Saturday, October 23, 2010


As varied and unique as the modern metropolis of Los Angeles is, much of its charm comes from its diverse history. Yes, I'm serious! And while one needs look no further than some of the (sadly decaying) classic buildings in Downtown LA, there's one in particular that has always stood out from the rest.

Clifton's Cafeteria opened in 1935, and continues to hold the title of the world's largest public cafeteria to this day. Upon my arrival in LA, I used to ride by Clifton's regularly while taking the bus back from my college classes at FIDM. It always looked so kitschy and fun, but I never ventured inside. Who knew that 10 years later, jury duty would be the thing to change that?

As you step inside you're also stepping back in time and into a recreation of the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as Clifford Clinton imagined it when the restaurant received its famous makeover in 1939. The result? It's like the Country Bear Jamboree without the animatronics. Walt Disney's Imagineers clearly learned a few lessons on theming from the enormous interior of this eatery located in LA's Historic Core.

io9 recently posted an article about Clifton's, wherein I learned that in its earliest days it was also known as the "epicentre of 1930s pulp science fiction". Regularly frequented by the likes of Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen and L. Ron Hubbard (before he made up Scientology), I was amazed that this place I had seen so often had such a fascinating backstory.

So during my lunch break from jury duty, I decided to take a stroll down Broadway and finally enjoy a meal among the "Redwoods". Still set up as a cafeteria, I grabbed a tray adorned with the motto The Best in the West and made my way down the serving line. A veteran employee hand carved a roasted turkey sandwich for me, letting me know upon my request that "we don't have any cheese". Anywhere else I would have balked, but here it was just plain charming.

Using the grand staircase in the center, I journeyed past the waterfall up to the second level to enjoy my food and take in the sights. There are tables set up in nearly every nook and cranny of this place, which somehow manages to give it more character - without seeming crowded.

And speaking of crowds, they were sparse during my visit. To my left was a lone woman studying from a full spread of textbooks on a large table-for-six. To my right, I watched as an elderly Hispanic couple quietly said grace before beginning their meal. And then there was me...diversity doesn't even begin to describe it.

After finishing my lunch, I did a little more exploring. While the main dining room only utilizes two, the entire restaurant consists of a whopping five floors. The upper levels are roped off, but still brightly lit and well-maintained from the quick peek I was able to get. The third floor does not continue the "great outdoors" theme, and opts for a more elegant environment. The top floor houses Clifton's large commercial bakery.

The detail at every turn was just incredible. From the "animals" and "trees" to the oldies music playing over an appropriately-aging speaker system, it's hard not to get lost in the whole experience. It's like the great ancestor to the Rainforest Cafe, but without the meddling hands of corporate America.

Just a couple months ago back in September, Clifton's Cafeteria was acquired by the mastermind behind The Edison, an extraordinary and heavily-themed downtown nightclub (I've been there once, and I wanted to move in).

So far the only change seems to be that Clifton's is now open 24 hours a day, but plans were announced to turn some of the upper levels into "speakeasy"-style bars. While it's exciting - and I trust that it will be done right - I hope that the forest atmosphere of the first two floors remains intact.

Because after 75 years, Clifton's Cafeteria is more than a monument to the spectacle of days gone by. It's a piece of Los Angeles' history!

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