Historic Photos of the Cliff House Remind Us That It’s Risen From the Ashes Before

On January 1st 2022, San Francisco’s beloved Cliff House restaurant closed after 137 years in operation — a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic and contract disputes with the National Parks Service.

Amid the boos of a bitterly disappointed crowd of San Franciscans, a construction crew removed the restaurant’s iconic block-letter sign at noon on New Year’s Eve. The Cliff House was no more.

Here’s a look back at the history of San Francisco’s signature restaurant in 10 historical photos.

The Cliff House in 1872. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

According to the National Parks Service, the original Cliff House was built as a resort retreat for wealthy hunters and picnickers. It opened in 1863. Perched on a cliff above Land’s End, the Cliff House was originally very remote from downtown San Francisco, which was a small city at the time.

This made it a hangout for the area’s elites. The NPS says that “the guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents as well as prominent San Francisco families such as the Hearsts, the Stanfords, and the Crockers.”

The historical engraving above shows the Cliff House as it appeared in 1872, with the iconic Seal Rocks also visible.

Here’s an actual photograph of the restaurant in 1873, from the New York Public Library. This is a stereo slide, intended to be viewed in 3D with a special viewer, which was popular in Victorian times.

The Cliff House in 1873. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

This 1878 engraving shows the restaurant, as well as how the Golden Gate looked at the time.

The Cliff House and Golden Gate, c 1878. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

By the 1880s, accessing the Cliff House was easier, and it had become a raunchy tavern, with gambling and booze. In 1881, millionaire Adolph Sutro bought the iconic property, and planned to rebuild it and refresh its image.

When the restaurant burned down on Christmas Day in 1884, Sutro spent $75,000 (about $2.3 million today) to reconstruct it as a grand Victorian chateau. It reopened in 1896.

Here’s how the new Cliff House looked in 1901 after Sutro’s rebuild.

The Cliff House in 1901. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
The Cliff House in 1901. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The new restaurant was a grand building, standing eight stories tall. It provided dining, dancing, and entertainment, as well as an art gallery, a gem exhibit, a photo gallery, and a veranda with views of seals and sea lions on the nearby Seal Rocks.

Early 20th century postcard showing seals on Seal Rock. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
The second Cliff House at the turn of the century, seen from Sutro Heights. Credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Ironically, the massive building survived the 1906 earthquake, only to burn down a year later in an unrelated fire in 1907.

After the fire, Sutro’s daughter Emma Sutro Merritt set about building a third Cliff House. This time, she had it built using fireproof steel-reinforced concrete. The third cliff house was built in a neoclassical style, and opened in 1909. It’s the building which still stands today.

For decades the restaurant operated as an elegant fine-dining establishment. But World War 1 and the Great Depression had a major impact, the NPS says, and in 1937 Sutro’s family sold the restaurant to other operators, who continued to run it from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The National Parks Service bought the building in 1977 and leased it to operators who managed the day-to-day of the restaurant. Here’s how the restaurant looked in the 1970s and 1980s. Check out the Camera Obscura behind the restaurant (which is still there today), and the proud sign reading “Since 1858” (technically that’s when the land for the restaurant was purchased).

The Cliff House photographed in 1980. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

People continued to flock there to dine and photograph Seal Rock from the restaurant’s veranda. Here’s a 1978 tourist snapshot on Kodachrome showing the rocks (and a tiny sliver of the Cliff House’s balcony).

Tourist photo from the Cliff House in 1978. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In 2005, the National Parks service restored the Cliff House and refurbished it.

This last photo isn’t technically historical — it’s one I took on Velvia 50 film when I dined at the restaurant in 2018. You can see the iconic veranda above Seal Rock, and diners with white tablecloths through the window.

The restaurant had amazing food, and a kind of magic — a stark white form perched on a cliff at the end of the Western world, modern inside but firmly rooted in over a century of history. I’ll always remember my own visit there.

The Cliff House in February 2018. Photo: Thomas Smith

Is this really the end for the Cliff House? That remains to be seen. The Cliff House is closed now, but the National Parks Service has hinted that it hopes to find a path forward to save the restaurant.

The Cliff House’s remarkable history shows that the restaurant has literally risen from the ashes twice before. It may yet do so again.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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