by Wade Sheeler
Downtown LA Residents had reason to rejoice in October 2015 when after a multi-million dollar refurbishment – hell – let’s call it what it really was – a monster remodel – Clifton’s iconic cafeteria reopened. Originally serving patrons since 1935, Clifford Clinton’s Los Angeles Cafeteria was a haven for the well-to-do and the ne’er-do-wells of the once budding downtown corridor.
The founder himself, Clifford Clinton was an enigma, fighting poverty and police corruption while amassing a fortune with his many successful restaurants. Born in 1900, Clinton had a life-changing experience when visiting China and witnessed the poverty stricken filling their bellies with dirt to keep from starving. Left with a deep impression, he came back to Los Angeles and opened his “Penny Cafeteria,” where everything cost a penny unless you could pay more. Some recognized him as the man who singlehandedly took down the Great Depression’s long breadlines in Los Angeles, although the city fathers claimed he was perpetuating the homeless’ plight by taking away their desire to “better themselves.” (Sound familiar?) So he was forced to close the “Penny Cafeteria,” and open Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway in 1935. Originally named Clifton’s Brookdale, the restaurant was designed to emulate the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz mountains, which sported a lake stream running through the restaurant, stocked with real trout.
Several books have been written, and even more pending, about the wild and woolly adventures that Clifford Clinton lived through. (One story has it that after revealing political corruption in the city’s restaurant business, a bomb was flung into the Clifton kitchen, and new employees were paid to slip and fall to raise his insurance rates. )
Clinton passed in 1969, and his mammoth holdings and seven LA restaurants were liquidated, until all that remained was his most famous cafeteria. It became a rumored oddity for those who didn’t live in LA, and those who did venture forth, found a sleeping giant; a Disneyland-ish realm that creaked and wheezed along on its last legs. The food wasn’t very good, but the spirit of Mr. Clinton seemed to call out from the four musty corners for help.
Along came developer Andrew Meieran, who dreamed of not just re-opening the cafeteria to its former glory, but continuing the mad fantasy of Clinton by adding to the space and make it a one-stop entertainment venue and nightlife mega-club for the young and old. Meieran, a powerhouse land developer who had arguably “re-gentrified parts of Berkeley California,” for the better, took on the task, which went $7 million over budget, to the final tune somewhere in the $14 million range.
Now, open just a little over 6 months, the place is a haven for those of us who thrive on LA history as well as finely crafted cocktails. Furthering Clinton’s passion for the outdoor panoramic style, Meieran has doubled down on the concept with pillars redesigned as massive red woods that stretch from the ground-floor and reach several floors above. The cafeteria is still there, and open til 9 PM weekdays and 10 PM weekends, and is the perfect way to start your “in house” pub crawl. All the staples are there, along with some finely designed desserts and side dishes.
It’s a pleasure to find the little nooks and crannies where people can eat amongst the staged wildlife, most rubber-necking during their meals to take in all the eye candy. The best advice would be to grab a tray and your goodies, then after dinner (complete with some DEEEElicious cobbler) begin your sightseeing, because Clifton’s is no longer just a cafeteria. From 6 PM on, it becomes Clifton’s At Night. Where else can you pad your belly with delicious fare before filling it with the demon juice? Floor upon floor of open air bars, clubs, and design elements culminate in a feeling of being trapped in a wildlife dream. Yes, the taxidermied animals are not politically correct, but these were made close to 100 years ago, and have the same feel as a Natural History Museum as opposed to a hunter’s lair.
From the sign outside that promises a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” through the double doors where a nattily dressed doorman bids you welcome, you know you’ve stepped into another world. The first floor, surrounded by streams and wildlife offers the cafeteria and tables. Climb the wide stairs to the second story and you’re in the Monarch Bar whose centerpiece is that massive redwood, offset by the homey and rambling wood bar with tree stump benches and footstool mushrooms. The fully stocked bar has everything from top shelf vodka and whiskey to specialty house drinks like the Ahwahnee, poured inside a deco style bear mug.
After perusing all the sights, some shocking and others, just unsettling, behind glass, you take another staircase to the third floor, where the Gothic bar against the far wall offers even more refreshments. Juxtaposed from the Gothic Bar against the opposite wall is a large banquet room, where bands play on Friday and Saturday nights, usually under separate cover. The fourth floor houses –what else – Clifton’s own Tiki bar, “Pacific Seas” — which has an amazing array of mid-century tropical elements, including a boat in the middle of the space! It’s not easy to find their Tiki bar, so roam the third floor ’til you see one of the employees in front of a mirrored door. Say “Humuhumunukunukuapua” to gain entrance.
Sundays offer brunch, and weekend’s include burlesque acts that pop out of every corner on an irregular schedule, mostly when you least expect it. But that’s what makes Clifton’s so unusual; it’s the surprise factor that continues to remind one of an adult Disneyland, more than anything else.
The Retro Set Tip: Head downstairs to the bathroom area and you’ll see the oldest surviving, constantly functioning neon light. This was found buried behind a wall during the remodel, and still plugged in.
For a piece of LA history that successfully melds the old with the fantasmagorical “New,” you can’t beat Clifton’s.
Clifton’s is open everyday serving food from 10 AM on. The nightlife begins around 5 PM and continues til 2 AM. Check out their website for more info.