The restaurant group that includes the upstairs and downstairs restaurants at the historic Cliff House is coming up for grabs via request for qualifications from the National Park Service. And this means someone could come in and turn the place into an actual dining destination — rather than just a tourist destination with ocean views.
Current operators Dan and Mary Hountalas, who have run both the upstairs Bistro and the fancier Sutro's since 1973, tell the Chronicle that they plan to reapply. Mary, 78, says, "We feel we’ve been very successful operating the Cliff House and we want to continue doing so for San Francisco," adding that she hopes above all that it stays in local hands.
A new contract with the Park Service would also include the operation of the cafe at the Lands End visitors' center, which serves grab-and-go food, and a 150-seat banquet facility.
The Bistro, which includes a bar area, on the upper, street level of the Cliff House, serves reliably decent food with a focus on seafood — and fresh popovers at lunch. Sutro's, meanwhile, offers slightly fancier, mostly classic dishes like shrimp Scampi, saffron risotto, and a Thai spin on bouillabaisse.
No one really treks to the Cliff House for the food, though — it's just the sort of approachable, basic restaurant with sweeping views that tends to be where you take out-of-town parents, especially for lunch.
In looking for a new operator, Golden Gate National Recreation Area manager of lands and real estate tells the Chronicle that they'll be looking for someone with a track record of operating multiple large restaurants, and someone who'll serve "good, healthy, delicious, wonderful food." Though the place has always been classic American in its focus, that does not have to be the case moving forward — and they're open to having different cuisines and concepts for the two main spaces.
Once a new 20-year contract is awarded, if it doesn't go back to the Hountalases, a new operator would get to take over next fall. The RFQ from the Park Service is a federally mandated affair — after the Park Service took over the property from private hands in 1977, it's required by law to make every new contract available through a public process.
The deadline for new applications is October 16.