Like many visitors I first encountered the Cliff House on a sightseeing tour of San Francisco in October 1995, calling in after the obligatory orientation stop at Twin Peaks. We had little more than half an hour there, just enough time to peruse the jewellery stalls on the pavement outside, buy a postcard or a packet of Californian seeds in the gift shop and, most importantly, avail ourselves of the washrooms.
We spied an enticing restaurant (there are two of course, but weren’t able even to fit in a coffee. The tour guide will probably have outlined the exotic history of the three different buildings that had stood on the site, including the Christmas Day fire of 1894, the majestic Sutro Baths and amusement park, the atmospheric remnants of which can now only be seen. But the history lesson will have passed most of us by, anxious as we were to move on to the more dazzling attractions of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Eighteen years and nine trips later, it has become a ritual for us to have brunch here on the first morning of each visit to the city. Sometimes by car, and on other occasions by MUNI bus, we ride out through the Inner and Outer Richmond neighbourhoods, excitedly counting down, or rather up, the numbers of the avenues. We sweep past Golden Gate Park on our left whilst craning our necks for tantalising views of the bay – and the great bridge – to the right as we pray for the interminable procession of traffic lights to be on our side.
We park up behind the wall separating the Great Highway from Ocean Beach and walk towards the Cliff House, hoping that the line for the bistro on the ground floor is not too long. Being told – as we always seem to be – that we have around a half hour wait, we venture outside to marvel at both the bird life on Seal Rock and the engineering masterpiece that is the Camera Obscura.
On returning to the restaurant, we are escorted by a cheerful waiter to a table at one of the large picture windows, permitting either views of Seal Rock and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond, or of the long, bullet straight shoreline towards Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and all points south. Golden Gate Park, with the Dutch Windmill signposting its coastal entrance, sits half a mile away whispering its hidden delights.
We are given ice cold water and divine warm rolls while we scan the menu, though we hardly need it as our order is always Crab Eggs Benedict for myself and Eggs San Francisco for my wife, accompanied by fried potatoes (not fries), onions and peppers, melon pieces, grapes and salad, juice and unlimited coffee. Heaven!
That’s the moment!
It is only now that we feel truly “home” again – with that meal, that view, that hum of civilised conversation that pervades the dining room. The next week, fortnight or, in our upcoming vacation, month, is laid out before us like a procession of Christmas Days, with lavish presents and sumptuous food and drink on every one of them.
As we leave the Cliff House to walk off the meal on the beach or the cliff tops of Land’s End, the next tour bus pulls up and disgorges its occupants, chattering of Chinatown, Pier 39 and Macy’s, all to be ticked off by lunchtime, to the washrooms, gift shop and jewellery stalls. Perhaps some of them at least will remember that short comfort stop next time they visit the City and decide to inspect the plain looking building by the sea a little more closely.
But I hope it’s not too many, as we would not want our wait for a table to be any more than that customary half an hour would we?