A fixture in downtown Los Angeles, and holding its own since 1935, Clifton's is the last remaining eatery of the restaurant empire of Clifford Clinton, a third-generation restaurateur, do-gooder, and crusader against political corruption, Los Angeles-style.
Clifford Clinton opened his first downtown cafeteria in 1931, and called it "Clifton's" - a combination of his first and last names. It was located at 6th and Olive Street, and during the height of the Depression, it was known as the Cafeteria of the Golden Rule - a neon sign proclaimed "PAY WHAT YOU WISH."
In 1935 he opened the second location on Broadway, and in 1939, he redecorated both establishments. The Olive Street cafeteria became Clifton's Pacific Seas, and was done in an elaborate tropical theme. The Broadway location's decor was inspired by the forests of California's Santa Cruz Mountains. The walls were painted with murals of forests, and plaster rocks and fake trees were erected in the dining room. A waterfall runs from the second floor balcony down past landings where diners can sit beneath a family of bears trout fishing, or beneath a giant moose head mounted on the wall.
A devout Christian, Clinton installed a chapel in the restaurant, that customers could visit for a moment of quiet reflection.
Clifford Clinton and his wife Nelda ran the restaurant chain according to their principles. They believed in charity, and had a policy of never turning anyone away hungry. During the Depression, hundreds of people were served free meals from his basement soup kitchen. The policy of the restaurant remains today, "Dine Free if Not Delighted."
Clinton became involved in an effort by a scientist from USC to develop a high protein food supplment to feed the hungry. In 1946 he sold the restaurant chain to his children, to found a non-profit called Meals for Millions - a charity to feed the hungry world-wide.
Today, Clifton's is still run by family, and it's surprisingly busy on Broadway. From the entrance, you go down a side passage that takes you to the cafeteria serving area. Grab a tray, and slide it onto the steel rails.
How's the food? Well, if you're of a certain age and remember cafeterias, you know what you're in for. If you're younger? Well....go visit Yelp's page on Clifton's and see what people think of the food.
First up are small bowls of salads, fruit, and other appetizers. Would you like some cottage cheese? Pineapple chunks? Fruit salad? How about some shredded carrot salad? Pickled beets? Don't forget to pick up a dish of green jello with fruit cocktail molded inside.
There's a carving station with roast beef, turkey and ham, if you'd like that. In the next row, a steam-table offers swiss-steak, baked fish, and macaroni and cheese. You can get scalloped potatoes, steamed vegetables, and candied yams.
Clifton's menu offers traditional American-style cafeteria fare, but in acknowledgement of Broadway's changing demographic, it has added food items to appeal to Latino customers. You can get a dish of pico de gallo in the salad section, and the steam table has enchiladas, spanish rice, and pinto beans.
Check out the photos at the Yelp site - I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures on the food line, but someone did and they really show you what's on offer!
Desserts like pie, puddings and cakes are on offer, with whipped cream or not, as you like. The strawberry cake is supposed to be a popular item, I'm told. After you pay at the cashier station, you can enjoy your meal in the first floor dining room, beneath the friendly eye of the stuffed moosehead, or you can eat in the second floor dining room, and view the crowd below.
The third floor is decorated in a kind of 19th century high Victorian kitsch, with red-flocked wallpaper. But it's worth going up there to look at the display cases of historical memorabilia
The other day on NPR I heard that the building that houses Clifton's had been sold, and there was speculation that this Los Angeles classic would soon be no more, due to rising rents.
I can only hope that's not true. Clifford Clinton fed the hungry during tough economic times. Isn't this reason enough to keep his legacy thriving on Broadway today?
If you live in Southern California and you've never been to Clifton's, you should go. If you've been before, go make another visit. It may not be around for long.
If you don't live here, then look in your own community for its remaining classic eateries. Go to celebrate, and remember.
And have a dish of jello salad to support them.