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After more than a century, San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House restaurant to close

Boxes sit in a dining area of the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco.
Boxes sit in a dining area of the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco, which is set to close by year’s end.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House restaurant, which has served residents and tourists for more than a century from atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is closing its doors at the end of the year.

Dan and Mary Hountalas, the restaurant’s proprietors since 1973, said in a post on the restaurant’s website Sunday that they are closing Dec. 31 because of losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and a dispute over renewal of their long-term operating contract with the National Park Service.

Built in 1863, the seaside restaurant has been a San Francisco institution and a top tourist attraction. It has gone through several transformations. The first modest, wood-frame structure was destroyed in a fire in 1894. Rebuilt and fashioned after a French chateau, it survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but burned down the following year.

The third and present Cliff House, neoclassical in design, was built in 1909. It underwent a renovation in 2004.

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The National Park Service bought the property in 1977, four years after the Hountalases began leasing it. Their last long-term contract with the service expired in June 2018, and the restaurant had been operating since then under short-term contracts, the couple said.

The Hountalases said the park service should have selected an operator on a long-term basis “to ensure the continued operation of this national treasure.”

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“This is certainly not the way to thank us, a local small business owned and operated by native San Franciscans, for taking care of this San Francisco treasure this past year at a significant financial loss,” they said.

The couple said 180 employees will lose their jobs, and they encouraged customers to show their support by sending an email to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s superintendent.

The Cliff House first closed in March because of the pandemic. It reopened in June for takeout service but closed again after 10 weeks because of “unbearable losses.”

“It costs tens of thousands of dollars every month to maintain and guard the massive Cliff House building,” the Hountalases wrote.

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokesman Julian Espinoza said in a statement that the National Park Service had hoped to continue working with Peanut Wagon — the company that operates the Cliff House and the Lookout Café, which is housed in the same building — but that the service is honoring the proprietors’ request to let the existing concession contract expire Dec. 31.

“We, too, are disappointed about this temporary suspension of services. However, we remain committed to providing an exceptional experience for residents and visitors to the Bay Area and look forward to welcoming the public back in the future,” he said.

Espinoza did not say whether a restaurant would continue to be housed in the Cliff House building.

The National Park Service said in a letter obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle that it was re-evaluating “the feasibility of anyone operating” the scenic waterfront space as a restaurant in the near future, given the state of the hospitality industry.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly and vastly changed the food and beverage market in the San Francisco area and throughout the country,” Linda D. Walker, acting regional director of the National Park Service, wrote in the letter. “As a result, the NPS is actively re-evaluating the possible future uses of the Concession Facilities and the feasibility of anyone operating it as a restaurant in the near future, whether under a concession contract or a lease.”


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