Here’s What San Francisco’s Cliff House Looked Like 80 Years Ago

Back in 1943, there were just 139 new cars built in the United States back due to World War II — and San Francisco’s vehicle scene was pretty sparse.

San Francisco will forever exist as a dichotomy of itself. On one hand, it’s a metropolitan synonymous with spearheading humanity into the future. And on the other palm sits a seven-by-seven-mile slice of Northern California rich with history, which remains on display around almost every corner. (On my morning walks to commune with the sun — a circadian necessity when one’s window faces into a dark concrete corridor — I’m often gobsmacked by the sheer amount of patina and storied concrete around me.)

On January 1st, 2021, San Francisco’s beloved Cliff House restaurant closed after 137 years in operation. Like hundreds of Bay Area gastronomic institutions, the Cliff House shuttered amid the pandemic after months of financial setbacks and mounding debts — another victim of the Covid-19 health crisis that saw negotiations around its contract with the National Parks Service come to a stalemate. (While the café and its sign are no longer, the property itself is still functional and is expected to house another restaurant sometime this year.)

Seeing the Cliff House shutter and the sign go down last year was heart-sinking. But a recent dive into the San Francisco Public Library’s digital photography archive did unearth a photo dripping in nostalgia, harkening back to the café’s heyday in the 1940s.

San Francisco’s Cliff House restaurant circa 1943. (Photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library)

The featured picture, which was taken on September 29th, 1943, shows numerous now-vintage vehicles lined up along the Cliff House, many of which were either in the process of leaving or waiting for a spot to park. And inside? The “World’s Largest Gift Shop” — which burned in November of 1963 — and a glorious, wooden interior dining area.

The Cliff House has housed pop-up events and temporary museums since it shuttered over two years ago. The Western Neighborhoods Projects — the nonprofit that’s organized many of those mini-museums —  hosted these public exhibits where attendees saw showcases of many of the historical items that used to be displayed at the former restaurant. As of last month, a new tenant is expected to open a restaurant inside the space that formerly housed Cliff House… though it’s unclear what the eatery will be and who the tenants are inside the National Park Service-owned structure.

Though it’s still TBD on what the now-closed Cliff House restaurant will become, I’m grateful that SFPL’s rabbit hole of digitally cataloged photography did allow me to revisit the iconic SF institution in rich stills — ones originally developed a good fifty years before I was born.

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