The funky, salty smell of a fog-covered beach is hard to forget. San Francisco’s coastline is never far from my mind and for as long as I can remember, neither is my favorite restaurant: Cliff House. Although much older and a lot sturdier, the Cliff House and I grew up together.
After the long drive up the coast in the middle seat, being the youngest, smallest, and most talkative of our group, I jump out of the car and race to the front door squishing my palms against the gold lettering while waiting for Dad to come pull open the heavy glass to let us inside. Bouncing down the dark wood steps toward the formal dining room; I look back to see if my family is following my lead. We come here when we have visitors, so these evenings are extra special, because I get to show extended family or out-of-town friends the secret atmosphere of San Francisco’s best restaurant. My parents have to check us in and there’s always a line, so I stand next to the dark, shiny bar near reception watching the bartenders mix martinis. Hoping to get an olive handed to me, I tap my best, church shoes on the wooden floor just to hear my own noise under the chatter of the crowd. My mouth waters for my cup of clam chowder crowded with sourdough bread chunks loaded with butter, and my signature Shirley Temple always with extra cherries. We love to sit in the far right corner at the big, round table between the yellow tiled portrait of a marble woman leaning off the wall and the large windows facing the ocean. My big brother and I look out the window most of the time, even if all you can see at night are the flashing lights of the passing ships on the dark water below.
Built just above the grey, wind-whipped beaches in 1858, there have been many incarnations of the Cliff House, but it's always held strong atop the jagged cliffs among swooping seagulls and submerged sea creatures. As a child in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties, I happily tapped down the staircase to admire the huge dining room covered in black and white celebrity photos and grew nostalgic for that iteration over time. Now that those days are long gone, replaced with a more casual, street-level cafe and an open-staircase fine dining room below, my excitement hasn’t changed.
I step out of my friend’s car after a short drive from my apartment in San Francisco carefully planting my tall, wooden sandals on the cement steps in front of the etched glass door. Walking down the hallway to greet the yellow-tiled marble woman, I ask the host for a table at the bistro. I smile and nod toward the bar and order a deep, dark red wine while I wait, no cherries. Happy to introduce my friends to my old stomping grounds, I order a cup of clam chowder as an appetizer, and gush over the new additions to the menu while chomping down the requisite sourdough slices. For dessert, I blow out my birthday candle and watch the sun set over the water without a boat in sight.
Another year older together, far removed from my childhood memories, holding on to the original infrastructure both of us now wiser, weathered, and wearing better accessories.