Fans of the Cliff House can rest assured that the space will be a restaurant once again, likely by late next year, and the National Park Service has officially moved into the next phase of selecting a new operator to run it.
We have only a few clues at this point about who's interested in taking over the historic Cliff House — which will likely need to be renamed after outgoing operators Dan and Mary Hountalas left with some sour grapes and the trademark on the name, though perhaps they'll consider selling it. And as the Chronicle reports, the Park Service announced Tuesday that it is canceling its 2019 request for qualifications (RFQ), meaning that the next phase will begin with a request for proposals (RFP) from qualified operators.
Because the 157-year-old Cliff House, along with nearby Louis' Restaurant, sit on federal land, the process for selecting a new operator works along specific rules for federal contracts. Like the Hountalases, the next operators will get a 20-year lease on the property, which will be negotiated once the RFP phase is complete next summer. And the same operator will be responsible for running the cafe at the Lands End Lookout visitors center.
The Chronicle notes via Charles Strickfaden, communications director of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that an RFQ/RFP process is set to begin soon for Louis' as well.
The successor to take over the Cliff House property will likely be a large restaurant group or food-service corporation, though it remains to be seen who that will be — a list of four finalists from the earlier RFQ process included the Hountalases, who are in or nearing their 80s and who told the Chronicle last year that they likely would not continue vying for a new contract.
The Hountales family had run the restaurant since the early 1970s, before the Park Service took over as landlord, and relatives of theirs ran Louis' until it also closed permanently last summer. That branch of the family, which spells their name Hontales, had been restaurant operators at Lands End since 1937.
The restaurant closed early in the pandemic, reopened for takeout for a couple of months, and then closed again last July — with Mary Hountales saying they had done what they could to keep their 180 employees employed. After receiving only short-term lease extensions from the Park Service for several years, the Hountaleses announced the permanent closure of the Cliff House in December, citing an inability to reach a favorable lease agreement.
Among those who attended an informational site tour with the Park Service in late 2019 were Michael Mina's restaurant group, The Mina Group; Adriano Paganini's Back of the House restaurant group, which runs Beretta, Delarosa, Starbelly, Lolinda, Wildseed, and the Super Duper chain, among other restaurants; the owners of Peruvian restaurant La Costanera, which recently reopened in new digs in Half Moon Bay; the owners of Sausalito's Barrel House Tavern, The Grotto at Fisherman's Wharf, and Tommy's Joynt; and the owners of local Sunset District spots Andytown Coffee Roasters and Devil’s Teeth Baking Co. Some of those operators reportedly said they weren't interested in applying and pointed to overly expensive lease terms, per the Chronicle.
Also in attendance was Lazy Bear owner David Barzelay and his Anagram Restaurant Group, and large catering/hospitality companies McCall's and Aramark.
It will be interesting to see how a new operator reimagines the place for the 21st century — the staid seafood spot with airport-quality food and great views is maybe not the draw it once was. Local chef Richie Nakano suggested earlier this year on Twitter that maybe new operators shouldn't be thinking of the space as a restaurant in a traditional sense — especially since Ocean Beach isn't much of a nighttime destination. His idea is a daytime food hall for tourists more like a "Ferry Building west."
Strickfaden says the new lease terms would take pandemic impacts into account, but would likely be similar to what was previously advertised. He also added that while the Park Service announced last December that it would not be moving forward with an RFP for a restaurant operator, they have since changed their minds as the outlook for the industry has turned around.
So, barring any rumors leaking, look for a new operator to be announced for the Cliff House in late summer 2022.