I have taken to going to the Cliff House on Sundays. Not every Sunday, but a couple times a month when I get the desire to get as close to the edge of the Earth as possible.
The Cliff House is a restaurant off the Great American Highway in San Francisco. It is where the pavement meets the sand and unfurls into the Pacific Ocean. Away from the urban malaise it can be easy to forget you are in the city. A place where you can breathe in the fresh air of the sea and taste the dew on your breath.
It has a storied history, having been around 150 years. It has served U.S. presidents and elites at its height and then fallen into disrepair and served gamblers and boozers. Flames have twice erased the building, and it underwent several remodels before settling into is current neoclassical version. Yet, somehow the Cliff House has always endured.
Its slogan is “where San Francisco begins,” and it might also be where it ends. In a city that is ever-changing and seems all too willing to dispense of its past, I know there is little room for nostalgia. But I am a heart sick sentimental, and I often find myself in search of some remnants of its past. A bygone era that I will never be a part of and that I wonder might still be holding onto a piece of this city’s soul.
As its name would suggest, the Cliff House sits on a precipice, gazing out upon the rolling waves and the jagged rocks that cut through them. It houses several restaurants, all with magnificent views, but I like the Bistro the best of all. It is the most casual, and it only takes walk-in diners. Every other day of the week requires planning, and I have no interest in that when the weekend comes around.
With its penny tiles that dance about the floor into a pattern and the framed photos of famous patrons, it has a sensibility of being somewhere that is special but also known. And its menu reflects that with classic bistro fare and cocktails.
But the real reason I come and stay for hours is so I can gaze out those big windows and watch the tide roll in and feel the syncopated rhythm of the ocean. I look at the vast body of water reaching for the other side of the world and wonder if I swam out in the middle of it if I would feel free.
Perhaps the only comfort in a world full of uncertainty is that I know there have been eyes before me who have looked out on the great blue yonder and there will others tomorrow. We are all searching for something different, but we are looking in the same direction.
The water crests before rolling back in a way that is predictable and comforting. And I know it is time for me to be going, though, I wish I could stay just a little longer.
Visit the Cliff House at 1090 Point Lobos Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121. Reservations for the Terrace Room’s Sunday Brunch are required. Reservations for Sutro’s recommended. The Bistro is walk-ins only. Try: The Cliff House Louis, the Popovers, the Cliff House Classic Bloody Mary and the Ramos Fizz.
UPDATE ON APRIL 29, 2021: THE CLIFF HOUSE HAS CLOSED SINCE THE WRITING OF THIS POST.