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Who’s in the Running to Take Over SF’s Historic Cliff House?

The National Park Service isn’t telling

Landmark Bay Area Restaurant The Cliff House Closed Due To Gov’t Shutdown Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s been nearly three months since the deadline closed on bids to take over San Francisco’s historic Cliff House landmark. But though officials with the National Park Service said that the agency had tentatively planned to announce their decision this winter, its website now says that a decision won’t be announced until Summer of 2020.

The Cliff House was initially constructed in 1863, has been destroyed (typically, by fire) and rebuilt three times, and has been both a regular spot for millionaires and celebrities, as well as a venue for gambling and other misbehaviors. It can be found on every list of “classic” San Francisco spots, both for its checkered past and for its kind-of-unbelievable perch above the Pacific Ocean.

It’s that combination of history and location that made the Cliff House “my dream location,” says David Barzelay, the co-founder of Michelin starred Mission restaurant Lazy Bear. Before Lazy Bear came into being, Barzelay tells Eater SF, he’d fantasize about opening his nascent restaurant in the Cliff House, and turning it into a place where “locals would love to go, and every single tourist would go, too.”

Barzelay is one of the business people who attended what the NPS calls the official “site tour and pre-submittal conference” on August 27, 2019. The tour for folks interested in taking over operations of the Cliff House took place a little more than a week after news broke that the NPS’s contract with Dan and Mary Hountalas — who have operated the property since 1973 — was up. As the Chron’s Janelle Bitker wrote at the time, “A new operator could elevate the dining experience and make it a destination beyond the tourist circuit.”

A look at the NPS’s page on the Cliff House bidding process reveals that whoever took on the Cliff House would be doing a lot more than running its two restaurants — the fine-dining spot Sutro’s and the more casual Bistro. In addition to the Cliff House structure, the winning vendor would also be responsible for the maintenance of the restaurant’s evening valet parking lot, as well as for the care and cleaning of the area’s public restrooms and viewing areas.

Though an NPS spokesperson who spoke with Eater SF said that the building was in “good shape” and cited a 2006 “full renovation” of the structure, potential bidders who toured the structure disputed that claim — one told Eater that in order to operate properly, the building would need to be “fully gutted.” The weather and the Cliff House’s seaside location are also factors, Barzelay observed, saying that he was told that the Cliff House had to replace all its locks every six months due to corrosion from the salty air.

According to a Q&A document provided to site tour attendees and obtained by Eater SF (it can be read in full here), the “tenant will be responsible for all repairs and maintenance of the Premises.” The building’s condition, as well as lease terms that would “make it impossible to turn a profit,” meant that many local restaurateurs, Barzelay among them, opted not to send in a proposal during the RFQ (request for quotation) period.

“The impression that we got was that they weren’t really interested in seeing proposals for anything new,” Barzelay said. A NPS spokesperson who spoke to Eater SF in November of 2019 declined to comment on Barzelay’s impression, saying only that they were interested in “any qualified bids” from vendors with a track record in running multiple restaurants.

Other potential bidders, based on the list of site tour attendees, include Adriano Paganini’s Back of the House restaurant group, Mina Group, and the Peanut Wagon, which is the name of the current operators’ company. There were also national concessions companies like Ortega National Parks, LLC (they handle National Parks concessions across the US), Redwood Parks Company (another NPS standby), and Aramark on the list.

“We feel very strongly that the Cliff House needs to be kept in local hands.” Mary Hountalas told the Chron in August, a sentiment echoed by restaurateurs who spoke with Eater SF. The National Park Service has no such leanings, however: When a site tour participant asked, “What commitment does NPS have to awarding the lease to a local company? Is the NPS considering the local factor when awarding the lease?” the agency responded, in its Q&A document, only that “the base of the Respondent’s location is not a factor the Service considers.”

That’s of particular concern to two current Cliff House employees, both of whom asked that Eater SF allow them to comment anonymously as they are not authorized to speak for the company. Both say that they’d been told that Aramark was on the NPS’s short list, which, if true, is a controversial choice: Aramark, a Philadelphia-based provider that provides meal service to clients like hospitals, schools, and the corrections industry (in fact, Vice called their prison food offerings “a culinary horror show”), is embroiled in a local lawsuit over allegations of forced labor by inmates of Santa Rita jail. Also in Aramark’s portfolio: the food service facilities at Yosemite National Park, which made national headlines last weekend after about a dozen park visitors fell ill with gastrointestinal issues.

However, Aramark’s inclusion in the so-called short list is just a rumor for now. While the NPS says it would select four participants of the initial RFQ to then participate in an RFP (request for proposal) process, it has refused to name the applicants or members of that second list. A spokesperson said only that they would make “a public announcement when that final decision is made and the appropriate parties are notified.” The agency, which has been criticized for a lack of transparency on matters ranging from misconduct and mismanagement to how it manages off-leash dogs on Ocean Beach, refused to elaborate, meeting follow-up questions only with the response, “we are working through the review process and will announce the decision as soon as possible.”

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