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    A Perfect Place to Celebrate Valentine’s Day: San Francisco’s Iconic Cliff House

    Photo by Suzie Biehler

    By David Landis–

    (Editor’s Note: In this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times we welcome David Landis as a new food columnist! We have admired David’s work over the years—his namesake business Landis Communications, Inc., has won numerous awards over the years. A few members of our team, however, virtually bonded more recently with David after watching him appear as a guest on an episode of the popular and binge-worthy PBS program Check Please, Bay Area.

    The show, now in its 13th season and hosted by wine expert Leslie Sbrocco, has also featured drag queens Bebe Sweetbriar and Sister Roma, as well as other noteworthy and talented members of our LGBTQ community. You can see the episode with David here: The equally entertaining and informative one with Bebe and Sister Roma is at

    Photo by Suzie Biehler

    We were still hungry for more, so we invited David to elaborate on his fantastic Check Please restaurant pick, Sutro’s at the Cliff House. The result is the first article for his new column, “The Gay Gourmet.” Enjoy, or as Julia Child would have said in her plunging falsetto, “Bon appétit!”)

    It seems like yesterday, but February 12 marks the 15th anniversary of love blooming at San Francisco City Hall. (See page 6 for more about SF’s “Winter of Love.”) Then Mayor (now Governor) Gavin Newsom decided to buck state law as well as then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to marry same-sex couples.

    What motivated him? Newsom attended President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, where Bush stated unequivocally that “marriage should be between a man and a woman.” At that point, it became clear to Newsom that this was a matter of human rights, which flew in the face of California’s constitution. He subsequently took action.

    My then partner (now husband), Sean Dowdall, and I were among those waiting in line who unfortunately missed the first matrimonial go-round that day. But we went back to City Hall on Monday, February 16, and tied the knot, along with around 3,200 other couples in that wedding frenzy. We’ve been together now for a total of 30 years and are so thankful to live in a community that embraces rights and dignity for all.

    So, it goes without saying that in our household, Valentine’s Day is something of a national holiday. It’s also a time to honor San Francisco’s laudable activism and values—and is an important reminder that love does conquer all. That means—it’s time to celebrate! The really hard question is: where?

    San Francisco arguably has perhaps the greatest number of restaurants per capita in the country, so choosing a Valentine’s Day venue can be challenging. For us, there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the 155-year-old historic Sutro’s at the Cliff House on Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

    At Sutro’s, one thinks immediately of the magnificent ocean views: the dramatic waves, the stirring sunsets, the views of Ocean Beach that seemingly stretch to infinity, and, of course, the vantage point overlooking the breathtaking Seal Rocks. But here’s a big secret: the food also matches—and surpasses—that stunning oceanfront setting.

    “We pretend we don’t have a view,” Chef Ralph Burgin, who has been at the Cliff House for 20 years but for the last 4 years has overseen the kitchen at Sutro’s. told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “You can’t relax your standards because of the view,” he added. “We are here to prove that you can have a world class view with great food and service.”

    The menu changes seasonally. (Keep an eye out for Chef Ralph’s famous tomatoes; he grows them himself in the summer season.) “We always have chicken, steak, salmon and halibut,” said Chef Ralph, “but we’re more flexible seasonally with soup, salads and desserts.”

    As a self-described foodie snob, I am here to attest to the restaurant’s quality. In my humble opinion, Sutro’s deserves a Michelin star. One of the standouts on the superb menu is the fresh Crab Louie, a modern take on the traditional San Francisco salad. See the recipe in this issue, available in a slightly different form at both the Bistro at the Cliff House and Sutro’s.

    Photo by Suzie Biehler

    Another popular item on the menu—and a mainstay since the Cliff House’s re-opening 14 years ago—is the perfectly fresh bacon-crusted Scottish salmon in a savory umami-rich mustard sauce, served on a bed of creamy potato purée with rainbow chard and pink lady apple. “I could never take that dish off the menu,” Chef Ralph said. Yet another favorite is the pistachio-crusted pork chop with broccolini and baby carrots. It is cooked crepinette-style, with a soupcon of pork fat to keep the chop juicy and flavorful.

    Since Sutro’s visits always merit celebration, the restaurant delivers with an inventive, artisanal cocktail menu. A personal favorite is the “Caribbean Passion” rum drink with passionfruit, if the latter is in season. The wine list is primarily California-driven—“except for the bubblies,” according to Chef Ralph—because, as he said, “San Francisco is where the wine country starts.” Here’s a tip: on Tuesdays, every bottle of wine is half price, all day long. That’s way better than a happy hour!

    The Cliff House actually comprises Sutro’s, the more casual Bistro upstairs, the Zinc Bar and Balcony Lounge, Sunday Champagne Brunch Buffets and the Terrace Room—which, as it turns out, is perfect for weddings, and they, of course, include same-sex couples who are welcomed with open arms.

    “Our wedding package includes a (set-up) on the outdoor terrace with a red carpet, and seating inside with the ocean view for up to 120, said Chef Ralph. The Terrace Room can actually accommodate up to 150 in a stand-up setting.” He continued, “We have a separate kitchen, right next to the Terrace Room, so it’s not like a hotel. Everything is delivered fresh and hot.”

    One lucky couple who got married at the Cliff House is Lawrence Kumar and Harry Vanderlooi. “The reason we chose the Cliff House,” Kumar told me, “was because of its location. The staff went out of their way to make us feel like royalty. They paid attention to every detail. After the wedding ceremony, my husband took me to the bar and all the customers had a toast with us!”

    If you want to take such a festive experience home, Cliff House products include the famous Bloody Mary Mix and Popover Mix. They are available at the gift shop on site, at the Cliff House website and at select retailers throughout the Bay Area.

    Getting to Sutro’s couldn’t be easier: they often have valet parking and street parking is nearby. If you cannot find a space out front on Point Lobos Avenue, there is a lot up the hill just past the Cliff House with free parking. You can also take Muni to various nearby stops—bus lines 18, 38R or 5R—and enjoy the 10 or so minute scenic walk. Sutro’s is additionally listed on the convenient service OpenTable ( ).

    So, for Valentine’s Day this year, will Sutro’s be offering something special? “Well,” said Chef Ralph, “we’ll be offering passionfruit vinaigrette for our seasonal salad that day!”

    We’re in.

    For information and reservations, visit the Cliff House online:

    David Landis is a proud LGBT citizen of San Francisco, a PR executive, a freelance writer, a big believer in Valentine’s Day and, of course, a foodie. Follow him @david_landis or email him at