Who wouldn’t want to run San Francisco’s famous Cliff House—even if you weren’t sure if you could call the 160-year-old restaurant on the Pacific Ocean the “Cliff House”?
Vacant since its longtime leaseholders left on New Year’s Eve 2020, the oceanfront restaurant at the western edge of the city is starting to accumulate wear and tear—although not nearly as bad as the storm-ravaged Camera Obscura just south of it and nowhere near to the degree of the Sutro Baths, those magnificent ruins immediately to the north.
In September, the National Park Service revealed that the agency had found someone willing to take it on, confirming that the restaurant lease would be for a period of 20 years. While the new concessionaire is nominally called Sutro Lands End Partners LLC, the mover and shaker behind it is attorney and Richmond District native Alex Leff, who has helped revive famous Southern California piers in Malibu, Oceanside and, soon, Huntington Beach.
Like wealthy-engineer-turned-mayor Adolph Sutro—who didn’t construct the first Cliff House but built the streetcar line that made it an accessible destination—Leff is from an immigrant family and wants to bring some vigor to the enterprise before it corrodes in the salt air. The Cliff House is where he had his first taste of alcohol, a sip of his mother’s gin fizz when he was far from old enough. As he describes it, restoring the building is an act of civic pride swaddled in nostalgia.
“The Cliff House is part of my heritage,” Leff told The Standard. “I would go there as a child. I would go there as an adult. I’m just so honored to have a chance to bring it back to life for San Franciscans.”
Notably, it’s not a single restaurant. The prior iteration had the upscale Bistro at the Cliff House as well as the more casual Sutro’s at the Cliff House, plus the lessee is responsible for an event space and a retail space as well as a cafe in the Lands End Lookout, an entirely separate building hundreds of yards away.
What Sutro Lands End Partners LLC can do with a landmarked property is somewhat limited, of course. Reached for comment, Golden Gate National Recreation Area spokesperson Julian Espinoza confirmed that the overall look and layout will remain the same.
“This is because of a combination of leasing terms and the historic nature of the building,” Espinoza said. “Potential renovations would generally have more to do with function than aesthetics, as the overall architectural style of the property must be maintained.”
Hoping not to install a pricey tourist trap in such a prime location, Leff has pledged to hold community meetings to solicit locals’ opinions on what should happen.
“We want to do something that has multiple offerings, multiple price points—things that someone can come with a family and enjoy and that will bring San Franciscans back there again,” he said.
The issue is that the Cliff House’s previous concessionaires, the Hountalas family, left on unhappy terms. Having run the restaurant complex since 1973—several years before the National Park Service bought it as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—they were unable to come to an agreement on a five-year extension to their 20-year lease that terminated in 2018, essentially operating without one for the final two years and bringing a decades-long run to an end.
“For most of it, it was very pleasant. We made a lot of friends and worked together very closely. That situation doesn’t exist now,” former co-proprietor Mary Hountalas told The Standard. “There has been nobody in the local GGNRA that really has any interest in what has happened in the Cliff House.”
Hountalas is a self-described “Summer of Love arrival” who’s lived here since 1967. Like Alex Leff, her husband, Dan, is a native of the Richmond District, and part of one of the many Greek families in the neighborhood. The nearby Louis’ Restaurant, just up Point Lobos Avenue from the Cliff House, is another example of a National Park Service-run entity that was long operated by Greek Americans and now lies vacant, a point that Mary Hountalas cites as evidence of the federal agency’s mismanagement.
“I’m sorry, the park service is notorious for neglect,” she said. “Poor Mr. Leff, the money he is going to have to put into the Cliff House building is because they allowed to let the place go for the last three years.”
A ventilation system the Hountalas’ installed is now severely rusting, she said. Same goes for many of the doors, as well as the interior electrical system. Irrespective of its mechanical condition, the interior of the 27,000-square-foot building, with two floors plus a mezzanine is likely to be modernized and reconfigured. San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer once compared it to a gymnasium, noting that a secondary dining room had more character than the main space.
Then there’s the matter of the five Cliff House trademarks and the all-caps, Art Deco-style rooftop signage that was removed the day the Hountalas vacated as crowds of onlookers watched. Hountlas confirmed that her family has possession of them all.
The controversial trademarking of the restaurant’s name was done “with the complete knowledge of park service personnel,” she said, after restaurants up and down the Pacific Coast began using the name and copying the menu. Hountalas disputes any allegations that banks hold claim to the copyrights as collateral for business loans, but says the family is open to negotiations about the use of the name Cliff House.
The Hountalases are, if anything, adamant that the Cliff House letters need to go back on the building. Mary Hountalas has never met Leff personally, but they’re in the “have your people call my people” phase.
“We had an intermediary who was having discussions with him prior to him being awarded the lease,” she said.
Leff confirmed to The Standard on Thursday that he’s been in communication with the Hountalases attorney, having spoken four or five times, although he would not discuss the terms of their negotiation over the Cliff House name. But the property is firmly in his possession.
“I have the keys,” he said. “We have contractors and people walking through.”
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the clock is ticking. Sutro Lands End Partners' first year of base rent is free, but he’ll owe $235,000 for the second, a number that will more than double, to $499,000 two years later—plus the company will owe 4.5% of gross revenue annually, right from the start. Leff expects to welcome the public to some parts of the complex before the entire operation is up and running.
“We’re trying to activate spaces on the perimeter of the building, which may then allow the public to enjoy the property while we’re still working on the interior,” he said. “We hope sometime in 2024.”
What that property will be called, though, is still up in the salty air.
Astrid Kane can be reached at email@example.com