Since February 14, 1937, the Hountlas family has operated Louis’, a midcentury-looking diner clinging to the cliff above San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. That 83-year run has officially ended, the family announced Monday night, as the pandemic made the restaurant’s reopening impossible. Now the fate of the building lies with the National Park Service, which says it hasn’t decided what to do with the iconic space.
Louis Hountlas immigrated to SF from Greece in 1906, working at various local restaurants for years. By 1936, he and his wife Helen decided they wanted to open their own spot and leased a patch of coastal real estate from the family of Adolph Sutro — back then, all that land along the Richmond District side of the coast belonged to him. They built a little cafe out of an old streetcar barn and a covered walkway, and Louis’ opened the following year.
In 1973, the land was acquired by the National Parks Service, and by 1988, the Hountlas family (by then, the spot was overseen by their son, Demosthenes “Jim” Hountlas) had a new landlord: the federal government.
Things got dicey for Louis’ in 1992. By then, the third generation of Hountlas family members were running the spot, but a National Park Service proposal for redevelopment of the area called for the cafe’s destruction. It was only after a letter-writing campaign from Louis’ fans to NPS decision-makers that the plan was shelved.
Another campaign to save Louis’ was launched in 2010, when federal law required the NPS to open bidding for the venue. It took another public comment campaign, a much-signed petition, the promise of a $500,000 renovation, and a resolution by then-SF Supervisor Eric Mar to keep Louis’ in Hountlas hands.
The family prevailed, securing a ten-year lease. The restaurant shuttered for over eight months to revamp the space, keeping its coveted booth seating, vinyl-covered bar stools, and — of course — its massive windows facing out toward one of the best views on earth. It also reformatted its menu, keeping its diner-style fare but committing to sustainable and local produce and baked goods, vegetarian-fed beef, and cage-free eggs from nearby producers.
Louis’ reopened in 2011 and has been packed ever since. That is, until San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order was issued on March 16. That’s when the restaurant temporarily shut its doors, and it hasn’t reopened since.
In a Facebook post published Monday night, the Hountlas family announced that they would not be reopening Louis’, saying that “this decision was very difficult to make but with everything we have seen and heard regarding reopening for indoor dining we felt it was an unsafe environment for us and our employees.” However, “to wait out this pandemic was financially unreasonable.”
It’s unclear what will happen next for the space. According to NPS spokesperson Julian Espinoza, the Hountlas family “requested the early termination of its lease.”
“It is with sadness that we say goodbye to the Hontalas family,” Espinoza says via email. saying that the NPS “looks forward to offering opportunities at this iconic dining spot in the future.” However, “out of respect for the family during this difficult time,” Espinoza says, “we have decided that it is too early to determine the future of this operation.”
Speaking with Eater SF, Lazy Bear co-founder David Barzelay — who’s long fantasized about opening a restaurant in Louis’ neighbor, the Cliff House — says that it’s hard to imagine how any operator could make Louis’ tiny dining room work without rebuilding. “It’s a cool old building,” Barzelay says, and “the land and views are so valuable.” Even so, he says, “I’m not sure that the existing footprint is big enough to allow enough revenue to cover the National Parks Service’s bureaucratically-determined rent.”