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 largely generic, if panoramic, complex housing two restaurants, two bars, two lounges and a gift shop. The 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 restaurant is located in the 1909 structure and serves classic San Francisco fare (walk-ins only). The upscale restaurant Sutro's, in the 2004 addition, has two-story floor-to-ceiling windows providing sweeping views (reservations recommended). The Balcony Lounge hosts jazz each Friday night, from 7pm to 11pm.