Sam McManis

Discoveries: A taste of L.A. history reopens

Clifton’s Cafeteria, rooted in the 1930s, recently reopened in downtown Los Angeles and features a simulated (steel and concrete) redwood tree.
Clifton’s Cafeteria, rooted in the 1930s, recently reopened in downtown Los Angeles and features a simulated (steel and concrete) redwood tree. Los Angeles Times

The Jell-O molds, they are a-quiverin’. All lined up along the cafeteria rows, they seem alive, almost sentient, swaying like drunkards on petite white dessert plates whenever diners reach out and snatch up squares of sweetness.

These chunks of gelatinous sugar and collagen come in colors not often found in food that Michael Pollan would recommend, electric blue and traffic-cone orange. Globules of fruit hang suspended in the jiggly mass, though a positive identification of the exact berry embedded therein proves murky. Little matter: It’s Jell-O, so it’s going on the tray, no questions asked.

Isn’t that just so, so Clifton’s?

As with the over-the-top faux woodsy interior, replete with taxidermied animals posed in mid-snarl amid a lush redwood forest motif, Clifton’s Cafeteria on Broadway and Seventh Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles wouldn’t be the same without its signature wiggly confection that once sold for 35 cents but still seems a bargain today at $2.

This old-school cafeteria, which served hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare such as roast beef and whirled peas and chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, to hungry, often homeless, Angelenos since Depression times, has endured a depression of its own. Closing in 2010 after 75 years, when the last of the Clifford Clinton family could no longer make a go of it, Clifton’s was bought for $3.6 million by retro-loving developer Andrew Meieran, who seemingly owns half of downtown.

Five years and $10 million in renovations later, it’s back and drawing crowds. Maybe not the sheer numbers, estimated at 15,000 a day, that flocked there in its heyday, but Clifton’s is definitely a must-stop for Southern California natives bent on a nostalgia trip and tourists wanting an “authentic” L.A. experience in a town where history often is subsumed by a craving for all things new.

It’s the same, but it’s also different. It’s been praised by wistful nostalgists, but also panned by strident purists. It still serves the comfort-food staples – chefs are said to consult recipe cards unearthed from 1935 – but has added an uber-healthful salad bar, vegan and gluten-free options and the seemingly obligatory craft-beer bar. The original kitschy outdoors theme for the interior endures, but Meieran and his design minions have supersized it, most notably adding a three-story, 40-foot steel and concrete redwood tree that looks so lifelike it puts cell-tower “trees” to shame.

Compared to more-upscale downtown establishments, many of which Meieran built and owns, Clifton’s remains something of a bargain. A hearty turkey dinner with all the fixin’s will set you back about $15. That may not seem affordable to the homeless and those hovering near the poverty line – who, historians note, dined on a pay-what-you-can basis back in the old Clifton’s, circa World War II – but Meieran has made an effort to retain some of the original’s civic-mindedness. To that end, 10 percent of the workers are from the homeless program Midnight Mission or are at-risk youth.

But, to be sure, Clifton’s no longer is an extension of the down-and-out bread line. Original owner Clifford Clifton, whose parents were Salvation Army missionaries, dubbed his cafeteria the “Golden Rule Restaurant” – i.e, you got a square meal even if you couldn’t pay. But even during the height of the Depression, Clifton’s was much more than a gussied-up soup kitchen. Back in the day, it drew an eclectic mix of notable Angelenos. How eclectic? Try L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury and Nathanael West among its regulars. In later years, filmmaker David Lynch occasionally slid into a booth.

These days, you’re more likely to find the technorati, rather than Hollywood glitterati, holing up here. At least, that’s the way it’s been hyped since its reopening in September, based on the scores of Instagram feeds featuring campy interior shots of Clifton’s. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne recently opined that “this spiffed-up temple of idiosyncrasy” is geared toward a “target demographic (that) probably first learned about its rebirth on a glowing screen of some kind” and that these young influencers “may reminisce about (their first) visit on a third (visit).” History, Hawthorne worried, might be shunted aside because “new kitsch has been laid alongside well-scrubbed old kitsch.”

A visit last month somewhat refuted such traditionalist fretting. During weekday lunch hour, the line stretching outside the door was 20 deep, with nary a man-bun, Converse-wearing hipster in sight. The only people with blue hair were elderly women with unfortunate dye jobs. People held canes, not selfie-sticks. For sure, there were non-AARP customers, but they had come with their parents who, back in the day, came with their parents, and so on.

The line parted near the door, where a party emerged from the dimly lit dining area to the brightness of Broadway. Brothers Ernie and Edward Garcia, along with their mother, Virginia, all of Claremont, were expressing a voluble Yelp-like review people could overhear.

“We were born and raised on Clifton’s, and I gotta say … it’s not the same,” Ernie said.

Virginia: “The food is dry.”

Edward: “The aesthetics is nice, but that’s as far as it goes.”

Ernie: “Knowing there’s so much history and all the (stuffed) bears and stuff like being in a forest, that’s a nostalgia thing for us. But the food is not real Clifton’s. Clifton’s was such comfort food. It was just bad.”

“Dry,” Virginia repeated.

The Garcia family’s assessment apparently did not dissuade those in line. Nobody left. Maybe they had read that Clifton’s pastry chef is none other than Michael Luna, who has worked for Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and at Le Foret in New Orleans. Maybe they just wanted to eat whatever was available in a campy setting. Or maybe they just had a craving for Jell-O.

People milled about, necks craning to take in the five-story facade with the burnished marquee saying “Living History” and “Cabinet of Curiosities” rather than the original “Meals for Millions Foundation” and “Food Service Training School.” Just then, another diner emerged, Catalina Maravilla, 64, of Burbank.

“I haven’t been here for 34 years,” she said. “I used to come all the time back then. I’ve been waiting for it to reopen. The restaurant itself, the decorations? I am extremely pleased. A few details are different, like the stairs are different and a lot of those (stuffed) animals are new. But I think it’s lovely.”

The food?

“Listen,” she said, index finger pointing upward. “I’m picky, extremely picky. I used to come all the time for the traditional ham. And they don’t have it now! They ask me inside, ‘Is everything OK?’ I said, ‘No, you have no ham. Where is the traditional ham? I was coming for the ham.’ That’s the only dish I care about. There were other Clifton’s, you know, in Century City, Cerritos and Covina. All closed. I went to all of them. And the reason I went was for the ham. Now, no ham. Very sad. I talked to the manager. I opened my big mouth. I want ham.”

Even without ham, the offerings along the bustling cafeteria lines and stations can be daunting, resulting in a paralysis of choices. Row upon row of macaroni and potato salads in small porcelain dishes are lined up next to legions of fruit cups and steaming cauldrons of soup. That evocative throwback feel is broken when you reach the salad bar, thoroughly 21st century. Its sign may be in a ’50s font, but it touts ingredients as being “locally sourced, always organic,” providing the diner with the exact location where the field greens (Blue Heron Farms, in Watsonville) and heirloom tomatoes (Tutti Frutti Farms, in Lompoc) are grown.

The Hot Line and Carving Station feature barbecue ribs, roast beef, fried chicken and baked mac-and-cheese, all cooked in the 10,000-square-foot kitchen on the fifth floor and transported, via dumbwaiter, to the first-floor steamer tables. That’s basically how the food was prepared in the old days. You don’t get a lot of “presentation” and “plating” at Cliftron’s; they’ll pile on the stuffing and slop on creamed corn without a thought to aesthetics – as it should be.

“This is like grade school all over again,” Gordon Sneddon of Whittier said.

But grade-school cafeterias don’t feature a taxidermied mountain lion that stares at you when you’re noshing on a tri-tip, or keep the place so dark you’re almost in need of a miner’s lamp, or waft big-band music from the speakers.

Because it’s cafeteria-style, Clifton’s is perfect for downtown workers wanting to grab a quick bite for lunch. But people tend to linger, take a postprandial stroll, check out the many nooks and alcoves, wildlife dioramas, the fossilized dinosaur eggs, the 4.7 billion-year-old bronzed meteorite embedded in a bar made from the century-old altar of a Boston church, the waterfall, and, of course, that 40-foot faux redwood that serves as a centerpiece in the atrium.

Lounging on a couch positioned at the base of the tree, where a fireplace warmed customers even on a 72-degree day, Jonathan Taylor seemed well-sated after his meal.

“The best roast beef I’ve had in a long time,” said the classical guitarist from Los Angeles. “I had what I call The Standard: roast beef, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce. That bartender over there knows his drinks. He took 10 minutes to put that absinthe rinse in my drink. He’s not a hack. He knows his proportions and how to chill. That’s a good sign.”

Taylor looked around, utterly content to watch the diners come and go and gawk at the stuffed animals. Like so many others, he had come to Clifton’s in decades past. But, unlike some others, he doesn’t pine for the old days. He likes Clifton’s just fine in its current incarnation.

“Can you imagine, during the Depression, the lines out the door here on Broadway?” Taylor asked. “People think it’s bad today. They have no idea of 35 percent unemployment. Clifton’s was the only food some people got. Compared to that, today we’ve got it pretty good.”

True, that. You can leave here full and not spend a lot of money. Plus, there’s the Jell-O. There’s always room for Jell-O.

Clifton’s Cafeteria

Where: 648 South Broadway, Los Angeles

Hours: Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.; Saturdays-Sundays 10 a.m. - 2 a.m.

More info: (213) 627-1673