At the Cliff

The Suthro Bath ruins
Louis’. Just like in the movies
From the soul-enriching Zen episode on a cool, sunny day at the Japanese Tea Garden, it was time to nourish the body. 

Minutes from the garden, driving along the western side of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, we arrive at the Ocean Beach. It was a perfect day- the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean was breathtaking, the shoreline inviting, the herd of seals atop a craggy rock was engaging, the famous ruins of Sutro Bath offering a glimpse of the past, and the other historic landmark, the Cliff House, was beaming in its white glory against the azure backdrop. Yes, this is a nice place to check out when you’re in town.

This area would be the site of a couple of American dining experiences for me. In many ways, poles apart.

Touring Tess & Jinky (center)
were 
SF sibs Dominic & Mia

Breakfast #1. It was all-American style at this family-run diner called “Louis’ at the Sutro Heights Park”, has several decades of service on their record. Opened in 1937, they must have whipped thousands of pancakes, cracked, poached, beat and “sunny side up-ed” a million eggs and prepared countless meals for the hungry locals and tourists. Louis’ is open all day and serves other fares. 

I found myself in a “only in the movies” moment- small, quaint, greasy food, quick service, devoid of pleasantries, smiles missing from the busy, impersonal, monotoned servers (sans the gum chewing, thank God), and the day had just started, mind you. It was a morning minus the good.  Not unless Ashton Kutcher appears out of nowhere and booms, “you’ve just got Punk’d!” to disprove my impressions. He didn’t. So yes, it was just like in the movies. Or, I was hoping too much.

Faces & phases of the Cliff House

Breakfast #2 would be at the other restaurant a hundred yards away towards the end of the cliff- it’s a fancier that the other joint and has a rich history attached to it. It is aptly named the Cliff House. It’s a lunch date for me on the second visit to this area with my other host and tour guide, Recho B., this time.

The Cliff House has had its fair share of famous personalities on its guest list since it opened in 1858. But more interesting is the number of reincarnations it went through from the day it was built with salvaged lumber to the current white concrete structure it is now.

It all started when a former Mormon from Maine erected Cliff House with recovered timber, had to rebuild it after a dynamite explosion only to be ravaged by fire after. That’s just the beginning of tragic tales and triumphant rebirths.

In 1896, Adolf Sutro built the Gingerbread Palace, a seven-storey Victorian Chateau, and the famous Sutro Baths north of the dining place. These structures may have survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with little damaged, but was burned to the ground in 1907. Then Sutro’s daughter had the restaurant rebuilt in a neo-classical style.

It was remodeled into an American roadhouse in 1937 by the new owners, the Whitneys, to complement their Playland-at-the-Beach attraction. But was restored into its 1909 look in 1977 after the place was acquired by the National Park Service. The Cliff House became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

An extensive renovation in 2003 added a stylish, but casual, two-storey wing overlooking the Sutro Bath ruins and the ocean view. Today, the Cliff House in white is described as “the rich history of the Sutro Baths combined with the modernistic appeal of the 21st century”, a fascinating link between the past and the present.

Recho B., my other host
And this is the present- the famed freshly baked puff bread I am about to bite into, a table by the window with a breathtaking view of the shoreline (twenty minutes waiting time for this), a roomful of framed memories of the past and the waiter about to serve my lunch- a hearty breakfast fare.
Burp.
Another day, another site, another entry on the list of must-sees to recommend when in San Francisco.

Seal Rock, a Pacific Ocean view from the Cliff House.

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