Friday, December 21, 2007

Lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria

If you've never visited Clifton's Cafeteria, LA's oldest cafeteria, than you definitely should put it on your to do list, because walking through this restaurant's portals will take you somewhere that you'd never expect a cafeteria to take you to.

First, let's talk briefly about the Clifton Cafeteria's founder, Clifford Clinton. The Clinton family business was a chain of Clinton Cafeterias in San Francisco. Upon his father's retirement, Clifford bought out the cafeterias along with two partners. Due to creative differences, Clifford eventually sold his ownership interest to his partners and made the move to Los Angeles, where he wanted a fresh start. Needing a new name for his business, he combined letters from his first and last name to come up with Clifton's (CLIF-ford and clin-TON).

The first Clifton's Cafeteria opened in 1931 and was on Olive Street, but 8 years later, it underwent an amazing transformation. Inspired by a family trip to Asia and the South Pacific, Clifton transformed his restaurant to one of tropical splendor. The facade of the building featured artificial tropical foliage and a waterfall, while inside there was a large tropical jungle mural, a grass hut, an interior waterfall and even a rain hut where a mini tropical storm would make an appearance every 20 minutes. Known as Clifton's Pacific Seas, it remained a tourist attraction until it closed down in 1960.

In 1935, a second cafeteria known as Clifford's Brookdale was built on Broadway. As a child growing up, Clifford spent family vacations in the Santa Cruz Mountains where beautiful redwood trees resided, not far from the Brookdale Lodge. 72 years later, Clifton's Brookdale is the only surviving Clifton's Cafeteria.

Given the description I gave you earlier about Clifford's Pacific Seas, I'm sure you can already imagine what the inside of Clifford's Brookedale may have looked like. But first, I want to mention the beautiful mosaic or tile art that is on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Directly outside the front door is a sun motif with the words "Clifford's Brookdale" cutting into the sun's rays. On either side of the sun, you'll see vignettes depicting things to see and do in LA like the one featuring the Hollywood Bowl or a scene with bathers about to dive into the water which represents beaches.

After you've done with your art appreciating, walk through the doors and what you'll experience is a forest wonderland. To the right is a large canvas of life size trees painted by renowned L.A. muralist, Einar Petersen. Towering up to the second floor are artificial rock facades. Above one of those rock formations is a little chapel and upon entering its small space, you can press a button to hear a recording of "The Parable of the Redwoods". To your left is a waterfall that starts at the second level and cascades into a gentle stream that eventually makes it way to the first level of the restaurant. Even steel columns that are supporting the restaurant have a covering of bark to give a feeling of there being actual trees inside the main dining room.

Of course, it wouldn't be a forest without wild life, so there are actual bear statues, with one that even has a fish dinner on a plate, standing right next to the stairwell between the 1st and 2nd levels. By the way, there's even a much plainer third level at Clifton's. You walk up to see red and gold tapestry-like walls with a red carpet and hanging plants. While up there, take a look at the signage that says that it's all you can eat for 64 cents. Amazing, huh? Along with the signage, you can also take a peek at a portrait of founder, Clifford Clinton himself.

My first visit to Clifton's Brookdale was 3 years ago and I've been there a few times since then, but every time I walk in, I always feel like I should be wearing hiking boots, pitching a tent and keeping an eye out for Yogi Bear.

As for the food, there's definitely a lot to choose from. It's a combination of Hispanic and American Cuisine. What I always found interesting was once you pick up your tray, the section that comes first showcases their desserts. I always try to make sure that I get a piece of strawberry pie if that's available. After the desserts, you can choose from a variety of salads like coleslaw, macaroni, green bean as well as various veggie sides.

Following the salads, you can get rolls, garlic bread, pasta followed by the main entrée section which can include anything from enchiladas to pork chops. Once you've filled up your tray, you make your way down to the cashier and pay up. I have to say that I've never had a disappointing meal at Clifton's. The food isn't fancy, but it tastes good, it's hearty and it's filling. For cafeteria food, I'd say Clifton's is pretty good.

As mentioned earlier, Clifton's Brookdale is the only one left in the chain. There were also 2 or 3 other Clifton's Cafeterias that made it into LA suburbs that are no longer in existence. Clifton's Greenery, which was in West Covina, finally closed its doors a few years ago.

Clifton's Cafeteria is definitely one of downtown LA's quirkiest landmarks and really is a must visit for any Angeleno. If you're only going to go there once, visit around Christmas time. They really get into the holiday spirit as you've probably already noticed by the pictures I took of Clifton's that are posted in the link below. On that note, I want to wish everyone Happy Holidays!

To see pics, go to:

Clifton's Cafeteria
648 S Broadway

Los Angeles, CA 90014
(213) 627-1673

Clifton's on Urbanspoon

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