Where San Francisco falls into the ocean, a door closes on a vibrant chapter in the city’s history.
The former owners of Cliff House, a 157-year-old iconic San Francisco restaurant with stunning ocean views once enjoyed by Mark Twain, announced this week that they would be forced to close before the end of the year. They cited both the coronavirus restrictions and its owner, the federal government, which was stuck on a long-term lease, as factors in their decision.
The house on the cliff was not the first of the city’s most beloved restaurants to close. In fact, it follows its neighbor, Louis’ Restaurant, the only other independent restaurant left on that stretch of oceanfront road, to shut down permanently during the pandemic.
But the loss of Cliff House marks the end of an era for a place that has been transformed over more than a century: from an elite resort for the wealthy, to a bustling destination for all, to a semi-desert but magical reminder of nature. fleeting of civilization.
“When Louis closed, I read story after story, memory after memory, of people who came to our restaurant and loved our restaurant and loved the area,” said Tom Hontalas, the owner of Louis’, who opened his grandparents in 1937. “And now Cliff House, it’s even more magnified because they were a much bigger operation. For a lot of people, especially those in San Francisco, it will be different. “
Today, on the rugged cliffs known as Lands End, tourists and locals can lose themselves on eucalyptus-lined trails and emerge to the ruins of Sutro Baths, a once decaying swimming pavilion built in the late 19th century, to watch whales. enter distance. In its heyday, Cliff House was part of a bustling strip of cafes and shop windows that drew visitors from across the country. At the bar, visitors scrambled for tables overlooking windows to sip cocktails and eat seafood as the sun set over the Pacific.
“There’s something about the place that draws you in,” said John Martini, a local historian and former employee of the National Park Service. “Maybe it’s the classic American West: keep moving west, keep moving west. So far it goes. This is the advantage. “
A history of immigrants
The first Cliff House, which would be rebuilt several times throughout its long history, was built in 1863 by real estate magnate Charles Butler. The only way to easily access the complex, located six miles from the developed part of town, was down a toll road that Butler built, which means the Cliff House started out as a place that only the rich could afford. Mark Twain visited him twice and, after his second visit, wrote that “the wind was cold and dull. It came straight out of the ocean and I think there are icebergs somewhere. “
When Adolph Sutro, mayor-elect of San Francisco in 1895, bought it in 1890, along with the surrounding areas, the clientele was no longer so elite. That was partly because it was more accessible. Sutro built his own steam train line to Cliff House, and then another tram line to Sutro Baths, the elaborate glass-domed swimming pool, when the rate doubled on the original steam train line.
Until his death in 1897, Sutro built the area, which came to include concession stands, salons and boarding houses, Martini said, evidence of which was discovered after the National Park Service purchased the land in 1977 and conducted an archaeological survey. .
It was around this time that the newest owners of Cliff House, and the family of Tom Hontalas, Louis’ owner, entered the picture. Mary and Dan Hountalas, who ran Cliff House for more than 47 years, are the last of a generation of Greek immigrant families who were part of that cliff in its heyday, when so many storefronts and cafes lined the avenue that San Francisco residents did not. they could. I see the ocean.
Dan Hountalas is a distant cousin of Hontalas. Hontalas’s grandfather, Louis, emigrated from Greece in 1906 at age 11. His older brother, who came before him, opened a restaurant called Cliff Cafe. Louis started working for his brother and then in 1937 he opened Louis’.
“Our families had been on that hill for more than 100 years,” Hontalas said. “They were all small cafes. For some reason, all the little cafes were run by Greek immigrants. I don’t know what got them to that hill, but I always thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “
The cliff essentially became the San Francisco boardwalk, Martini said. In his research, he found an abbreviation for “go to the cliff”, which he originally thought was a reference to “go to the house on the cliff”; in fact, it just meant going to the beach.
The area began to decline after World War II. As Mark Twain pointed out, it’s cold there, and with the more available cars and better roads after the war, San Franciscans found other beaches to go to instead of the cliff.
And then in 1966, a fire destroyed the Sutro baths. Hontalas was eight years old and remembers that his aunt took him and his three brothers to see the flames from above. In the end, all that was left was Louis and Cliff House.
The ruins of the Sutro baths remained, giving this place of magnificent beauty a haunting and ephemeral quality. It was a reminder that nothing lasts, here on the edge of the world. People loved it. After the National Park Service bought the land, they would hold public meetings about what to do with the space. Most of the time, people asked for the ruins to be left as is, Martini said.
And at the end of most visits to the ruins or the Lands End trail there was a stop at Cliff House, to warm wind-chapped cheeks with a hot toddy with soup, or at Louis, to cool down with a burger and milkshake. . When the National Park Service spoke about Louis’ closure in 1992, Hontalas launched a postcard campaign and found that two-thirds of its clientele were local. “When you think of a national park, you think of Yosemite, you think of somewhere that you drive to,” he said. But this is in a city. That makes it really special. People live here and visit it every day, just like we did when we went to work. “
As with all restaurant closings, there is sadness and anger.
But Hontalas says he can now walk away knowing that for three generations of his family’s history, he was part of what made this little corner of San Francisco special.
“Since the beginning of the 20th century, those Greek immigrants, that’s something that will never be there again,” Hontalas said. “And I got to be there most of my life. That was good. I heard a lot of good things about the work we did. And that makes me feel good. The rest will be just a memory. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.