News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 9 to 10 a.m.
Business & Economy

Does the new Clifton's Cafeteria have any of the old charm?




The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The main room in the renovated Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The main room in the renovated Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
Murals are still on the walls throughout Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The three story redwood inside the new Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
Natural history in Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
Natural history in Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
One of the many bars in the new Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka
The third floor of Clifton's Cafeteria.
The map room in Clifton's Cafeteria.
Ryan Tanaka


Listen to story

05:58
Download this story 2.0MB

If you took a trip back to Los Angeles in 1935 you'd be privy to a couple of things. Benny Goodman would be launching the swing era at the Palomar Theatre. And in downtown on Broadway, Clifford Clinton was opening one of his cafeterias.

"In 1935 Broadway was absolutely the backbone of Southern California’s Entertainment industry. And Shopping. And then Clifton's was there," says Charles Phoenix, Take Two regular and an expert on L.A. history. "You’d walk into Clifton's and all of the sudden you’d be in the Redwood Forest. That’s why they called it Clifton’s Brookdale Lodge."

The restaurant was designed to look like the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was kitschy, but charming. There were murals of trees on the walls, taxidermied animals and a little chapel in the corner of the main room:

"When you walk in the front door, look up to your right and up kind of on the second floor… is this little tiny structure with a pointed roof on it," explains Phoenix. "And you can walk up the stairs and go in there. There’s room for one and a half people. You sit down on the little bench, which is like kind of has morphed out of the rock. You see through this glass window like these plastic plants that have been there since about probably 1957, which is the last time I think Clifton's had any sort of a remodel at all. And you push a button and you hear this…"

Phoenix says, "I do believe that Clifford Clinton was a very religious man... In fact he was a missionary. And I mean this is just part of his missionary efforts."

Clifton’s inspired people like Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney who went there for the ambiance and for the food, but Clifford Clinton made sure that anyone could afford a meal at his restaurant. There were always affordable birthday cakes, Jell-O and a meat carving station that was part of serving Thanksgiving year round. Because goal wasn’t just to nourish your soul, but your stomach too… affordably of course.

In 2011 Clifton's shut down. Bought by developer Andrew Meieran a year earlier, the hope was that it would only be closed for a few months. 

Five years later it's finally opening.

"I’ve often tried to figure out the moment that I made the decision that I had to purchase Clifton's," says Andrew while standing in the foyer of the renovated restaurant. "It comes down to a moment when I walked in… where I felt that it was a flickering and fading part of L.A.’s history. And I recognized that it needed to be saved."

So, is any of the old charm still there?

Starting on the first floor, there are still the murals on the walls and the pillars made to look like redwoods. The chapel still stands in the corner. And the brightly lit cafeteria is serving food.

The first floor largely looks the same as it used to, but things get noticeably more modern as you walk up the stairs where there's a working old-timey soda fountain, a bar and a giant three story replica of a redwood tree.

Follow the tree upwards and you’ll find a different experience on each floor:

There’s a gothic bar and private seating on the third.

On the fourth they’ll have a higher end restaurant and another bar, a tiki bar and something called the map room. Whereas the old Clifton's didn't serve alcohol, this one has countless places to drink.

But what about the food?

"One of the things that we did initially was to get rid of not natural ingredients," says Andrew. "And when I say not natural, I mean sauces that look like they were radioactive that look like they came out of years and years of what was institutional style of cooking from that era."

Don’t worry, they’re still going to be serving Jell-O, birthday cakes and Thanksgiving year round. 

But the number one question I got when I told people that we were doing this piece was "Is it going to still be affordable?"

Andrew says yes, but was a little vague on the details.

They’ll have affordable options like their daily blue plate specials which are priced out to about 10 bucks.

"They are across the board from Savory pies to fried chicken to pasta dishes… they change regularly and they’re going to be based upon seasonal availability and different market factors."

Andrew says that they’re working with the community, hiring people through local charities and giving out meal vouchers too, but the days of the 25 cent coffee are gone.

How will the new Clifton's fit into the changing downtown L.A. scene?

Not sure, but you can check it out yourself because it's now open.

Let us know your thoughts. 

To hear the story that A Martinez put together about the history of the old Clifton's and what the new one is like, click on the audio at the top of this post.