bam_cliff_house.jpgThe Hountalas family association with the Cliff House goes back to the 1920s, when Michael Hountalas operated the Golden Gate View Coffee Shop next to the Sutro Baths. In 1941, when Dan was six years old, he started his own business selling peanuts outside of his father’s shop. In 1958, Dan opened the Cliff Chalet and, in 1965, it was extensively remodeled and renamed Danny’s Cliff Chalet. In June 1966, it burned down in the blaze that destroyed the Sutro Baths.

In 1977 the Cliff House and surrounding properties were purchased by the National Park Service to become part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Beginning in the early 1980s, the Hountalas family began collaborating with the National Park Service on launching a much-need restoration of the Cliff House. The decision was made to restore the historic Cliff House to its 1909 neoclassical style and construction began in 2002.

Famous for its history, location, and ambiance, the Cliff House renewed 140 years of dining history with the grand reopening of the restored 1909 structure in September 2004. Perched on spectacular cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Cliff House is one of the crown jewels of San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Architect C. David Robinson of San Francisco was responsible for the design and renovation. Spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean are emphasized in both the neoclassic design of the restored 1909 structure and the soaring modernist space of the new wing. Skylights and grand picture windows accentuate natural light in all public spaces. Robinson used primarily natural materials—concrete, copper, slate, and glass—to blend the new building into the scenic coastline.

The Sutro Wing is a blend of contemporary design and the grand architecture of the historic Sutro Baths. It houses a two-story restaurant called Sutro’s at the Cliff House, with stunning panoramic ocean views. An expanded menu features a strong emphasis on seafood and organically grown products. The impressive two-story, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal views that are beyond compare. The décor of soft ocean colors and natural wood creates a feeling of calm while the ocean reminds you of the power and beauty of nature.

The restored 1909 structure houses The Bistro Restaurant, the elegant Zinc Bar, and includes The Terrace Room on the lower level. Some of the Cliff House history can be seen in the more than 200 autographed pictures of dignitaries and movie stars on display for public viewing in The Bistro. Executive Chef Kevin Weber, who has been at the Cliff House for 32 years, oversees all food operations. The Cliff House boasts a dramatic look and expanded access to the breathtaking views that have been a magnet for locals and visitors from around the world since 1863.

VP of Operations Ralph Burgin notes, “The Cliff House has always been a symbol of historic San Francisco. In keeping with our tradition, we have menu offerings for everyone from hamburgers in The Bistro to filet mignon at Sutro’s.” The food in both restaurants focuses on local, and when possible, organic. “If it’s organic but being shipped from 1,000 miles away, we don’t want to buy it,” says Burgin. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, environmentally speaking, to truck products in from far away.”

Burgin, who grows micro-arugula and over 45 varieties of organic heirloom tomatoes on an acre of land in Sonoma, has run an eco-friendly establishment for many years. All menus, bottles, and cans are recycled, paper towels are unbleached, food waste is composted, and used oil is picked up for conversion into biofuel. For a short time, they even used biodegradable garbage bags, which proved to be too costly. Now, they do even better: they use nothing and take the extra effort to rinse the bins each day.

He credits the owners, Dan and Mary Hountalas, with giving him the ability to focus on sustainability. He’s also grateful to his team of managers who handle the recycling and composting. “Sometimes doing things this way costs a little more, but they support all of our efforts and encourage us to continue,” Burgin says. As a result of these combined efforts, Cliff House garbage has been reduced by about 80 percent.

Cliff House has been a San Francisco icon since 1863 and throughout its long and colorful history has undergone three rebuilds and four major renovations. The first Cliff House was a modest structure built in 1863 by Masters Butler and Buckley. The guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents and prominent San Francisco families such as the Hearsts, Stanfords, and Crockers. In 1881, the Cliff House was sold to Adolph Sutro, a self-made millionaire, philanthropist, and later a mayor of San Francisco. On Christmas Day 1894, the first Cliff House was destroyed by fire. Sutro spent $75,000 in 1896 to rebuild the Cliff House in grandiose style. Fashioned after a French chateau, the second Cliff House boasted eight stories, spires, and an observation tower 200 feet above sea level. Though never a hotel, it served as an elegant site for dining, dancing, and entertainment. This was the most resplendent and beloved of all the Cliff Houses but it was short lived. The exquisite building survived the 1906 earthquake only to succumb to a raging fire the following year.

A third Cliff House was built in 1909 by Sutro’s daughter Emma. It was neoclassic in design and carried on the tradition of sumptuous dining. The Depression and two world wars took their toll on the area. The Sutro family then sold the Cliff House in 1952 to George Whitney. The Cliff House was remodeled several times before the National Park Service acquired it in 1977. This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the 1909 Cliff House. Exciting festivities are being planned and will be announced soon. Although not as impressive in design as the Victorian Cliff House, the building was designed and built to last. As Mary Hountalas noted, “the old girl was falling apart” but with the restoration and retrofit she should stand for another hundred years.