Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Clifton's Cafeteria

Restored 1930s facade of Clifton's Cafeteria

Clifton's Cafeteria has been a downtown L.A. institution since the early 1930s, when Clifford Clinton opened his first restaurant, Clifton's Pacific Seas. Decorated in a garish South Pacific motif—including a cascading waterfall!—the "cafeteria of the golden rule," where diners were encouraged to pay only what they thought was fair, was soon followed by Clifton's Brookdale. Modeled after the Brookdale Lodge, built around a grove of redwoods in Northern California, the second cafeteria featured fake trees, stuffed animals, and a small chapel. I used to eat lunch there when I briefly worked for Price Waterhouse in the late 1970s. It was sad and kitschy and unlike any other restaurant downtown, but I loved their white cake with whipped cream frosting and strawberries. Plus they served jello!

Though the Pacific Seas closed in 1960, Brookdale remained open until four years ago, when it was bought and closed for extensive renovation. Its grand reopening, later this week, is one of the most highly anticipated events among L.A. history buffs and foodies alike. We got a sneak peak last night during an L.A. Conservancy fundraiser. 

New neon signs

Even though we arrived an hour early, we were not the first ones in line. Many people were dressed in 1940s/50s garb and several shared stories of long ago meals, when an aging Clifton's was just a dumpy old cafeteria. Everyone oohhed and aahhed when the exterior neon lights turned on. Then, finally, the doors opened. VIPS, who got to look down on us from the restricted third floor, entered first. 

Glorious bakery
Cafeteria tray

We were waved in and directed to the left, past a glorious display of baked goods. The kitchen, which (if memory serves) was small and dingey, is now all state-of-the-art chrome and gorgeous. I would have taken photos, except I immediately grabbed a tray and started loading-up small plates of food: Waldorf salad, pizza, curried cauliflower on a bed of mashed potatoes, and the best bowl of chicken noodle soup I've ever had. The chef's goal may be to honor the original menu as much as possible, but his food is top-notch gourmet all the way—a thousand times better than the last time we ate at Clifton's, some six or seven years ago.

Swing band and a view of the former mezzanine

After the initial frenzy, we noshed at a table on the second floor (formerly the mezzanine), overlooking the main dining room. A 10-piece swing band played nearby. I glanced around between bites. The old redwood forest decor has been lovingly restored and large stuffed animals—a bison, bear, and deer—are now exhibited in museum-quality display cases. In fact, the main floor looks like a cross between the lobby of Disney's Grand Californian hotel and the L.A. Natural History Museum's North American mammal hall—only Clifton's, of course, is a lot noisier and hipper. It should be a fun place to dine, once the crowds subside.

Forest wall mural and faux stone ledge (main dining room)
Faux redwood tree (bar)
Light fixture (original?)

By the time we finished eating, the dance floor was completely obliterated by people waiting to get into the kitchen. Still, we managed to find a small corner to swing and twirl to a couple of songs. I then made a beeline to the desserts to grab a piece of white cake. It didn't have whipped cream frosting or strawberries, but was good nonetheless—the perfect ending to a fun evening. People were still entering as we left.

Last glimpse of the bakery through the front window

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

I went to Clifton's in the 50's--several times. I remember that my sister and I thought we were in a magical place. We loved it so much, especially the little reward token that each child was able to take home. I can't wait to visit the new Clifton's and take my little grand daughters there. It will bring back memories and be so much fun.