Cliff House Back and Better than
By Paul Redman
Shrimp cocktail, strong martinis, and breathtaking
ocean views— this is the Cliff House I remember from my last visit,
But a few weeks ago, after surviving an
interminable taxi ride to attend the grand opening of the new and
improved facility, I was ready to leave the past behind me— that is,
until the car stopped in front of the windowless, solid pink façade
of the remade building.
However, as they say, remodeled facades are only
skin deep, and things got better, quickly. I was no sooner in the
door and handing off my coat to one of the cadre of hosts, than a
glass of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine assumed position in my hand.
We made our way through throngs of guests, and
were taken by the openness of the dining room, the view from the
balcony to bar and dining room in the lower level, and the
dedication to preserving the integrity of the ocean views— from
every angle— that defines the new Cliff House.
There is a seemingly complex array of rooms and
dining choices now, from the Cliff House Bistro and Zinc Bar area,
to the long banquet room where weekend brunch service takes place,
to the all-new restaurant Sutro, which spreads over two floors in
the large addition to the Cliff House. Sutro is named after the
Sutro Baths that once stood here. Even though Sutro has an
ultramodern feel, with its frosted glass wall behind the bar and
gleaming open kitchen, if you look closer you see tributes to the
bathhouse, with subtle swimming motifs and a beamed ceiling beneath
the upper level, just like in the pictures of the old bathhouse that
are found in the hallways of the restaurant.
By far the greatest improvement on this SF
landmark by the sea, though, is its thematic conversion. The Cliff
House in San Francisco is now something of a gourmand’s end of the
The food at Sutro seems to walk a line somewhere
between Cal/Asian seafood and traditional bistro fare. The two
appetizers we tried were ahi tuna tartar on a fried wonton chip
(something of a ubiquity these days), and a little paper cup filled
with piping-hot, salty, homemade French fries. The fries were
garnished with chopped herbs, including chervil, which instantly
sent this food lover swooning. Many chefs would not have left well
enough alone and added a dab of some infused mayonnaise on top of
the fries, but at Sutro they had the courage to let them stand on
their own— a wise choice.
It seems that San Franciscans are now blessed with
an egalitarian nexus of food, drinks, ocean views, and historical
relevance. If you look around at some of the famous visitors to
older Cliff Houses (it has been rebuilt on the same ground several
times before), you will find they include many presidents, as well
as the great American icon, Mark Twain.
So when the party wound down, we found ourselves
outside again with the cool ocean air at our faces. In a couple of
short hours, we learned a great deal about this historic landmark,
and decided that the pink façade that pays homage to the memory of a
Cliff House past is not so bad, after all.