San Francisco's iconic Cliff House restaurant to close

Olga R. Rodriguez
Associated Press

San Francisco — San Francisco's iconic Cliff House restaurant that has served tourists and locals 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 Sunday on the restaurant's website they are closing Dec. 31 because of losses brought on by the pandemic and a dispute over renewing their long-term operating contract with the National Park Service.

In this Oct. 9, 2013, file photo, is the Cliff House overlooking Seal Rocks in San Francisco.

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. It was rebuilt and fashioned after a French chateau that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but burned down the following year. The third and present Cliff House, neoclassic in design, was built in 1909.

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

The Hountalas said the National Park Service should have selected an operator on a long-term basis “to ensure the continued operation of this national treasure.”

General Manager Ralph Burgin walks through a dining area of the Cliff House restaurant while interviewed in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

“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 due to the pandemic. It reopened in June to offer 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 couple wrote.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s spokesman Julian Espinoza said in a statement the National Park Service had hoped to continue working with Peanut Wagon, Inc., which operates the Cliff House restaurant and Lookout Café, housed in the same building, but that they have honored the proprietors' request to let the existing concession contract expire on Dec. 31, 2020.

In this Sept. 8, 2004, file photo, diners have lunch in the Sutro's dining room at the Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco.

“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 didn't say whether a restaurant will continue to be housed at the Cliff House building. He said he had no further information to provide Monday.

The National Park Service, which owns the property, said in a letter obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s reevaluating “the feasibility of anyone operating” the scenic waterfront space as a restaurant in the near future due to the state of the food industry.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has unexpectedly and vastly changed the food and beverage market in the San Francisco area and throughout the country,” read the letter from Linda D. Walker, acting regional director of the National Park Service. “As a result, the NPS is actively reevaluating 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.”