The two-year saga that has been the on-and-off closure of the Cliff House in Northeast Tacoma is over: The iconic restaurant has reopened for business. I stopped in and found a beautiful restaurant of restored, gleaming wood, a handsome dining room showcasing historic Tacoma maritime photos, and a knock-out downstairs that diners won’t even recognize. The menu is just what you’d expect from the Cliff House: seafood, steaks and grill-centric dishes with Northwest accents.
The Cliff House first opened as a tavern in 1925 and is a restaurant with a colorful history that includes reconstruction after a fire in 1958. It has suffered through revolving operators and has been closed more than it’s been open the past two years. It first closed unexpectedly in December 2009. Longtime owner Guido Brendicke had leased the restaurant to a group of operators led by Robert Denny, but the doors closed with no announcement or warning and remained closed for six months.
In June 2010, Sue Glenn, owner of Gig Harbor’s Green Turtle, reopened the Cliff House. My review in October that year found a threadbare and tired restaurant, the decor dated and the fixtures tattered. I wasn’t impressed with the lackluster fare with fine-dining prices at lunch, dinner was slightly improved.
Within four months, the Cliff House had closed again. The restaurant sat silent for months and another operator began, then halted, a remodel. Then, more news came in November 2011: The Cliff House had a new owner. Giuseppe “Joe” Nappo, best known for his Federal Way restaurant Verrazano’s, announced he would restore the building and continue the Cliff House’s legacy of prom-night dining, waterfront views and upscale regional cuisine.
Nappo had planned a January opening, but snow slowed the concrete work and the old building needed much more updating than first thought. But finally, the Cliff House opened its doors quietly last week.
The restaurant today looks impressive. I wouldn’t call the dining room exactly opulent, but the wood accents that wrap every window and beam are gleaming – so much so that the varnish fumes might be a bit of an unwanted guest at your table for the near future. The carpet is fresh and that awful hotel-esque ‘80s mauve color motif is thankfully gone, gone, gone, replaced with an earthy palette that serves as a muted backdrop for that beautiful dark-wood finish. The walls are buttery warm brown.
The upstairs dining room carries roughly the same configuration as before, except a new bar is behind the host stand. The this-is-why-we-live-here views still command attention. Dinner at sunset? It’s a treat. Get yourself there. But call and make reservations first. The restaurant has been bustling.
Downstairs, the change is more pronounced. Previously, a kitchenette and plating station dissected the room, and the decor screamed “mauve!” With the oddly positioned plating station gone, the dining room now is wide open, with a circular couch for lounging near the expansive windows and a bar that spans the back wall.
Previously, the Cliff House was a nightmare for anyone with mobility issues, with the bathrooms a staircase away downstairs. But the remodel added lovely tiled bathrooms upstairs near a spiffy private dining alcove.
Make note of the historical photos throughout the restaurant – a lovely touch as much for the aesthetic as for the history lesson about Tacoma’s maritime past. I drank in photos of the double-decker Quillayute ferry loaded with passengers and cars, a photo of a pedestrian-laden dock at Point Defiance invited a second look, photographs of worker vessels from Tacoma’s waters also lined the walls – and Tacoma’s industrial waterfront was on full display just outside those immense windows that frame both upstairs and downstairs dining rooms.
The menu is just as Nappo promised when I spoke with him about his plans last November. The food is straightforward steaks and seafood in the $16-$24 range for dinner, with prices in the teens at lunch. You won’t find fussy food or anything remotely challenging for adventurous palates, but I didn’t mind. What you will find is well-executed steak and seafood in a polished environment with staffers who come across as seasoned, career servers. I appreciated the attention to details, from the cleanliness of the dining room to the substantial flatware and weighty drinking glasses. Our plates were commemorative historical plates from the Cliff House’s anniversary in 2000. The two-page wine list offered 20 wines by the glass priced $5-$12 and an extensive selection of bottles with a focus on Washington, Oregon and California wines. I appreciated the wine monikers – “light & fruity” and “big, bold, full-bodied” and “purple-stained mouth.”
Meals were executed with precision and isolated gaffes. Salmon ($16 lunch/$24 dinner) was glazed with hazelnut butter and broke to an opaque center - perfectly grilled salmon, not a touch overdone. Chicken breast ($12 lunch/$17 dinner) was herb-coated with rosemary and oregano - well presented except for the forgotten sauteed mushrooms promised on the menu. Both chicken and fish were perched atop buttery red potatoes and crisp asparagus -one plate boasted overdone asparagus, however. Considering they’d only been open a week, I was impressed. Here’s a look at the menus. Below, you will find photos of the Cliff House in 2010 and what it looks like today:
The Cliff HouseWhere: 6300 Marine View Drive, TacomaInfo: 253-927-0400 or cliffhousetacoma.comHours: Lunch served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner served 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch served 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.
The Cliff House in 2010:
The Cliff House in 2012: