The wait for one of the dozen or so tables inside Cliff’s Boathouse Cafe Friday morning in the 8 o’clock hour was a bit more than an hour. Some of those sitting in chairs or standing under the eatery’s hanging sign noted that was kind of normal. What wasn’t normal this week: this would be the second-to-last Friday morning Cliff’s would be serving breakfast.
Late last week, Manager Marc Brunette took to Facebook to give customers the bad news, Labor Day will be its last day.
Many of those waiting Friday morning said they were visiting Cliff’s, probably for the last time. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” said Sarah Underhill, a Racine native who now lives in Baltimore, but back for a visit. She had heard about the closing and wanted to make one last breakfast with her friend, Mallory Olesen Willing.
“Now I guess I am going to have to learn how to make potato pancakes,” said Olsen Willing.
Conor Lalor, who arrived solo, but had run into Olsen Willing and Underhill while waiting. The three strategized how they might be able to sit together if a table larger than a two-top came up first. With only 29-30 actual seats inside, such math problems were typical at Cliff’s.
“I have always liked that it wasn’t trying to be something it’s not,” said Lalor. “It’s always been open when it wants to be open and on its own terms.
In an era, before GPS devices, Cliff’s Boathouse, located at 301 Hamilton St., could also be a bit tricky to find.
And, if you went looking to dine at Cliff’s on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, you were out of luck.
Cliff’s: reputation for potato pancakes
The majority of the people waiting outside the tiny eatery said they planned to down two or three of the legendary potato pancakes. The thin, warm discs have been a staple of not just breakfast, but also the Friday fish fry at Cliff’s Boathouse.
Bill Joyce, a boater with a craft in the water nearby, said he had been coming to Cliff’s since Marc’s father ran the restaurant. “I’ve been coming here since Marc was in high school,” he said. “I’m going to miss Marc’s sparkling personality,” he added with a bit of sarcasm. But he quickly added that Marc and the staff had always shown a friendly, personal touch will all their customers.
“Places like this have been eroded by fast food and chain restaurants,” said Joyce. “But Cliff’s is the real deal. It’s been the kind of place you come to with your neighbors.”
Brian Newnum, who also has a boat in the nearby harbor, said Friday was probably going to be his first and LAST trip to Cliff’s. “It’s really the only place in walking distance. Or dinghy distance, for that matter.”
‘Great food, great people’
Brad Puterbaugh said he had driven up from Kenosha on Friday to meet friends for perhaps one last breakfast. “Great food, great people, they really engage with you,” he explained. “I don’t know why they are closing, but maybe it has something to do with the building.”
Cliff’s opened in 1987 in a storage building right across the parking lot from the Eagles Club. Puterbaugh said that Brunette had indicated he would take off the month of September before deciding what his next steps would be.
As the breakfast crowd began to thin, and only 10 or so people were still waiting for a table, Brunette was getting no end of hugs and handshakes from people as they paid their checks. He remained upbeat with all of them, ever alert for the bell that told him another order was ready to be served.
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