Here’s a Rare Glimpse of the Old Neon Signs at SF’s Cliff House

“Hey Siri, Play ‘Neon Lights (Rock Version)’ by Demi Lovato.”

Earlier this week, it was joyfully announced that San Francisco’s beloved now-closed, iconoclastic Cliff House diner — which sits near Lands End, sacred acreage owned by the National Parks Service (NPS) — will reopen in 2024, courtesy of a newly granted 20-year lease to Sutro Lands End Partners, LLC. 

Though the structure is expected to go through a major renovation, whatever inevitably will replace SF’s Cliff House must honor the building’s historic usefulness; such mandated services include the operation of a restaurant, cafe, retail store, and event space; NPS is requiring Sutro Lands Ends Partners to commit to these uses.

“San Francisco has been good to me and to my family ever since my grandparents arrived here during World War II,” says Sutro Lands End Partners  Alexander Leff, who is helming the project, in a press release. “I am well aware that it is a tough time to undertake a major hospitality project in San Francisco. But it is an honor to be allowed to restore this beloved landmark and doing so is my way of expressing my gratitude and lending a helping hand to our beautiful city at a moment when it can use help from all of us who live here.”

Moreover: Sutro Lands End Partners created a website to collect ideas that will help the collective “make this beloved icon into a place that welcomes all San Franciscans and all those who love San Francisco.”

As it so happens — perhaps coincidentally — the Instagram account [at]sanfrancisco.history shared a picture of a then-open Cliff House from the 1950s. Between the old-school automobiles parked outside and a mesmeric collection of neon signs, it’s an image we, quite frankly, can’t stop looking at.

For good reason, mind you; the vast majority of historic images of Cliff House show the picturesque space in the warm glow at either sunset or sunrise or use the roughly 27,000-square-foot space as a companion shot to seemingly endless ocean views. A good amount of these vintage images aren’t even colorized… let alone developed in a way that highlights the structure’s glowing signage.

But this image does it handsomely. Gorgeously. Brilliantly.

The lore behind Cliff House’s unique neon signs is scant. Sometime in 1936, George Whitney, Sr. purchased the then-vacant Cliff House from the Sutro Estate, reopening it that same year as an upscale roadhouse. Before Whitney acquired the Cliff House, the space saw petite changes over the 28 years the Sutro Estate maintained and operated it. 

Cliff House, San Francisco, circa 1950s. (Photo: Courtesy of

Nominal changes were made to the building’s exterior, e.g. the installation of a new bar wing, more outdoor lights, and the removal of then-deteriorated latticework decor.

Whitney, however, was quick to breathe new life into the space — and the massive neon signs pictured here were among the first bits of vitality he blew into Cliff House in 1937.

Although the famous sign was removed on New Year’s Eve of 2020, here’s hoping whatever Sutro Lands End Partners has in store for the space incorporates like-prominent signage. Preferably ones that glow lustrously in the dark and mirror their glow off the turbulent waters below.

Now that feels like a worthwhile reason to fill out an online form, doesn’t it?

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