Cliff House Nears Return to Splendor

Special to The Times

As restoration of the historic Cliff House nears completion, the proprietor of the restaurant gives tours to curious diners who come to see the progress -- and sometimes select a table.

“All the regular customers have picked out their tables,” said Dan Hountalas, who has operated the restaurant since 1973. “We’re booked

The restaurant, which perches above the Pacific and overlooks Seal Rocks at the city’s western edge, has been closed while it undergoes a $17-million renovation. It is scheduled to partly reopen Aug. 15, followed by a fuller celebration a month later.


The Cliff House, its gift shop, the Musee Mecanique with antique arcade games and a walkway offering ocean views have long been popular with tourists and Bay Area residents, attracting an estimated 1.5 million visitors a year.

The restaurant is being restored to its 1909 neoclassical splendor. Later additions have been removed, and artisans are re-creating missing columns and cornices. A second structure is being built with more seating and spectacular views.

Hountalas, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Mary, and other family members, is footing $12 million of the $17-million bill for the restoration and seismic upgrade, in lieu of paying rent for 20 years to the National Park Service, which owns the property. The federal government is picking up the remaining $5 million.

The beloved Musee Mecanique, believed to hold one of the world’s largest collections of old-time coin-operated player pianos, fortune-telling machines and other contraptions, has moved from the Cliff House basement to Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf. There will be no space for it in the remodeled restaurant, although the Park Service hopes to eventually move it to a yet-to-be-funded visitors’ center up the road at the Merrie Street parking lot.

The Cliff House has had a couple of incarnations. The first two structures were destroyed by fire.

The original Cliff House, built in 1863, burned in 1894. Then-owner Adolph Sutro, a wealthy philanthropist who later became San Francisco’s mayor, rebuilt it in the grand Victorian style of the day, with eight stories, spires and an observation tower. Although it survived the 1906 earthquake, it burned down a year later. Sutro’s daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, rebuilt the Cliff House in 1909.

The current Cliff House, without the 1912 and 1949 additions, is a low-key square building, with reinforced concrete walls, that sits one story above the street. Once the cornices and other decorative touches are restored, the building will be painted a creamy white.

“It’s a pretty amazing project, because it celebrates the old and new architecture and history of the site,” said Carrie Strahan, project manager with Golden Gate National Parks.

As a visitor enters a glass-walled lobby connecting the new and old dining areas, a view of the ocean lies ahead. On one side is the original Cliff House restaurant, which will offer bistro dining, a shellfish bar and deli.

On the other side, the new building’s two-story main dining room features expansive views of the Sutro Baths, the Marin Headlands, Ocean Beach and, of course, the ocean itself. The Sutro Baths -- only the foundations remain -- opened more than 100 years ago in a massive glass enclosure containing seven swimming pools of varying temperatures.

Debra Lehtone, project architect with C. David Robinson Architects of San Francisco, said the curved interior trusses in the new building were intended to remind diners of the Sutro Baths, which had similar exposed beams. The Park Service plans to build a walkway leading from the Cliff House to the remnants of the Sutro Baths.

Although the Cliff House project contains a new building, the number of customers who can be served remains about the same -- 240 seats in the two dining rooms, plus 140 seats in a banquet room below the bistro.

“We didn’t want to expand the seating,” Strahan said. “We wanted to make it more efficient. They’ll be overflowing on the weekends, but during the week, that’s not the case.”

Even with the addition, the new Cliff House will be about 25,000 square feet -- about 5,000 square feet smaller than what was there previously, Strahan said. At the same time, the rear observation decks were being expanded and will remain open to the public, said Axel Boren, project manager with the contractor, Nibbi Bros. of San Francisco. Mounted telescopes and the little room on the deck housing the Camera Obscura and Holograph Gallery will remain.