SUNDAY DRIVE: A Bygone Era — And 35-Cent Cocktails — Are Not Necessarily Gone After All!

February 17, 2018
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Red and retro are just two of themes running through Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

Clifton’s Cafeteria, the oldest surviving cafeteria style eatery in Los Angeles, makes you act strangely.


For example, I never take selfies, but there I was taking a selfie of me with a taxidermied 90-year-old bison that must have cleared a ton, stretching some 6 feet tall and 11 feet long. I recently rewatched “Dancing with Wolves” so I felt nobly obliged to pose next to this prodigious paragon of the plains.


Then back by the second-level bar (Clifton’s boasts six altogether), I broke out into a dance, even busting a few moves that I thought were YouTube-able. The lively jazzy music fueled my jaded soul and pushed me across the worn floorboards.


Next, with Colleen, as my fellow explorer of L.A.’s historic core, I ordered a beer followed by a Mojito at the Monarch Bar. It was 3 p.m., and I never drink in the afternoon.


That’s what Clifton’s does to you.


Clifford Clinton (Clif-ton), a Salvation Army follower, opened his cafeteria in 1935, which quickly became an affordable mecca of meals, serving some 15,000 diners a day in the heart of the Depression. If you couldn’t pay, you didn’t or offered what you could afford. My mother who worked downtown in the 1960s for Pelta Furs (remember when people wore real fur) regularly brought us there to eat.


Developer Andrew Meiren bought the cafeteria in 2010 and spent the next five years — and $10 million — renovating it. That’s a lot of jello and mac and cheese you’ve got to sell, so you know Meiren’s heart was in the right place. His investment wasn’t going to be your typical L.A. flip. The Berkeley grad could have found better investments.


Returning to Clifton’s after a half-century absence, I didn’t know what to expect. Leaving the daylight of Broadway’s sunny streets, I felt as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a magical forest dominated by a 40-foot faux redwood towering four stories. The redwood is the centerpiece of an atrium overlooked by four levels of wining and dining activity.


What was most impressive to me is Clifton’s quirky and kitschy casualness. After ordering your Salisbury steak and strawberry pie, you can cart your tray to almost any intimate space in the cavernous quarters. Fancy some navy bean soup with a lion looking over your shoulder, enjoy your hand-carved ham and brisket while a moose head competes for your attention, dip into your pudding and pie as a stuffed black bear (now extinct) scowls in this menangerie of mammals.


Clifton’s isn’t just full of fancy and whimsy, it’s full of history, too. It attracted writers like Ray Bradbury, when he was broke, and hosted crowds of fans who spilled out from Broadway’s grand movie palaces seeking to extend their enchanted evenings.

It’s a playground, a wonderland, and a woodland utopia that is helping lead L.A.’s renaissance.


This lion will catch your attention.


Clifton’s happy hour starts at 3 p.m., with many beer and wine specials. You can also order the house cocktail of the day for just 35 cents with any purchase. Imagine spoonfuls of Jell-O with cheesecake on the bottom, then washing it down with a 35 cents libation.


May the spirit of Clifford Clinton and its new proprietor Andrew Meiren live on forever!


648 S. Broadway Los Angeles CA 90014

213 627-1673


If you prefer your Sunday Drives also include shopping for a new home, call Colleen Bennett, longtime La Verne Realtor, Sotheby’s Interntional Realty, CalDRE: 1013172. 

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