UNITED STATES

Los Angeles, CA

Unique Clifton’s Cafeteria Has Been Serving Up Lunch Since 1930s

A giant redwood is part of the interior decor at Clifton’s cafeteria in Los Angeles

A giant redwood, with a fireplace nestled in its base, is just part of the unusual decor of Clifton’s, the Los Angeles cafeteria opend in 1935 and recently given a $10-million overhaul.
CHARLES CAMPBELL/Meridian Writers’ Group

IT’S AT THE end of a Los Angeles Conservancy tour of the city’s spectacular art deco architecture that she first mentions it. After the a look at the Lalique glass oranges on the elevator doors of the Oviatt Building, after a trip through a jewellery market in an old Broadway theatre.

“Do you know about Clifton’s?” says our tour guide. “It’s a real point of pride for a lot of people in Los Angeles.” No, we did not.

Clifton’s was a restaurant chain founded in 1931 by Clifford Clinton, who had a deeply Christian pay-what-you-can policy and an appetite for set decoration extravagance. Clifton’s Brookdale, inspired by his boyhood love of a lodge in the Santa Cruz mountains, opened in 1935, and there’s a giant redwood at its heart. Mountain streams, wildlife dioramas, secret caves for children, furniture cut from old-growth timbers—it is in every way a camp classic.

And it’s a miracle that it survived. As L.A.’s downtown declined, so of course did Clifton’s. The neighbouring theatres went dark. The South Broadway exterior became a cheap 1960s aluminum façade. Clifton’s Brookdale held out as the last remnant of the chain, and fate of the largest cafeteria in the world did not look promising. A place that once served 15,000 a day served as few as 1,500.

In 2010, however, nightclub operator Andrew Meieran bought the joint from a scion of the Clinton family, with a big idea. Five years and $10 million later, it reopened as an affordable cafeteria by day and a multi-room high-end nightclub by night.

It is a remarkable restoration, an expansion even, of the original idea. The atrium was opened up to five storeys, to accommodate a bigger sequoia, which has a fireplace nestled in its base. The exterior was returned to its original glory. And the cafeteria continues to provide old-school diner staples to L.A. families and wide-eyed tourists.

The new/old menu features roast turkey carved to order, and fountain sodas, and Jell-O cheesecake. There’s a stuffed bison, and a mountain lion. There are tables for 10 in quiet corner alcoves. On the fourth floor, there’s the Pacific Seas tiki lounge, an homage to Clifton’s first location.

In its early days, Walt Disney was a frequent customer and may have been inspired by Clifton’s decor. Other well-known patrons include Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, On the Road novelist Jack Kerouac and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

On the third floor the new owners have preserved the booth of one of America’s most celebrated writers. Ray Bradbury ate here for much of his life, when he had money and when he didn’t, and marked his 89th birthday at the restaurant in 2009, not long before its meticulous makeover.

Most of all, Clifton’s offers the unique sense of being pulled from time’s normal warp and weft and deposited in a place not quite grounded in any time at all. Perhaps that’s why it was among Ray Bradbury’s strange and favourite places.

In other words, Los Angeles.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Clifton’s visit its website at www.cliftonsla.com.

 

For information on Los Angeles visit the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board website at www.discoverlosangeles.com.