The first Cliff House was a modest structure built in 1863 by Senator John Buckley and C. C. Butler. Wealthy San Franciscans flocked to the new restaurant to enjoy fine dining and coastal views. The guest register bore the names of three U.S. presidents as well as prominent San Francisco families such as the Hearsts, Stanfords, and Crockers, who would drive their carriages out to Ocean Beach for horse racing and recreation.
High society locals abandon the Cliff House, although it remained a favorite attraction for tourists and the less wealthy. The Cliff House became known for scandalous behavior, which greatly disturbed the mayor of San Francisco, Adoph Sutro, who had built his estate at Sutro Heights overlooking the Cliff House.
Adoph Sutro purchases the Cliff House and tries to "clear out the riff raff and bring back the local families."
A chimney fire destroys The Cliff House on Christmas Day.
Adolph Sutro spends $75,000 to rebuild and furnish the Cliff House in grandiose style. Fashioned after a French chateau, the second Cliff House opened in February and boasted eight stories, four spires, and an observation tower 200 feet above sea level.
It served as an elegant site for dining, dancing, and entertainment. The third floor held a photo gallery, reception room, and multiple parlors with beautiful panoramic views. The second floor held 20 private lunchrooms, an art gallery, and a gem exhibit. At ground level, there was a large dining room, parlor, bar, numerous private dining rooms, and the kitchens.
Visited by U.S. presidents, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as many other famous citizens of the world, the Cliff House remained a favorite of the local population.
On September 7, 1907, the most beautiful of all Cliff Houses burned to its foundation. The Cliff House had survived the 1906 earthquake only to perish in a raging fire that destroyed it in less than two hours.
Dr. Emma Merritt, daughter of Adolph Sutro, along with a group of investors rebuilt the Cliff House on behalf of the Sutro estate at a cost of $75,000. Neoclassical in design, it carried on the tradition of sumptuous dining and great entertainment.
Due to prohibition, the Cliff House lacked its previous draw. The Cliff House shut down all operations in 1925.
The Cliff House was extensively remodeled and reopened in August of 1938, under it's new owners, George and Leo Whitney, the owners of Playland.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area acquires the Cliff House in 1977 and undergoes an extensive renovation to restore the original neoclassical architecture of it's 1909 appearance. The restoration of the Cliff House was a joint undertaking of restaurant owners, Dan and Mary Hountalas, and the National Park Service.