The PJ Tatler

Shutdown Showdown: SF's Cliff House Defies Obama Admin, Reopens — and Is Forced to Close AGAIN

The saga of San Francisco’s Cliff House took a series of dramatic turns this week as the owners engaged in a political and legal duel with the federal government.

As we reported last Thursday, the historic Cliff House restaurant — a privately owned profitable business which sits on land controlled by the National Park Service — was suddenly ordered to close by the Obama administration on October 3.

Then on Monday, October 7, with little fanfare, Cliff House’s owners Dan and Mary Hountalas decided to defy the government’s closure order and instead re-open for business, to the delight of the hundreds of tourists and locals who dine there every day. When word leaked out that the Cliff House had re-opened, the local National Park Service office consulted with Washington, D.C., and then issued a second (and apparently firmer) order to the owners to re-close the restaurant; the owners were then forced to unwillingly comply for a second time last night at midnight:

The famed Cliff House restaurant has been forced to shut its doors for the remainder of the federal government shutdown, after it defied orders by reopening earlier this week.

Diners who learned of the new closure were none too happy, to say the least:

“That’s outrageous! Are you serious?” Hubbard said as she walked out of the restaurant, the sunset glazing the windows behind her. “It is very stupid! Why are people deprived of a job? Why do the rest of us have to stop enjoying the parks?”

Hubbard wasn’t alone in her outrage at missing out on the $10 endive salad or the $27 mahi mahi.

“You’re kidding me,” said Ken Evans, who was visiting from Visalia and stopped by the Cliff House to take in the view. “You know what, I would stay open if I were them. You can’t close these things down.”

The Hountalas family, who have owned and operated the Cliff House for 40 years, issued a press release over the weekend explaining in no uncertain terms that they were being forced to close against their wishes and had decided to defy the closure order as a matter of principle — and finances:

In response to the Federal Government shutdown the Cliff House has reached a difficult decision to reopen its doors, Monday, October 7, 2013. While this bold move challenges the shut down order the Cliff House must remain operational.

Our partners at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have fought hard for the Cliff House to be allowed to stay open.

As a successful, independent, privately owned business that does not depend on any tax dollars or federal funding, the Cliff House must have income.

The Cliff House operates 365 days a year and employs 170 staff most of whom are furloughed. Even though the Cliff House is not open for business there are daily operating costs, which include maintenance of the iconic Cliff House building.

Having been shut down for four days the Cliff House has already assumed considerable financial loss. Outreach has been done to donate unused food to local charities that would have otherwise gone to waste.

The news reports leave one key question unanswered: What additional threat accompanied the second closure order which forced the owners into compliance?

If they were brave enough to deny the first order, why did they cave in the second time?

Since the Cliff House is a “concessionaire” of the National Park Service — a privately owned business granted a concession to operate on federal land — it is quite likely (although still unproven at this point) that they were threatened with the loss of their concession if they did not comply with the Obama administration’s second order.

Note also that the Hountalas’ press release praises the local National Park Service employees who “have fought hard for the Cliff House to be allowed to stay open,” but that according to an article published yesterday,

A rep for the Park Service told Inside Scoop that they’re waiting for further information from their bosses in D.C. before making a decision.

The local office apparently got their marching orders from Washington late last night, and issued an immediate second threat.

Why so quick? The Obama administration seems to be trying to quell a potential nascent mutiny among concessionaires at National Parks:

The case could also encourage other National Park concessionaires to violate the rule and reopen their doors, especially if the conflict continues to go unresolved.

Will National Park Service concessionaires organize a coordinated wave of civil disobedience?