisco

Looking out over the Pacific Ocean in California, since the late 1800s, a sentinel stands. . .

The Cliff House in San Francisco, CA, late 1970s, by D G Hudson

The Cliff House is a restaurant perched on the cliffs just north of Ocean Beach on the western side of San Francisco, California. It is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Don't miss the room-sized camera obscura* on the terrace of the Cliff House.

This location embodies the essence of the west coast - the ocean splashing at the shore, sea lions which sun themselves on the rocks below, and great fresh seafood dishes. I ordered Bouillabaisse. The Cliff House looks different now. So does the beach. Nature likes to change the shore with the help of storms and erosion. We were there on one of our trips to San Francisco, California.


History of the Cliff House in San Francisco

The first Cliff House, built in 1863 was modest. Presidents and prominent Frisco families would drive carriages out to Ocean Beach. When high society abandoned the Cliff House, it remained a favourite of the tourists and other locals, but it also became known for scandalous behaviour of a sort not divulged. . . (a lot of things might have been scandalous in those days)

Adolph Sutro, a local millionaire, philanthropist and later, mayor of San Francisco, lived on his estate at Sutro Heights overlooking the Cliff House.  He didn't like what had happened to a once venerable establishment, so he bought the property in 1883 and leased it to someone who could bring it back up to standard and bring back the local families. That also meant to clean out the riff-raff who had slipped in through the cracks.

The site seemed doomed when a dynamite explosion occurred, triggered by the schooner, Parallel, which ran aground on January 16, 1887, severely damaging the Cliff House. A chimney fire in 1894 destroyed the recently refurbished property. In 1896, Sutro had the Cliff House rebuilt in the French Chateau style with eight stories, four spires and an observation tower 200 feet above sea level. It wasn't a hotel, but an establishment for elegant dining, dancing and entertainment.

The Cliff House, French Chateau style, c. 1900, PD

In June 1907, the Cliff House was leased and remodeled again by a group of investors.  On September 7, 1907, just prior to reopening, the most beloved of all the Cliff Houses burned to its foundation. This exquisite building had survived the 1906 earthquake only to succumb to a raging fire that destroyed it in less than two hours. 

The Cliff House refused to give up. . . as did its investors.

Once again, the Cliff House was rebuilt in a neoclassical design at a cost of $75,000.  This third, more modest version of the Cliff House reopened on July 1, 1909. In 1918, military orders signed by the President of the United States shut down the Cliff House once again. The order stated, ". . . all establishments within a half mile of military installations are to halt the sale of liquor."

Then came PROHIBITION, the death knell for liquor establishments. So, in 1925, when a 'dry' Cliff House lacked its previous draw, its owner at that time shut down all operations. In August 1938, a remodeled restaurant reopened. The site became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1977.

The Seawall and Steps Leading to Ocean Beach, c. mid 1970s, by DG Hudson

The steps shown in the image above may have been built in the 1920s, but I couldn't find any current information showing them now.  The initial purpose was for a seawall with steps for low tide to help prevent the power of erosion. In the 1970s when they were still intact, beach goers used to sun themselves on the wide steps.

With many storms, and the continual beating of the waves, erosion may have caused them to crumble into ruin, beaten by the mighty Pacific Ocean. If anyone living in the San Francisco area remembers them or knows what happened, please leave a comment to enlighten us. In the photo above, you can tell the size of the steps when compared to a human figure which is sitting on the top edge of the wall.

From the 1940s (first image below) and 2009 (lower image)

1940s Cliff House and 2009 version, PD

The 21st Century Cliff House

Perched on spectacular cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Cliff House stands as one of the jewels of the San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Extensive renovations to the 1909 building restored the Cliff House to its original neoclassical architecture. Some of the photographs which can be seen in the restaurant show the history of the site and more than 200 autographed photos of dignitaries and movie stars who have visited this landmark.

As if to confirm that history, renovations have uncovered a marble staircase and part of the original carriage road from 1914. This is now a walkway around the property. The world famous Cliff House should not be missed if you visit San Francisco. 

Two restaurants are featured at the Cliff House, the casual dining Bistro Restaurant and the more formal Sutro's. The Terrace Room serves a Sunday Brunch buffet. There is a gift shop with historic memorabilia and the intriguing camera obscura* on the deck overlooking the ocean.

Interesting Notes :

More than thirty ships have been pounded to pieces on the southern shore of the Golden Gate below the Cliff House. (per Wiki)

The area immediately around the Cliff House is part of the setting of Jack London's novel, The Scarlet Plague (1912). Jack London also sets the meeting of Maud Sangster and Pat Glendon Jr. here in The Abysmal Brute (1913).

Have you heard of The Cliff House in San Francisco or visited there? Do you know what happened to the old wide steps by the seawall that led down to on Ocean Beach? Do you like San Francisco?

Please leave a comment to let me know you were here and I'll respond.  Thanks for visiting!
BTW, 'Frisco is one of my favourite cities, and very much like Vancouver, BC.



Cliff House Wiki,_San_Francisco

Cliff House History 

History of coastal erosion at Ocean Beach
*Camera Obscura: a small round building with a rotating angled mirror at the apex of the roof projecting an image of the landscape onto a horizontal surface inside. (also: a darkened boc with a convex lens or aperture for projecting the image of an external object onto a screen inside.)


Image Credits

Two images of the Cliff House in the 1970s by DG Hudson, and property of DG Hudson.

1900 Cliff House Image

One of the most reproduced Cliff House photographs, it depct the Cliff House around 1900 illuminated by a looming thunderstorm. Image attributed to T. Imai.

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.

1940 / 2009 Cliff House - double image

I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the Public Domain.  This applies worldwide.  In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.



  1. Definitely intriguing.
    And how I would love to spend time there - marvelling at the view.

    1. I wouldn't mind seeing it again, OE. I prefer it to anywhere else in California.

  2. OK where do I start! I lived in SF for four years, 24 blocks from the Cliff House, in the Richmond District. I've had that picture of the castle one hanging over my TV since the 80s.

    The steps at the seawall are still there, they are just covered in sand now. You could still see the upper ones when I first moved there in 1989 but the sand is pretty deep.

    Playland at the beach used to be right behind the beach on the Great Highway and for a long time, Musee' Mechanique was under the Cliff House, near Camera Obscura. It contained the old mechanical games and 'pictures shows' from Playland. That's been moved down to Fisherman's Wharf.

    On the other side of the Cliff House were the Sutro Baths, an incredible structure with ocean water in the baths. It was popular for years, then turned into a skating rink in the mid 20th century. It closed and fell into disrepair. There were going to be luxury condos built in place but the whole thing went up in flames in the early 70s and the GGNRA stepped in and preserved the property. You can still hike around the old ruins and check out the tunnels.

    The old Sutro estate is still there too, across from The Seal Rock Inn, but Sutro's house is gone. It's a very pretty park now with all the stone lions, stags, deer and stuff. Definitely in the fog belt though. Don't expect many sunny days if you go in the summer.

    As for food, the Cliff House is kind of known to be a bit overrated. THeir prices are high because you are paying for the view and history. I always preferred to eat at Louis', just up the street a bit from the Cliff House. Same great view, more reasonably priced food, and always packed.

    For a long time there was a stone walkway out to one of the biggest rocks where people would fish. I have pictures from my trip in 1988 of the surf just pounding the rock and waves washing over the top of all the people standing on it. Shortly after I moved to SF, the city decided to blow up the stone walkway because it was getting too dangerous for people to go out there.

    1. Thank you, JoJo for adding all that extra information! I was hoping you would visit and comment, as I knew you had lived there. Most places with a view do charge for the view, don't they?

    2. Yes they do. And then serve tiny portions of food. You end up having to stop at a fast food joint on the way home because you are still hungry!

    3. At one time they called those tiny portions 'nouveau cuisine' but yes, they leave one wanting more. I order the Bouillabaisse because it was filling and tasty. Sutro's wasn't there when we visited.

  3. wow what a research on that historical building ,amazing job with nice pics

    1. Glad you enjoyed the photos. I'm glad the investors never lost hope in that building and its location!

  4. I would love to see The Cliff House. San Francisco is a place I badly want to visit.

    1. I hope you do get to visit, there are many things to see in Frisco. It's one of my fave cities. Thanks for visiting this blog, Rachna!

  5. Hi D.G. Hudson,

    Thought it only right that I visited your blog site after your very thoughtful comment over at Chrys' site. I'm most certainly glad I visited.

    What an insightful, meticulous article on The Cliff House in San Francisco. Although I've never been to the place, I have been to San Francisco and it's one of my favourites cities in the USA.

    I note, Vancouver. I used to live in Vancouver and the surrounding towns. I'm going to be back in Vancouver and the Okanagan Valley during the middle of September.

    A delight to make your acquaintance.


    1. Thanks for dropping by, Gary, and hope our Pacific Northwest weather is benevolent when you visit. It's a pleasure to meet you as well, although I know you've been around the blogging community for a while. . .

  6. Hey, I've been to Sutro's! What a cool place. I had no idea about the history; the wife and I were in town when I was on a work trip a while back and I just thought it looked like a cool place to eat.

    1. And it is a cool place to eat. . .I would have liked to have seen the 1900 French Chateau look.

  7. My husband and I have been to Sutro's and the Cliff House, and also gone inside the Camera Obscura, quite an experience. But it's been years! Your post makes me realize I want to go back. The atmosphere there is wonderful with the old ruins and photographs, and the newer work, the sea lions. Just thinking about it makes me feel fresh sea air on my face -- which is good, because here in Sacramento we're having a heat wave. :-)

    1. I'm glad a few others remember this restaurant with fond memories. I, too, would like to go back. I love the sea air and I love Frisco.

  8. I love the picures of the older version...eerie and beautiful! What an experience that must have been.

    1. I agree. That French chateau version is very picturesque. The lighting is perfect around those clouds.

  9. So much history and story in that place! Wonderfully written.


  10. I have not heard of the Cliff House, but love the history of buildings, places & businesses and the Cliff House's story seems to embody those things! I'd love to research (aka read) more about it and possibly try to visit someday. I say "possibly someday" since I'm on the East coast and don't get over there. In fact, I've never been to San Francisco. There are a lot of such places in Florida and South Carolina. I think you'd like to visit Brookgreen Gardens, should you ever get to the South Carolina coast. (May seem a random suggestion in response to this post, but I was just there recently.)

    Great post and photos, as always!

  11. Oh, I LOVED this place! Your post brought back so many great memories. I visited San Fran about ten years ago and this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The cliffs are so stunningly beautiful and I loved the history of the Cliff House. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. :)

  12. Never heard of this but it sounds pretty cool. I especially like the French Chateau version--what an ideal setting for a horror film.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


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