We still can't say what they will become or what they will serve, but the wheels of the federal government and National Park Service are turning ever so slowly to get new restaurant tenants into The Cliff House and Louis' Diner spaces, both closed since 2020.
The iconic Cliff House has sat sadly dormant for over two years, having shut down fully in late 2020 with its longtime operators, Dan and Mary Hountalas, blaming the National Park Service for forcing their hand. The fact is, the Hountalases were getting up in years — they were both in their 80s or nearly 80 as of 2020 — and the restaurants inside the Cliff House, upstairs and down, had gone decades without much updating, respect from locals, or critical praise. Nearly a year before the pandemic began, in fact, the Park Service announced that it was putting the place out for bids for a new operator, which the Hountalases loudly resented.
"We feel we’ve been very successful operating the Cliff House and we want to continue doing so for San Francisco," Mary Hountalas told the Chronicle at the time.
Then came the horrors of 2020, the Cliff House briefly tried to do takeout food, and then it shut down, a few months after its neighbor up the road, Louis' diner, also closed. Both are on federal land and subject to Park Service contracts, and in the summer of 2021, the feds confirmed that RFP processes were getting underway for both.
We know that the Park Service — technically the contract services arm of Golden Gate National Recreation Area — has entered into contract negotiations with an operator for the Cliff House, but for reasons of contract privacy, the feds haven't made the name public yet, and no rumors have leaked.
The very fact that no one's been chattering leads us to believe it could be a big catering-type operation, and not a local restaurant group. We know from public records that participants in an informational session at the Cliff House two years ago including big firms McCall's and Aramark, as well as 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; and the owners of Sausalito's Barrel House Tavern, The Grotto at Fisherman's Wharf, and Tommy's Joynt, as well as some other applicants.
Meanwhile, we hadn't heard anything about movement on Louis', which is a smaller deal with far fewer seats. (The Cliff House contract will include the upstairs Bistro and bar space, the former Sutro's restaurant downstairs, a 150-seat banquet facility, and the Lands End Visitors Center cafe.)
Now, the SF Standard has learned from the horse's mouth, Park Service spokesperson Julian Espinoza, that the feds are "currently working toward a Request for Proposal (RFP) in the future for a tenant to occupy 902 Point Lobos Ave to operate a restaurant."
That's vague enough, but the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps they've had their hands full dealing with the Cliff House contract.
We're calling it the Cliff House, but, it may not be called that. Or, some payment to the Hountalases will be required if anyone still wants to call it that. With their sour grapes in 2020, they made clear they were taking the name with them and they owned the sole rights to it — they even took the sign that sat for years along the roofline. A good lawyer might be able to argue that the name wasn't theirs to own, and the building and its predecessors had been called The Cliff House for over a century before they came along in the early 1970s.
The Cliff House and Louis' were once part of a collection of buildings and businesses on the cliffs near Land's End. The Cliff House was actually under the same ownership for a while as the adjacent, now long-gone amusement park Playland-at-the-Beach. A couple of fires in the last century damaged or destroyed the buildings, but both of the Cliff House and Louis' kept getting rebuilt — and when the Park Service took over control of the 78 surrounding acres in 1976, these properties came with it.
Louis' had been Louis' since 1937, and ironically, two weeks before the pandemic shutdowns, the Richmond Review published a profile of its owners, Tom Hontalas and his sister Kathy Giannecchini (not directly related to the Hountalases) who had just celebrated the diner's 83rd anniversary. As the blog post recalled, the restaurant had nearly been demolished in the 1990s to return the area to open space, but the Park Service was inundated with postcards of protest from longtime fans, and they decided to change their plans and keep it there.
Anyway, we thought we'd know who'd be operating the Cliff House months ago, and at this rate, it seems unlikely it will be reborn before the middle of next year.
As for Louis' — maybe mid-2024? Maybe?