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"When Sutro rebuilt it again, in 1896, he went all out, with a gorgeous eight-story French chateau-style building -- the one you see in old photos," Marti said. "Just to the north, he built the fabulous Sutro Baths. Three acres under a glass dome, swimming pools with fresh water, salt water, heated water. Hot and cold running dressing rooms, restaurants, promenades. To expose the masses to culture, Sutro included art galleries, natural history exhibits, and a theater. But two years later, he died, and the Cliff House itself deteriorated fast and became pretty raunchy. Instead of just bringing your mistress for a discreet tryst in the fog, you could probably rent one on the spot."
Our appetizer of garlic and rosemary gnocchi ($5.95) had a light herbed cream sauce and summer squash slices alongside, but the dumplings were doughy. "So if virtue is punished, then the Cliff House should have come nicely through the '06 quake," I said.
1090 Point Lobos
San Francisco, CA 94121
Region: Richmond (Outer)
"It did, but guess what -- it burned down a few months later," Marti answered. "Sutro's daughter Emma then rebuilt it, but with-out all the architectural foofaraw. This is that building -- simple, neoclassical. It never burned, but was closed by Prohibition in 1924."
Being anti-Prohibitionists, we were pleased to find many sound, affordable wines; those available by the glass included a voluptuous Cuvaison sauvignon blanc that harmonizes with rich seafood. Our entree of sea scallops and bay shrimp in puff pastry ($16.95) was capped with a nice buttery puff paste shell, over perfect scallops and blah shrimplets in a sybaritic (if garlic-challenged) "roasted garlic cream sauce." Under it all, though, loomed a bottom feeder, a big flat biscuit tough as sea rations. Assorted sauteed vegetables came alongside. It tasted like pure nostalgia -- visualize a "nice" New England restaurant circa 1956, pink-uniformed waitresses wearing hairnets. Grand in any era was the roast rack of lamb ($16.95), crisp-crusted but rare as we requested, with a simple red wine sauce, bottled mint jelly, and a vegetable "napoleon" of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato layers. The most newfangled dish was an evil special of grilled salmon ($16.95) overwhelmed by raw-tasting curry powder, harsh with turmeric and fenugreek. Even Marti protested, "Whatever that salmon did, its punishment did not fit the crime." It sat on soggy Chinese vermicelli and came with the same vegetables as the scallops.
"So what happened after Prohibition?" TJ asked.
"The Cliff House straggled through the Depression, and in 1937 Sutro's descendants finally sold it to the Whitney brothers, who'd built the Playland amusement park next to it," Marti continued. "Sutro Baths closed in 1954, and 12 years later burned down while they were being demolished for a high-rise complex. But the developer ran out of money and never built the complex, so you can still scramble down and see the ruins." The restaurant and its accouterments are now owned by the Hountalas family, she said.
We finished with middling espressos and kiddie versions of nonce desserts: chocolate decadence cake, ginger creme brulee, and tiramisu (about $6 each), all way too sweet for our tastes. But Marti was still aglow. "The food was just fine -- I loved the clam chowder, loved the lamb. I would send almost anybody here -- it's such a great place."
I'd heard rumors the place was about to change even more than the food; so between dinners I phoned the manager, Australian-born Alan Goldstein, to learn the plans for the site.
"The National Park Service bought the property in 1977 and the GGNRA have been working for many years on a large project that will involve the whole area out here," he said. Among other things the Cliff House will be upgraded and renovated. "The main focus," he continued, "is to return the Cliff House exterior to a nicer appearance, that of the 1909 struc-ture that forms part of the current building, and to make the interior handicapped-accessible." He noted that they intend to repair the crumbling terraces and demolish the tacky tack-ons.
The Mechanical Museum will relocate up the hill, and a new Visitors' Center will be tucked into the side of the hill overlooking the ruins of the baths. The ruins will be made accessible, and there'll also be an elevated walkway across the front, at the water's edge. Tour buses will park atop the hill instead of herding in front of the restaurant. "One of the most exciting parts of the plan," Goldstein added, "is to have a laser light show when the fog comes in. They'll project an image of the Sutro Baths building onto the fog, using the fog as a screen!"
The Cliff House concession is coming up for public bid early in '98; the winning concessionaire must finance the renovation. The current concessionaires have first right of refusal: The Hountalas family originally had a shop (destroyed by the '66 fire) near the Sutro Baths. When they leased part of the upstairs 24 years ago, the Cliff House was fragmented into many different shops and stands. They gradually expanded into the rest of the building, unifying and renovating as they went. They've already lined up financing for the future remodeling.
Goldstein also discussed the current menus: "We've walked a tightrope of needing to keep traditional items that people expect to get here, like omelets, but in the last three years the executive chef has started to introduce more contemporary items like five-spice salmon and bouillabaisse. So the menu now appeals to old-time San Franciscans coming for their shrimp Louis, but also to people who want something a little more modern."
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