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COVID Closures: Sad Crowd Watches As San Francisco's Famed Cliff House Sign Taken Down

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- People gathered Thursday afternoon on the last day of 2020 to pay their respects to another COVID casualty as the iconic sign of San Francisco's beloved Cliff House restaurant was taken down.

Earlier this month, the announcement of the permanent closure on Dec. 31 was posted on the restaurant's website by the Cliff House's longtime owners, Dan and Mary Hountalas. They said 180 employees will lose their jobs.

The Cliff House, which first opened 157 years ago, was a victim of both of the COVID-19 pandemic and, according to the owners, delays by the National Park Service in reaching a long-term operating contract with the restaurant.

Overlooking Ocean Beach and known for its sweeping views, the Cliff House has a rich history. Once a bar and brothel in the late 1800s, it survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire but a year later, burned to the ground. In 1973, Dan and Mary Hountalas took over the restaurant with a long-term lease from the National Park Service.

The Cliff House ended in-house dining in March, due to the pandemic. The operators said they attempted takeout-only service in early June but, after 10 weeks, the owners decided to close down completely in mid-July. They said the restaurant was losing too much money as a takeout-only operation.

The last long-term contract between the Cliff House and the National Park Service expired in June 2018, and the restaurant had been operating since then under a series of short-term contracts, the current one expired Thursday.

Mary Hountalas said last-minute negotiations to renew the lease failed.

"At 11 o'clock, we got a phone call. 'No, it's a six-months extension and a three-year continuance,'" said an exasperated Hountalas. "It's so convoluted!"

She said the restaurant has lost employees, lost big money and now has lost the lease. They are packing up all of their private property inside and outside the restaurant, including the iconic rooftop sign.

Restaurant patrons have been visiting the restaurant to pay their respects ever since the announcement, but the removal of the Cliff House sign on the final day of a painful year apparently offered some closure to the dozens who came for a last farewell.

Several dozen people gathered along Point Lobos Avenue outside the restaurant at around noon Thursday as workers dismantled the signature metal sign that was displayed from the restaurant's roof.

The crowd gathered below with cell phones raised, capturing the historic final moments as drills twisted the corroded bolts loose.

Several people cried out, "We love you Cliff House!" or shouted "Thank you!" as workers removed the bolts holding the final letter of the sign in place. The crowd booed in unison as the large metal "E" was removed.

"WE LOVE YOU CLIFF HOUSE!" A number of people in the crowd gathered to say goodbye to San Francisco's Cliff House...

Posted by KPIX CBS San Francisco Bay Area on Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Cliff House is not alone. Restaurants all across San Francisco and the Bay Area are folding, never to open again due to the mandated COVID shutdown.

Executive Chef Kevin Weber struggled to maintain his composure, saying the staff is family.

"One of my dishwashers, Rafael, came by yesterday 'cause he's been waiting nine months; he didn't believe it would happen," said Weber. "So he finally had to clear out his locker. He's worked for me for 27 years."

All day, staff members passed through to say their last goodbyes.

"I worked until my eighth month of pregnancy," said one waitress, her now three-year-old son Lionel hanging on to her as she said farewell.

Another receptionist held back tears.

"It's...heartbreaking. Such a loss for all of us," she said with a big sigh.

The owners said their debts may force them to auction off the restaurant's historic items, including the iconic sign.

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