Photo of the Cliff House

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August 16, 2016
Photo of the Cliff House

Everything You Need to Know About San Francisco's Historic Cliff House

If you know anything at all about San Francisco — or even if you don’t — chances are that you’ve heard of the historic Cliff House. Since 1863, this fabled restaurant has been a favorite for generations of locals, tourists, foodies, history buffs and lovers of the fine art of good living. It has hosted some of the most famous people in the country, including Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley, and a who's who of Gilded Age millionaires. However, in spite of its grand history it retains its original warm, welcoming atmosphere that has made it a favorite restaurant for people from all over the world for more than 150 years.

Cliff House History

Perched high above the cliffs near Ocean Beach, The Cliff House has a history perhaps unlike any other restaurant in the country. It was originally built in 1863 by two businessmen, C.C. Butler and U.S. Senator John Buckley. Shortly afterward, Captain Junius Foster leased the restaurant, took over its management, and made it into a legend. A well-liked local character, traveler and bon vivant, Captain Foster attracted the high society crowd of the day, and soon, millionaire families such as the Hearsts and the Stanfords were driving their carriages to Ocean Beach for a day of horse racing and an evening of fine dining. By 1868, however, the restaurant began attracting a picturesque mob of scandalous local politicians and horse racing touts. The Cliff House’s reputation was saved by millionaire philanthropist Adolph Sutro (later mayor of San Francisco), who purchased the restaurant in 1883 and brought back the high-society families. Over the next several decades, Sutro turned the entire area into a genteel, upper-class resort. Meanwhile, The Cliff House endured a number of calamities: In 1887, it was partly blown up when a dynamite-filled schooner crashed into the cliff; and in 1894, on Christmas day, it burned to the ground. After being rebuilt again, The Cliff House survived the 1906 earthquake, but burned to the ground again in 1907 and didn’t reopen until 1909. For decades, the restaurant’s fame spread as locals and tourists enjoyed its elegant cuisine and magnificent ocean views. Today, The Cliff House is owned by Dan and Mary Hountalas, who for more than 35 years have preserved its history and romantic ambiance.

The Cliff House: Home to Breathtaking Views

The Cliff House boasts elegant floor-to-ceiling windows, so no matter where you look, you’re surrounded by stunning panoramic views of the ocean and the cliffs below. During dinner, you can enjoy the magnificent sunset as you sip a glass of wine, or watch cruise ships as they take off for exotic ports.

Popular Brunch Items

The Cliff House is famous for its all-you-can-eat Sunday Champagne Brunch Buffet. In addition to the fresh popovers and scones, you can enjoy steak, pasta, prawns, smoked salmon, eggs Benedict and other delectable dishes washed down by unlimited champagne. For dessert, you can have your fill of chocolate mousse and tortes, as well as other sweet favorites.

Must-Have Menu Favorites

Famous for its fresh seafood, locally sourced organic produce and award-winning wine list, The Cliff House is actually made up of two restaurants: The Bistro, which offers more casual fare, and Sutro’s, which offers upscale cuisine. You can also enjoy beverages at the Zinc Bar and the Balcony Lounge. The Bistro serves elegant breakfast, lunch and dinner fare, including delectable omelets, homemade French toast, and a host of gourmet sandwiches. Locals’ favorites include the Cliff House Cioppino, a classic fish stew with Dungeness crab, and the succulent Cliff House Louis, a salad chock-full of crab and farm fresh vegetables. Sutro’s offers sophisticated lunch and dinner specialties such as bacon-crusted Scottish salmon and roasted duck breast served with a leg of duck confit and butternut squash puree.

Getting to The Cliff House

The Cliff House is located at 1090 Point Lobos, the end of Point Lobos Avenue and Geary Boulevard. You can get to The Cliff House by taking a 38 Geary bus; just get off at the last stop at 48th Avenue and walk downhill. The Bistro opens at 9 a.m. for breakfast Mondays through Saturdays and at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays, and serves lunch and dinner as well. Since it’s open for most of the day, reservations aren’t required. Sutro’s opens at 11:30 a.m. for lunch Mondays through Saturdays and at 11 a.m. on Sundays, and is open from 5 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner; reservations are generally recommended for dinner.

Nearby Attractions

The Cliff House is surrounded by a number of famous landmarks, making the area a popular day trip for locals and tourists alike. Here are some must-see attractions:

Camera Obscura
This landmark camera-shaped structure houses a series of lenses and mirrors that produce a fantastic real-time, 360-degree view of the area.

Sutro Bath Ruins
In 1894, Adolph Sutro built a magnificent saltwater swimming pool complex. Destroyed by fire in 1966, the site is in ruins, but today it provides a fascinating glimpse of Gilded Age luxury.

Lands End
One of the best ways to enjoy the area’s breathtaking scenery is to walk along Lands End, a windy, sea-blown trail that takes you along the westernmost point of San Francisco. You’ll see views of shipwrecks and majestic cliffs.

Ocean Beach
This white sand beach provides a wild and windy walk, and is perfect for strolling while watching majestic white-capped waves.

With its stunning views and world-class cuisine, The Cliff House offers a one-of-a-kind dining experience. With its rich history and magnificent setting, it’s no wonder that it maintains its reputation as one of the most famous restaurants in the country.

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