Election Section

Storied San Francisco Cliff House gets 21st century makeover

By Paul Glader, The Associated Press
Monday April 15, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – The Cliff House, a roadside restaurant that has long been one of the West Coast’s top tourist attractions, is about to get a major and long-needed facelift. 

Resolving a decade-long battle between architects, historic preservationists, federal bureaucrats and neighborhood groups, the blueprints have been finalized and construction begins this September. 

The $13.2 million redesign upholds a historic sense of place, while adding a modern aesthetic appeal to the complex, which will be smaller — 26,000 square feet to the current 40,000 — and nestled into the cliff. 

“We’re tucking the building into the hillside and pushing it down so it is somewhat understated,” said project architect Mark Hulbert. “Combining the old and the new is really, in a nutshell, what we are doing.” 

About 1.5 million diners visit the restaurant annually, generating gross revenue of $10.8 million last year for the Cliff House, one of the nation’s top 50 grossing restaurants. But the food is often a mere distraction; diners come mainly to drink in the dramatic ocean sky and gaze at Ocean Beach and the jagged Seal Rocks below. 

“When the waves hit the rocks on a stormy day it is so powerful and so daunting. I think people feel fortunate they have access to something like that,” said Carrie Strahan, Cliff House project manager for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

Unfortunately, the existing building has never been considered a beauty — it was labeled a “concrete shoebox” soon after it was rebuilt in 1909 using material salvaged from the 1906 earthquake’s destruction. 

It was a drab replacement for the soaring Victorian hotels that had claimed the city’s northwestern corner since 1863. 

It’s also seriously in need of repair. As architects wrangled for years over the renovation plans, ocean saltwater ate away at the walls. 

Paint is peeling. The plumbing leaks. Carpets are stained and worn. 

“It’s an eyesore,” said Ralph Burgin, the restaurant manager, while looking at parts of the building. 

When it comes to access for the disabled, four waiters are summoned to hoist wheelchair-bound visitors up and down stairwells. 

For a while, National Park Service planners tried to get the building recognized on the register of historic places, believing the building warranted a rigid historic rendering, not a contemporary update. 

Local architects and neighborhood groups thought otherwise. 

“We saw the Cliff House as a living and dynamic institution that has, over its history, had several buildings and has adapted to changing times,” said Cheryl Arnold, president of the Coalition to Save Ocean Beach. 

After public criticism, park planners backed off the strict 1909 version and allowed for what local architect Bruce Bonacker calls “a more imaginative design.” 

“We did have to compromise and that’s OK,” Haller said. “We still retain much of the 1909 structure.” 

With $3.5 million in federal funding and $10 million from the restaurant’s owners, construction will begin in September, and last about two years. 

Crews will strip the gift shop and an upstairs dining room, ramshackle additions built in the 1950s. But the biggest change will be to the main dining room, which will lose seating space but gain a soaring, arched ceiling and other details reminiscent of the Sutro Baths, the ruins of which remain just north of the Cliff House. Walls of windows will open up the view of the Marin headlands on the northern side of the Golden Gate. 

“We are trying to make it blend, to rehabilitate the structure and reuse it in a way that is sensitive to its historic values but also allows for modern ongoing use,” said Steve Haller, an architectural historian with the GGNRA, the building’s landlord. 

The restaurant will remain open during renovations, which also include adding an elevator and handicapped access. 

Although some shops and the beloved Musee Mecanique arcade will move from the site, a giant, quirky camera machine called the Camera Obscura will remain where it stands on a concrete ledge beneath the restaurant. 

“Its vociferous fans felt it needed to stay there,” Haller said. 

When completed, the Cliff House will be a scaled-down 21st century update on a building that has changed with catastrophes and culture over time. The dramatic view will remain unchanged, of a place where land ends and the Pacific Ocean begins. 

Regulars like Jeff and Jane Allen are a little worried that the old-school, clubby atmosphere of one of their favorite restaurants will be lost. 

“I hope they always keep this,” Jeff Allen said, drinking in the view of the setting sun while sipping a scotch.