Under New Management - Off-Ramp for 9/25/2010

Clifton's Cafeteria, icon from 1930s, gets first new "owner" outside the family

Mercer 10533

John Rabe

Linda Dishman of the LA Conservancy, Robert Clinton, new operator Andrew Meieran, Don Clinton.

The baton of operating Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown LA has been passed from the Clinton family to Andrew Meieran, who promises to bring back the restaurant's splendor, and gently renovate it to include a bar, a bakery, and a bunch of new jobs.

Listen in to the news conference featuring City Councilman Jose Huizar, Don and Robert Clinton (son and grandson of founder Clifford Clinton), and Andrew Meieran. Off-Ramp host John Rabe also talks with community activist Brady Westwater.

I guess the first thing to say is that Clifton's Brookside Cafeteria, the historic downtown woodland-themed restaurant, has not technically been "sold."

Instead, Andrew Meieran (below, with tray), who owns the downtown bar The Edison, has secured a 40-year lease to run Clifton's. Clifton's founding family, the Clintons, will be Meieran's landlord, and told me this arrangement eases their financial strain considerably. (After decades of leasing the building on South Broadway, for some reason they bought the building at the height of the real estate bubble. Yikes.)

(Andrew Meieran and Clifton's tray. Image: John Rabe)

Meieran, a well-spoken young man who said Clifton's is at once a "quintessential LA business and an antithetical one," says he fell in love with Clifton's in the mid-1990s, when he first visited downtown Los Angeles, and his continued love of the place seems genuine.

Meieran says "I’m still madly in love with the place, and that’s why I worked so hard to purchase the property, and why I’m going to continue to work so hard to actually preserve the property, restore the property, and bring back the property to what it was in the 30s."

In brief, here are the plans he outlined to me today at a news conference with Donald and Robert Clinton (son and grandson of founder Clifford Clinton, City Councilmember Jose Huizar, and Linda Dishman of the LA Conservancy

-- He'll immediately begin repairing and upgrading the place.

-- There'll be 3-6 months of working with the Conservancy, the ADA, fire safety officials, etc., to develop a plan to change the interior. In short, the downstairs would stay a cafeteria, but with improved food (more like the grand cafeteria food that used to be served at Clifton's) and the 2d floor becomes some sort of bar. This means upgrading code, complying with handicap accessibility, improving fire safety, etc., and making sure the changes don't hurt the historic interior and character. This part of the renovation is targeted to be done in 18 months.

-- The top floor's full-scale commercial bakery goes back into operation, to market Clifton's-brand baked goods. It's been scaled back since business has dropped from 10,000 customers a day, Meieran says, to 1,000 today. This could happen fairly soon.

-- Work with the Midnight Mission to create 100 new jobs for downtown residents, including formerly homeless people. (The Mission has a substantial restaurant school.) Meieran says into the forseeable future, he does not anticipate laying off any of the current Cifton's staffers, who have an average 20 years on the job.

All of this will happen, he says, without closing the cafeteria. (When Clifford began Clifton's in the 1930s, he did not shut down the previous cafeteria as he built Clifton's.) And -- are you sitting down -- Meieran says he eventually hopes to open Clifton's 24 hours a day.

How exactly, will the Conservancy guage whether Meieran's renovations are okay? It's complicated, but Cindy Olnick at the Conservancy laid it out for me in an email: 

Standards exist for different types of resources and projects; the ones most often used in cases like Clifton's are the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation (known as the Secretary's Standards). They guide preservation projects in a way that protects and enhances the authentic character of historic places while allowing for changes to meet contemporary needs. They're broadly written to allow flexibility based on the unique nature of each project. Just the facts, on our site. Much more, on the NPS site.

Brady Westwater, who bills himself as a "curator" of downtown, says Meieran's plan makes sense. In his analysis, you can't make money on cheap food served in a restaurant on Broadway, where rents are high. But a bar, as Meieran plans, can bring in the dough so you can keep the restaurant going. Westwater likes the plan so far, as does the LA Conservancy's Linda Dishman, who was at the news conference today.

So where does this leave us fans of Clifton's? First, the business may have been in trouble, as the Clinton's have discussed, because of their purchase of the building and the subsequent tanking of the economy ... so it was apparently in danger of closing, and the Meieran Plan keeps it open. Second, if you compare Meieran's plans to, say, the CVS'ing of the Golden Gate Theatre, the changes he has in mind are minor. And as LA City Councilman Jose Huizar said at today's news conference, historic preservation can't  just be about "pressing pause" and keeping something exactly the way you like it. 

Your only choice is clear: Go now. Eat at Clifton's. Have a hearty breakfast or some of those meat-falling-off-the-bone beef shortribs. Soak in the history.

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