Cliff House exterior of restaurant.
Cliff House

According to the Cliff House website, the restaurant was constructed in 1863 by Sen. Jon Buckley and C.C. Butler.

157-Year-Old Cliff House to Shut Down Permanently on December 31

The operators placed blame with the National Park Service.

San Francisco’s Cliff House, founded 157 years ago on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, announced that it will close permanently on December 31. 

Dan and Mary Hountalas, operators of The Cliff House since 1973, attributed the shut down to the COVID pandemic and issues with its landlord, the National Park Service (NPS), which has owned the property since 1977. The closure will result in the loss of 180 jobs. 

The Hountalas duo said their 20-year concession contract with the NPS—which allowed them to operate on the land—expired June 30, 2018. Since that time, the Cliff House has received one six-month extension and two one-year extensions—the last one starting on January 1 and ending December 31. 

The COVID pandemic has prevented the restaurant from operating in-person since March 17. The Cliff House attempted takeout in early June, but the losses became too great after 10 weeks. 

The operators said the NPS offered another one-year extension, but the restaurant was required to take on all the costs.

“It costs tens of thousands of dollars every month to maintain and guard the massive Cliff House building,” the Hountalas’s said in a letter. “There really is no excuse to be in this situation. There was no COVID-19 in 2018; one or more upper echelon leaders within the NPS obviously did not do their jobs, resulting in this sad situation.”

“ … Unlike the government which is not held accountable for profits and losses we could not accept the additional extension as there is no possibility of doing a sustainable level of business for the foreseeable future,” they continued.

According to the Cliff House website, the restaurant was constructed in 1863 by Sen. Jon Buckley and C.C. Butler. The restaurant was destroyed by a chimney fire in 1894, but Adolph Sutro, a millionaire philanthropist who had bought it 11 years earlier, spent $75,000 to create a second, improved version. Thirteen years later, yet another fire tore down the Cliff House, and another $75,000 was spent to erect a third structure. The Cliff House entered its fourth phase once the Hountalas’s and NPS completed their own restoration and renovation. 

Since opening, the restaurant has been visited by five presidents—Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. 

When the restaurant shuts down, there will be no interim successor. As a result, the building will be unoccupied and watched over by the NPS. The operators also must remove their personal property, including all memorabilia. The Hountalas’s said this means The Cliff House will be boarded up for several years, and if the restaurant isn’t properly maintained in that time, reopening costs will be “tremendous.”

“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,” The Hountalas’s said. “Again, this all could have been prevented by the award of a long-term contract two and half years ago.”

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