one of the comfort food staples that endures in the
new Clifton's, used to be sold for 35 cents.
ANGELES—The Jell-O molds, they are a-quiverin’. All
lined up along the cafeteria rows, they seem alive, almost
sentient, swaying like drunkards on petite white dessert
plates whenever diners reach out and snatch up squares of
chunks of gelatinous sugar and collagen come in colors not
often found in food that Michael Pollan would recommend,
electric blue and traffic-cone orange. Globules of fruit
hang suspended in the jiggly mass, though a positive
identification of the exact berry embedded therein proves
murky. Little matter: It’s Jell-O, so it’s going on
the tray, no questions asked.
that just so, so Clifton’s?
with the over-the-top faux woodsy interior, replete with
taxidermied animals posed in mid-snarl amid a lush redwood
forest motif, Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway and
Seventh Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles wouldn’t
be the same without its signature wiggly confection that
once sold for 35 cents but still seems a bargain today at
old-school cafeteria, which served hearty,
stick-to-your-ribs fare such as roast beef and whirled
peas and chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, to
hungry, often homeless, Angelenos since Depression times,
has endured a depression of its own. Closing in 2010 after
75 years, when the last of the Clifford Clinton family
could no longer make a go of it, Clifton’s was bought
for $3.6 million by retro-loving developer Andrew Meieran,
who seemingly owns half of downtown.
years and $10 million in renovations later, it’s back
and drawing crowds. Maybe not the sheer numbers, estimated
at 15,000 a day, that flocked there in its heyday, but
Clifton’s is definitely a must-stop for Southern
California natives bent on a nostalgia trip and tourists
wanting an "authentic" L.A. experience in a town
where history often is subsumed by a craving for all
the same, but it’s also different. It’s been praised
by wistful nostalgists, but also panned by strident
purists. It still serves the comfort-food staples —
chefs are said to consult recipe cards unearthed from 1935
— but has added an uber-healthful salad bar, vegan and
gluten-free options and the seemingly obligatory
craft-beer bar. The original kitschy outdoors theme for
the interior endures, but Meieran and his design minions
have supersized it, most notably adding a three-story,
40-foot steel and concrete redwood tree that looks so
lifelike it puts cell-tower "trees" to shame.
to more-upscale downtown establishments, many of which
Meieran built and owns, Clifton’s remains something of a
bargain. A hearty turkey dinner with all the fixin’s
will set you back about $15. That may not seem affordable
to the homeless and those hovering near the poverty line
— who, historians note, dined on a pay-what-you-can
basis back in the old Clifton’s, circa World War II —
but Meieran has made an effort to retain some of the
original’s civic-mindedness. To that end, 10 percent of
the workers are from the homeless program Midnight Mission
or are at-risk youth.
to be sure, Clifton’s no longer is an extension of the
down-and-out bread line. Original owner Clifford Clifton,
whose parents were Salvation Army missionaries, dubbed his
cafeteria the "Golden Rule Restaurant" — i.e,
you got a square meal even if you couldn’t pay. But even
during the height of the Depression, Clifton’s was much
more than a gussied-up soup kitchen. Back in the day, it
drew an eclectic mix of notable Angelenos. How eclectic?
Try L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury and
Nathanael West among its regulars. In later years,
filmmaker David Lynch occasionally slid into a booth.
days, you’re more likely to find the technorati, rather
than Hollywood glitterati, holing up here. At least, that’s
the way it’s been hyped since its reopening in
September, based on the scores of Instagram feeds
featuring campy interior shots of Clifton’s. Los Angeles
Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently
opined that "this spiffed-up temple of
idiosyncrasy" is geared toward a "target
demographic (that) probably first learned about its
rebirth on a glowing screen of some kind" and that
these young influencers "may reminisce about (their
first) visit on a third (visit)." History, Hawthorne
worried, might be shunted aside because "new kitsch
has been laid alongside well-scrubbed old kitsch."
visit last month somewhat refuted such traditionalist
fretting. During weekday lunch hour, the line stretching
outside the door was 20 deep, with nary a man-bun,
Converse-wearing hipster in sight. The only people with
blue hair were elderly women with unfortunate dye jobs.
People held canes, not selfie-sticks. For sure, there were
non-AARP customers, but they had come with their parents
who, back in the day, came with their parents, and so on.
line parted near the door, where a party emerged from the
dimly lit dining area to the brightness of Broadway.
Brothers Ernie and Edward Garcia, along with their mother,
Virginia, all of Claremont, were expressing a voluble
Yelp-like review people could overhear.
were born and raised on Clifton’s, and I gotta say …
it’s not the same," Ernie said.
"The food is dry."
"The aesthetics is nice, but that’s as far as it
"Knowing there’s so much history and all the
(stuffed) bears and stuff like being in a forest, that’s
a nostalgia thing for us. But the food is not real Clifton’s.
Clifton’s was such comfort food. It was just bad."
Garcia family’s assessment apparently did not dissuade
those in line. Nobody left. Maybe they had read that
Clifton’s pastry chef is none other than Michael Luna,
who has worked for Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and at Le
Foret in New Orleans. Maybe they just wanted to eat
whatever was available in a campy setting. Or maybe they
just had a craving for Jell-O.
milled about, necks craning to take in the five-story
facade with the burnished marquee saying "Living
History" and "Cabinet of Curiosities"
rather than the original "Meals for Millions
Foundation" and "Food Service Training
School." Just then, another diner emerged, Catalina
Maravilla, 64, of Burbank.
haven’t been here for 34 years," she said. "I
used to come all the time back then. I’ve been waiting
for it to reopen. The restaurant itself, the decorations?
I am extremely pleased. A few details are different, like
the stairs are different and a lot of those (stuffed)
animals are new. But I think it’s lovely."
she said, index finger pointing upward. "I’m picky,
extremely picky. I used to come all the time for the
traditional ham. And they don’t have it now! They ask me
inside, ‘Is everything OK?’ I said, ‘No, you have no
ham. Where is the traditional ham? I was coming for the
ham.’ That’s the only dish I care about. There were
other Clifton’s, you know, in Century City, Cerritos and
Covina. All closed. I went to all of them. And the reason
I went was for the ham. Now, no ham. Very sad. I talked to
the manager. I opened my big mouth. I want ham."
without ham, the offerings along the bustling cafeteria
lines and stations can be daunting, resulting in a
paralysis of choices. Row upon row of macaroni and potato
salads in small porcelain dishes are lined up next to
legions of fruit cups and steaming cauldrons of soup. That
evocative throwback feel is broken when you reach the
salad bar, thoroughly 21st century. Its sign may be in a
’50s font, but it touts ingredients as being
"locally sourced, always organic," providing the
diner with the exact location where the field greens (Blue
Heron Farms, in Watsonville) and heirloom tomatoes (Tutti
Frutti Farms, in Lompoc) are grown.
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Hot Line and Carving Station feature barbecue ribs, roast
beef, fried chicken and baked mac-and-cheese, all cooked
in the 10,000-square-foot kitchen on the fifth floor and
transported, via dumbwaiter, to the first-floor steamer
tables. That’s basically how the food was prepared in
the old days. You don’t get a lot of
"presentation" and "plating" at
Clifton’s; they’ll pile on the stuffing and slop on
creamed corn without a thought to aesthetics – as it
is like grade school all over again," Gordon Sneddon
of Whittier said.
grade-school cafeterias don’t feature a taxidermied
mountain lion that stares at you when you’re noshing on
a tri-tip, or keep the place so dark you’re almost in
need of a miner’s lamp, or waft big-band music from the
it’s cafeteria-style, Clifton’s is perfect for
downtown workers wanting to grab a quick bite for lunch.
But people tend to linger, take a postprandial stroll,
check out the many nooks and alcoves, wildlife dioramas,
the fossilized dinosaur eggs, the 4.7 billion-year-old
bronzed meteorite embedded in a bar made from the
century-old altar of a Boston church, the waterfall, and,
of course, that 40-foot faux redwood that serves as a
centerpiece in the atrium.
on a couch positioned at the base of the tree, where a
fireplace warmed customers even on a 72-degree day,
Jonathan Taylor seemed well-sated after his meal.
best roast beef I’ve had in a long time," said the
classical guitarist from Los Angeles. "I had what I
call The Standard: roast beef, mashed potatoes, cranberry
sauce. That bartender over there knows his drinks. He took
10 minutes to put that absinthe rinse in my drink. He’s
not a hack. He knows his proportions and how to chill.
That’s a good sign."
looked around, utterly content to watch the diners come
and go and gawk at the stuffed animals. Like so many
others, he had come to Clifton’s in decades past. But,
unlike some others, he doesn’t pine for the old days. He
likes Clifton’s just fine in its current incarnation.
you imagine, during the Depression, the lines out the door
here on Broadway?" Taylor asked. "People think
it’s bad today. They have no idea of 35 percent
unemployment. Clifton’s was the only food some people
got. Compared to that, today we’ve got it pretty
that. You can leave here full and not spend a lot of
money. Plus, there’s the Jell-O. There’s always room
648 South Broadway, Los Angeles
Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m. — 2 a.m.; Saturdays-Sundays 10
a.m. — 2 a.m.
info: (213) 627-1673