The Cliff House



First Cliff House, before expansion, 1863. - Photo by Carleton Watkins

The Cliff House

There have been three versions of a roadhouse/restaurant named the "Cliff House" perched on the northwest edge of the San Francisco peninsula. (Some people, citing various additions and renovations will claim more, but we're going with three.)

Above the surf of the Pacific Ocean, overlooking Seal Rocks---a cluster of stones that until the 1990s was very popular with basking sea lions---the Cliff House entertained rapscallions and presidents, tourists and natives, servicemen and capitalists for almost 150 years.

Real estate speculator Charles C. Butler, with financial assistance from State Senator John P. Buckley, built the first frame-and-clapboard Cliff House on the edge of the ocean in 1863. Extremely popular with the fashionably well-off, who could afford the Point Lobos Toll Road to get there (and the menu prices on arrival), it was expanded in 1868. Presidents Grant and Hayes came to dine in 1879 and 1880. Ordinary folks without horses and carriages had to pay as high as 50 cents to take omnibus lines (large coaches pulled by teams of horses) out to the seaside.


The view from the Cliff Road, about 1865. - Photo by Thomas Houseworth

By the early 1880s public transportation to the beach had improved. Beginning in 1883, a nickel could bring a workingman to present-day La Playa and Balboa streets on the Pacific and Ocean Railroad. High society began to abandon the no-longer-exclusive Cliff House for fancier and more elaborate resorts.

Captain Junius Foster, who leased the roadhouse, adapted by courting to a more "sporting" clientele. Before long, the Cliff House became known, in the words of one writer, as "a den of gamblers and prostitutes."

In 1881, Adolph Sutro purchased the Cliff House and most of the land around it, moving into the cottage on the promontory above. He hired James Wilkins to make it a "respectable resort with no bolts on the doors or beds in the house." Sutro displayed educational material inside, such as rare coins and natural artifacts from his collections, and attracted families to the establishment. Yet another president visited the area in 1891, but Benjamin Harrison enjoyed his meal viewing the Cliff House from Sutro Heights.

While losing a wing and most of its windows when the ship Parallel exploded on the rocks in 1887, the Cliff House continued to be popular. What a ship of exploding dynamite couldn't do, a simple kitchen fire did in 1894. On Christmas night of that year, the roadhouse that had in thirty years become a San Francisco landmark, burned down.

Sutro vowed to rebuild. The newspapers asked him not to get carried away with something too ornate...

The Cliff House Story, Part Two

The Cliff House Story, Part Three

Cliff House Images