By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Broadway Theater District in Downtown Los Angeles was filled with theaters, movie palaces and retail stores. The former Los Angeles Yellow Car ran along Broadway bringing people to and fro. Broadway was the commercial capital of the nation. And in the heart of Broadway, and among the bustling crowds on the street, Clifton’s Cafeteria opened.
The Original Clifton’s Cafeteria
The first Clifton’s Cafeteria opened in 1931, amidst the Great Depression. Founded by Clifford Clinton, the name Clifton’s was created by combining his name. The location on Broadway, which opened in 1935 and was initially called “Clifton’s Brookdale,” was the second Clifton’s facility. While once part of a chain of eight Clifton’s restaurants, Clifton’s Cafeteria at 648 S. Broadway is noted as the oldest cafeteria in Los Angeles and the largest public cafeteria in the world. With over 600 seats on three floors, the space is 50,000 square feet.
Each of the Clifton’s restaurants was known for having its own theme. The Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway was named and modeled after the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains that Clifford Clinton had spent time at as a child. The original location had a twenty-foot waterfall, a quiet stream that ran through the dining room, faux redwood trees, a stuffed moose head, animated raccoons, a fishing bear and a life-size forest on canvas covering one wall. The restaurant was like entering a scene from a Disney story.
Anyone who was anyone ate at Clifton’s. It is said that Jack Kerouac ate a meal at Clifton’s during a cross-country visit that formed the basis for his book “On The Road.” Clifton’s is where the birth of modern science fiction took place. It was the original meeting place for the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, founded in 1934. There are tables on the second floor where the likes of Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard and others would meet on a weekly basis.
Clifton’s was also known for embodying “Clifton’s Golden Rule.” Clifford Clinton had a strong Christian ethos and set a precedent in which no one was turned away hungry. Whether you paid or not, you could get a meal at Clifton’s. As they opened during the Great Depression, it is said that during one 90-day period, 10,000 people ate for free at Clifton’s.
Clifton’s Cafeteria was in operation for 74 years, serving up to 2000 people a day through 2009. In September 2010, nightclub operator and developer Andrew Meieran purchased Clifton’s and the cafeteria closed in 2011 for remodeling.
Clifton’s Cafeteria Today
Beginning in 2013 and led by Los Angeles City Council Member José Huizar, the ten-year Bringing Back Broadway plan was initiated. Clifton’s Cafeteria reopened in 2015 as many of the historic vacant theaters are being reactivated and other economic development is being directed to Broadway.
The Clifton’s Cafeteria of today pays homage in many ways to the original Clifton’s while modernizing it for today. The original 1904 building façade is now visible after removing an aluminum façade that was placed in 1963. The sign now says “Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities,” and that it is.
The now five-story space has a California redwoods theme. A hollow redwood tree has been placed in the center of the building and it reaches through an atrium that was cut into all three floors. There is a 4.7 billion-year-old 250-pound meteorite perched on one bar and fossilized dinosaur eggs on the floor of another bar. There is a former cathedral case as the back bar in one area and a large table made of sparkling geodes in the basement. With the idea of conservation, and in consultation with the National History Museum, there are taxidermy animals and murals of Yosemite Valley and Muir Woods.
There are still a few original items from Clifton’s that can be found as well. There is also a small chapel tucked away that was created by Clifford Clinton to offer Depression-weary Angelenos a place to feed their souls. You can enter this little chapel and look at a model of a miniature redwood forest while listening to a pre-recorded monologue about spirituality. There is also a neon light is on display that was found switched on when a partition wall was removed. According to the Museum of Neon Art, it is believed that this neon light may be the oldest continuously illuminated light in the world, having been continuously lit for 77 years.
On the ground floor, the original 1935 cafeteria has been updated and offers stations for carved meats, salads, rotisserie meats, sandwiches, a wood oven for pizza, desserts, drinks and more. At the entrance to Clifton’s there is a counter to purchase bakery goods. Soon there will be an old-school steakhouse on the third floor, offering an elevated dining experience.
While Clifton’s Cafeteria no longer offers free meals to anyone in need, Clifton’s has hired staff from Homeboy Industries and the Midnight Mission. And, guests are given the option to make contributions to local charities with an added line on their check.
For 80 years, Clifton’s Cafeteria did not serve any alcohol. But now there are five bars inside. Designed to be one giant cocktail program, each bar has its own identiy. According to bar consultant Michael Neff, “in a bar, it is very rare to be able to look at ninety percent of the population and say you have something for them. But at Clifton’s, there is a place for everyone to have the experience they want.”
The Monarch Bar is the main bar when you enter Clifton’s. This is the casual neighborhood bar that is always open and welcome everyone. Featuring California spirits and beers, the drinks served are familiar flavors in unique presentations. There is also a classic soda fountain where guests can enjoy alcoholic and non-alcoholic phosphate sodas and ice cream sundaes.
Up a flight of stairs, Gothic Bar is adjacent to the Monarch Bar. Gothic Bar offers more of a high-volume nightlife experience. It is about showmanship with the large cathedral case as the back bar. With the main bandstand is in this bar, Gothic Bar features bands and DJs whose music will travel through the hollow redwood tree and disseminate throughout the entire space.
Located on the fourth floor, and where the steakhouse will be, the bar at Treetops is spirits focused. Offering rare, curated spirits that are not available anywhere else, Treetops offers an elevated experience in an Art Deco-style bar and lounge.
Also located on the fourth floor, Pacific Seas has a Polynesian theme and is considered the tiki bar. But, Pacific Seas is celebrating the Golden Age of travel. The entrance, the “map room,” is covered with old maps and it honors the PanAm generation. Showcasing tiki drinks as a cocktail experience, the bar is a 1930s chris craft boat.
Located in the basement, Shadow Box will take you down the rabbit hole, bringing back a sense of wonder to cocktails. Using tricks from mixology, cooking, magic and more, Shadowbox pays tribute to science and nature and will challenges all the senses – taste, visual and aromatic.
Clifton’s really is a “Cabinet of Curiosities”. From the past to the present, it is an iconic place that offers so much to see and experience and hopefully will entertain many more generations to come.