Readers started calling within days of The Cliff House Restaurant’s closure last December. Then followed e-mails. More phone calls, then e-mails. Never have I received such an outpouring in response to a closure.
As many readers noted, the Cliff House long has been a Tacoma treasure. “A Browns Point landmark,” one caller lamented about the closure. “I loved going down there,” said Federal Way resident Mark McConnehey with dismay when he phoned after the restaurant shuttered. He wistfully recalled his habit of taking out-of-town visitors to the Cliff House to soak in the sweeping Commencement Bay views with the backdrop of downtown Tacoma and Mount Rainier.
Opened in 1925, the restaurant originally was a tavern, then a restaurant by the 1950s. The restaurant’s most notable owner, Guido Brendicke, bought the Cliff House in 1976 and steered the ship until 2008 when a partner group took the helm in a lease operating agreement. That didn’t last long, and by December 2009, the group closed the Cliff House. Back to Brendicke the restaurant did go.
It sat there vacant for six months, much to the dismay of fans, until came along Sue Glenn, owner of Gig Harbor’s Green Turtle restaurant for 17 years. Glenn, a close friend of Brendicke’s, imported Green Turtle staff, including executive chef Roman Aguillon, who brought with him the Northwest-kissed French menu of the Green Turtle. The restaurant underwent a minor makeover. It reopened in June.
My visit to the fledgling restaurant in June left me a wary diner. I visited for lunch, which was served downstairs in the come-as-you-are Guido’s Bistro. It wasn’t the slightly tattered décor that bothered me – it’s a bar, after all – but it was the concept. With prices squarely in the $15-$17 range, I wanted to be wooed with gushy service and the cushy booths upstairs. Instead, I got a lackluster greeting, a seat-yourself command, and casual bar service for upscale lunch prices.
The food at lunch provided a handful of hits, with as many deflating misses. An appetizer of fried artichokes ($10) crunched crispy delicious with a thin jacket of breading. Creamy seafood chowder ($5) wafted of halibut, salmon and Ahi but too few pieces of the fish swam in the heavy broth. From the lunch menu, a salmon BLT (listed as $14 on the menu, but we were charged $15) turned unwieldy with too-thick bread that required a fork and knife; the pretty grill marks betrayed a dry interior. A salmon fillet ($15) also was slightly overcooked, and saved only by a velvety lemon beurre blanc sauce that was sinfully rich with roasted potatoes.
Lobster cakes ($16) were sublime discs packed with meaty lobster bits, and paired with a swipe of punchy, spicy-sweet ginger wasabi aioli tempered with sweet pineapple chutney. The flavors were majestic, but I balked at $16 for two small discs of lobster and not even an accompanying salad. (So why was it listed on the salad menu again?)
Flash forward a month to a second lunch visit, but with the same conundrum: A lackluster greeting, a seat-yourself vibe, the same pricey lunch menu in a casual bar atmosphere. Halibut and chips ($15) came overcooked, dry and unseasoned. A prawn Caesar salad ($17) shocked us, arriving the size of a side salad. Note to kitchen: Three prawns an entrée salad does not make. And certainly not for $17.
The Bistro Burger was the win of that meal ($11), a juicy, thick patty served on a fluffy roll with crisp, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and onion. Skins-on fries were golden fried with a creamy interior.
Another month later and this time a dinner visit, and finally, it all made much more sense. Dinner upstairs at the Cliff House is what I should have been enjoying all along. Gracious and polished service paired with this-is-why-we-live-here water views made for dreamy dining. The atmosphere is comfortable and inviting, but ridding the lobby of the mauve would be smart.
Dinner was well executed, but with entrees costing $25 and more, experienced diners might expect the polish that restaurants like Brix 25, Primo Grill or Pacific Grill deliver at roughly the same price point. You won’t find vertical presentations or trendy food inclinations here. But it is solidly executed.
We settled into our cushy window table with the waft of thyme-scented rolls. A plate of brothy clams ($15) was lovely and delicious, the herby bread perfect for soaking up the restrained garlic-tinged broth. Soup and salad come with all entrees. A Caesar was exceptionally crisp, an assertive anchovy dressing puckery with lemon. But the seafood chowder again suffered from too little seafood.
Entrees pleased and teased with commanding flavors. Peppercorn-crusted rare seared tuna ($24) was slippery velvety, topped with wasabi and pickled ginger – a familiar sushi twist – and draped with a gingery glaze that cascaded down to a cylinder of saffron Jasmine rice. The same saffron rice showed up with a curry halibut ($26). The filet flaked into perfectly succulent, meaty chunks paired with an Indian-style yellow curry cream sauce.
Crunchy sautéed zucchini, squash, peppers and green beans flanked every entrée – and were so perfectly fresh, so wonderfully al dente, I made note.
A cheesy, sharp Gorgonzola sauce gussied up the standard skinless/boneless chicken breast ($22) every restaurant seems obligated to offer. The sauce infused a sharp bite into creamy red potato mashers licked with butter and garlic.
A surf and turf ($34) won over our table with perfectly executed medium-rare filet mignon matched with sweet sautéed onions and meaty mushrooms.
A sharp Gorgonzola sauce weeped cheesy punch into creamy red mashers. Seared scampi — plump prawns paired with that dreamy, silky lemon beurre blanc — was outstanding in both preparation and flavor. I’d go back just for that.
Now if they only would serve all that upstairs at lunch.
The Cliff House Restaurant & Lounge
Where: 6300 Marine View Drive, Tacoma
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily.