Populist millionaire Adolph Sutro imagined the Cliff House as a working man's paradise in 1863, but Sutro's dream has been rebuilt three times. The latest reworking, a $19-million 2004 facelift, turned the Cliff House into a sadly generic, if panoramic, restaurant complex. Two key attractions remain: sea lions barking on Seal Rocks and the Camera Obscura, a vintage 1946 attraction projecting sea views onto a parabolic screen.
After an 1894 fire destroyed the original structure, Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House as a palatial eight-story Victorian resort with art galleries, dining rooms and an observation tower. It miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake, only to be destroyed by fire the following year. The 1909 stark neoclassical replacement built by Sutro's daughter Emma remained popular for its saloon and restaurant. Today the Bistro's Zinc Bar is in the 1909 structure, while the upscale restaurant is in the 2004 addition.