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The Cliff House Sign Came Down Today, But That Doesn't Mean It's Closed Forever

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The "C" in the signage for the Cliff House restaurant is removed on Dec. 31, 2020. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

Is the Cliff House finally poised to proverbially fall over its namesake precipice?

Technically, no. The National Park Service, which owns the building and the land it sits on, said in a statement Wednesday that there's a good chance the building will be saved from the brink, though they remained a bit vague on just what that may look like.

But it is true that today, Thursday, Dec. 31 — as people across the world are bidding goodbye to the terrible, horrible, very-not-good-year that was 2020 — the signage on the historic Cliff House restaurant came down.

At the restaurant, someone played "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" on a Bluetooth speaker as the 4-foot-tall letters were pulled down, one by one. The crowd standing around the Cliff House started booing just as the "C" was removed, as if joy itself was yanked straight off that rooftop.

That's because — to many in the Bay Area — the restaurant is an institution, a beacon of our local history for more than 150 years. For those of an older generation, the Cliff House recalls a bygone time when the nearby Playland at the Beach saw rollercoaster cars roar above Ocean Beach, and where Laffing Sal delighted (and terrified) kids aplenty.

And to see that sign, in that signature art deco style, finally removed — on New Year's Eve, of all days — is quite the capper to 2020. Especially after that mic drop of a CliffHouse.com blog post written by the restaurant's current stewards, Dan and Mary Hountalas, who set news organizations ablaze Dec. 14 with the notion that the Cliff House would "permanently" close.

But officials with NPS have pushed back on that idea, saying that they're committed to the building remaining publicly accessible in the future. They also argued they tried to preserve the contract with the restaurant operators, the Hountalas family.


In a statement on its website, and sent to press, the National Park Service said they offered Peanut Wagon, Inc., the Hountalas' organization, one last chance to hold onto the reins of the Cliff House on Dec. 30.

The park service said Peanut Wagon, Inc. declined that offer. But both sides have their own tale to tell.

The Hountalas family says the offer was too little, too late. Their difficult financial situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, they added, and they say the park service did little to help.

"At 11:00 a.m. this morning, December 30, 2020 we were informed by the NPS, in a last-minute change of mind, that they were going back to their original offer, which is financially unfeasible to both Peanut Wagon, Inc. and our potential partner," they wrote in a statement on the Cliff House website yesterday.

The Hountalas family has previously said it costs tens of thousands of dollars every month to "maintain and guard the massive Cliff House building."

A crowd gathers to watch the Cliff House signage removed on Dec. 31, 2020. (Christopher Beale/KQED News)

For its part, the NPS said it "understands the difficult circumstances the coronavirus pandemic created for businesses across the globe," and "has continued to negotiate in good faith and consider all options within our legal authority to allow Peanut Wagon, Inc. to continue to operate the Cliff House, and the parties have thoroughly discussed and explored those alternatives."

The last long-term contract between the Cliff House and the National Park Service expired in June 2018. Since then, the restaurant had been operating under a series of short-term contracts, with the most recent one set to expire today, Dec. 31.

In the future, the building may no longer house any restaurant at all, the Hountalas family alleges.

The Hountalas family wrote in a statement that they were told the building may be used as an office in the future. A letter to them, cited by the San Francisco Chronicle, said the park service was reevaluating the feasibility of a restaurant in that space.

"The rumor that the National Park Service is considering turning the Cliff House building into office space is completely false," NPS spokesperson Julian Espinoza told KQED in an email.

Espinoza added, "The building — just like the other historic structures that make up our park — belongs to the public. We are committed to maintaining the iconic property and look forward to welcoming back visitors in the future."

But what will those future visitors see when they once again walk through the Cliff House doors?

In its own nonspecific statement on the site's future, the park service said, "This decision, while disappointing for us, too, does not mean the Cliff House building will permanently close" — painting a future as misty as the fog that often surrounds the Cliff House itself.

Christopher Beale contributed to this report.

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