It Was Worth the Wait: Clifton’s Cafeteria is Reopening at Last

Clifton's Cafeteria entrance

Following a four-year, $14 million renovation, one of the most storied restaurants in Los Angeles history is about to reopen at last. Clifton’s Cafeteria celebrated this grand occasion last week with a ribbon cutting ceremony and sneak preview for invited guests and media. The event was hosted by Tony Award-winning actress June Lockhart, who starred in two classic TV series, Lassie and Lost in Space. She was joined outside Clifton’s by Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilman Jose Huizar and the man of the hour, Clifton’s owner Andrew Meieran.

The original opening date of Sept. 22 has been pushed back a bit, but the excitement for the return of Clifton’s has only grown. The majority of comments on the Clifton’s Facebook page and Instagram feed convey the same well wishes – “We’ve waited this long, we can wait a little longer.” The new opening date is Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 at 11 a.m.

The Forest Glen at Clifton’s Brookdale

The Forest Glen at Clifton’s Brookdale | Photo courtesy of Clifton’s Cafeteria, Facebook

Clifton’s Cafeteria originally opened in 1935 as Clifton’s Brookdale, the second location of Clifford Clinton’s chain of themed restaurants. Known as the largest public cafeteria in the world, Clifton’s in its heyday served its affordable American fare to 10,000 people a day. Clifton’s bucolic Forest Glen setting included a 20-foot waterfall, babbling brook, water wheel, redwood trees, taxidermied animals, terraces, and “landmarks” like the Chapel, Old Tree Wishing Well, Limeade Springs and the Sherbet Mine.

“This day is the very beginning of a new era of glamour in Downtown Los Angeles,” said Lockhart in her welcoming remarks. She noted that in the 1930s and 40s, the Broadway Theatre District “was the place to come to see theatre, to dine and to shop. Everyone came Downtown. Families, lovebirds and all of Hollywood strolled historic Broadway.” Before sharing her memories of growing up in L.A., Lockhart mentioned she had just turned 90. With perfect timing she quipped, “And she’s still standing!”

“We used to live on Catalina Street, north of Los Feliz. It was always a treat for my mother and father to bring me down to have dinner at Clifton’s. We loved it.”

“Many birthdays, anniversaries, engagements and weddings were celebrated in this building right behind me,” she continued. “Inside this building, if you stop and listen, you can hear the whispers of the dreamers and the change makers who came before us. You can hear the laughter and the love, and the tears of all the celebrations. So today we start a new era of dreams, of memories and joy.”

“This is Los Angeles royalty, this building,” said Garcetti. “The history, the stories and the names that were here represent for all of us, the incredible way that we have collectively been part of the City of Angels.”

Garcetti then talked about Clifford Clinton, a deeply religious man who was keenly aware of the Depression’s devastating impact on his fellow Angelenos. Clinton refused to turn away those who couldn’t pay for their meals. Beginning with the first Clifton’s, his “Golden Rule” was printed on every ticket: “Regardless of the amount of this check, our cashier will cheerfully accept whatever you wish to pay – or you may dine free.” Ray Bradbury and Charles Bukowski were among the tens of thousands who took advantage of this policy.

Clinton was much more than a restaurateur; he took on City Hall corruption and founded Meals for Millions, a nonprofit organization that fed millions of people around the world.

During his speech, Garcetti looked over at Meieran and said, “I think [Clifford Clinton] would be very proud of the partnerships you have with The Midnight Mission, Chrysalis and other programs that serve the homeless, to continue a double-bottom line that does good and does well at the same time. That altruism and generosity reflects who we are in Los Angeles.”

The crowd cheered Garcetti’s closing. “So here’s to the next 80 years: write your chapter, fall in love, take a date here, bring your kids, have some fun, stay out late – the Mayor gave you permission – and enjoy!”

Before introducing Meieran, Lockhart said she first heard about him when she read an L.A. Times story about Meieran opening The Edison. She called him because she has an amazing connection to Thomas Edison. “He introduced my parents, Kathleen and Gene Lockhart. They were actors and they did a play for him. So not only did they meet through Edison, I met Andrew through Edison, in a way.”

Feb. 8, 2012: From the third floor of Clifton’s Cafeteria, owner Andrew Meieran looks out on Broadway.

Feb. 8, 2012: From the third floor of Clifton’s, Andrew Meieran looks out on Broadway through windows that had been covered by an aluminum facade for nearly 50 years. This space has been reborn as Clinton Hall, a private event ballroom.

Acknowledging the anticipation that had built up during the four-year renovation, Meieran said, “There was a precept that was the reason behind why it was taking so long and why so much detail and energy went into it. While I was reading Clifford Clinton’s original diaries that he wrote in the 1930s, when he still lived up in San Francisco, he wrote one line on one whole page of his diary. He wrote it underscored and he put three exclamation points: THE SPIRIT NEEDS NOURISHMENT TOO.”

“That single precept guided almost everything he did here,” continued Meireran. “And it showed in all of the things that he did in Clifton’s, that it wasn’t something he was just going to pay lip service to, that was something he was going to take to heart and make as the basis of an entirely new way of eating.”

“He created this so that he wasn’t just nourishing the body, he was nourishing the soul, the spirit, the imagination and creativity, innovation. And that spirit lead to – instead of building a restaurant and a community center, it was building the center of a community.”

Meieran said that’s what took so long. “I wanted to be true to that legacy, true to that spirit, and that’s what I believe I have done at this point. And I welcome everyone to experience that – to take the years, the generations of experience that have already gone through. Eighty years, and 170 million people have gone through these doors. I’m looking forward to another 170 million and another 80 years, starting now.”

Councilman Jose Huizar, June Lockhart, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Andrew Meieran at the Clifton’s Cafeteria ribbon cutting.

L to R: Councilman Jose Huizar, June Lockhart, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Andrew Meieran at the Clifton’s Cafeteria ribbon cutting. | Photo by Stephen Russo, courtesy of Clifton’s

Following the ribbon cutting, the doors finally opened and eager guests entered Clifton’s Cafeteria, accompanied by the music of the Pete Jacobs Swingtet. Servers passed trays of hors d’oeuvres, the champagne was flowing and it was as if Clifton’s had never closed.

The Forest Glen at Clifton's Cafeteria

The Forest Glen viewed from the bandstand.

A bear watches over the Forest Glen at Clifton's Cafeteria

A bear watches over the Forest Glen

Deer in the forest diorama at Clifton's Cafeteria

Nature diorama at Clifton’s Cafeteria

The first impression of the restored Forest Glen would be echoed throughout the afternoon – it was familiar as well as a totally new experience. With its immersive “Cabinet of Curiosities” environment, Clifton’s will reveal something new with every visit. Working closely with the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Natural History Museum, Meieran curated hundreds of museum-quality, scientific and natural artifacts throughout the 47,000-square-foot venue.

"Welcome to Clifton's" neon sign

Thanks, it’s good to be back!

Clifton's owner Andrew Meieran and Executive Chef Jason Fullilove

Clifton’s owner Andrew Meieran and Executive Chef Jason Fullilove

The gleaming cafeteria is helmed by Executive Chef Jason Fullilove and Pastry Chef Michael Luna, who will feature “Clifton’s Classics” and modern “action stations” that mix traditional favorites with contemporary fare. According to the press materials, the duo studied decades of original recipes to create a menu that includes a daily Thanksgiving Dinner, as well as new carving stations, salad bars, sandwiches and pizzas prepared to order, an extensive selection of bakery and pastry items, and desserts, both classic and new. And yes, that includes the beloved Jell-O. Plans call for the cafeteria to eventually stay open 24 hours a day.

Clifton's Cafeteria tray

As it has for generations, the cafeteria experience starts here.

Carving station at Clifton's Cafeteria

Carving station at Clifton’s Cafeteria

Jell-O at Clifton's Cafeteria

“The Jell-O stays” | Photo courtesy of Clifton’s Cafeteria, Facebook

Carved meats, mac & cheese, creamed spinach and Improved Old Fashioned FTW

Carved meats, mac & cheese, creamed spinach and Improved Old Fashioned FTW

As guests picked up Clifton’s food trays and began exploring the cafeteria offerings, yours truly made a beeline for the Monarch Bar, located one floor above. At the top of the staircase, visitors will encounter Clifton’s spectacular centerpiece: the Cathedral Grove, a soaring three-story atrium that encloses a 40-foot simulated redwood tree. Located at the base, the Monarch Bar features a bar that’s topped with Sequoia redwood.

Redwood tree at Clifton’s Cafeteria

Redwood tree at Clifton’s Cafeteria | Photo by Wonho Frank Lee, courtesy of Los Angeles Conservancy

Patrons will be served throughout Clifton’s by an all-star team of bartenders from across L.A. and beyond. During the preview, Aaron Melendrez, Jessie Smyth and Kalani Ben were behind the stick at the Monarch Bar, while Cari Hah poured champagne for thirsty guests.

Cari Hah pours champagne at Clifton's Cafeteria

Cari Hah pours bubbly at the Monarch Bar

Aaron Melendrez at Clifton's Cafeteria

Aaron Melendrez at the Monarch Bar

Chris Amirault, previously the bar manager at Harlowe and the Lead Bartender at Monarch Bar, described the setup: “We’re going to have California spirits, 20 beers on tap, an actual soda fountain from 1931 that’s going to be doing phosphates, egg creams, floats (boozy and non-alcoholic for the kids), as well as sundaes. We’re going to open with about 30% of our menu, get that rolling for a little bit, and then eventually there will be a list of elevated standards, six cocktails that will be very specific to the Monarch Bar, three to four floats and phosphates, and four sundaes.

If there are any Downtown L.A. executives out there who want to bring back the Three Martini Lunch, this is the place is for you. “Monarch Bar will be open as long as the entire venue is open,” said Amirault. “So, the cafeteria opens at 11 a.m., we open at 11 a.m. We close at 2 a.m. and when the cafeteria goes 24/7, we’ll be open for as long as our license allows us, so 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.” First call, anyone?

Located on the third floor one level up from the Monarch Bar, the Gothic Bar features a desacralized church altar sourced from Boston and a 4.75-billion-year-old meteorite. “[The altar] is so giant they had to cut a hole in the ceiling to fit it in,” said Lead Bartender Dustin Newsome. “The Gothic Bar is going to be like our rocket ship. It’s going to be the closest thing we have to a nightclub – that’s where most of the entertainment is going to happen. We’re going to have a bandstand, we have live entertainment. It’s going to be the high-volume bar location.” With the Cathedral Grove’s  atrium, the music featured at the Gothic Bar will carry throughout the venue. “You really can’t help that because of the way it’s designed. So it’ll be cohesive in that respect.” Guests can expect a wide variety of acts, from live bands to aerialists performing on the limbs of the 40-foot tree. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’re all excited just to see what it’s going to be like ourselves for the first time.”

Shadowbox Lead Bartender Aaron Polsky, Clifton's Cultural Ambassador Michael Neff and Director of Spirits Damian Windsor.

L to R: Aaron Polsky, Shadowbox Lead Bartender; Michael Neff, Clifton’s Cultural Ambassador; and Damian Windsor, Clifton’s Director of Spirits.

The wonders are just beginning. Still to come is Shadowbox, a speakeasy-style bar located in the basement that’s described as “a journey beneath the forest floor” that blends “scientific curiosity with botanicals and natural elements to create a romanticized venue.” Former New York bartender Aaron Polsky (his extensive resume includes Mulberry Project, Greenwich Project and Amor y Amargo) is the Lead Bartender at Shadowbox.

There’s also the Art-Deco, travel-themed Map Room; the Treetops Bar, an Art Nouveau “elevated experience at the canopy of the redwood forest”; and Pacific Seas, the fourth-floor Tiki bar. Named for the very first Clifton’s restaurant on Olive Street – the facade had waterfalls, geysers and tropical foliage – Pacific Seas features a mahogany Chris Craft boat as its centerpiece, along with travel and nautical design elements.

The ribbon cutting and preview event was more than a sneak peek at the revamped Clifton’s Cafeteria. It was also a celebration of an extraordinary legacy that spans generations. Among the regulars and former employees in attendance was the delightful Char Norton, who worked at Clifton’s in 1956, when she was 16. “I started for the summer job downstairs in the food line,” said Norton. “I was the ‘bread girl.’ I served the bread, the soup and chili. After the end of the summer I got the award for being the best worker of the summer crew. The couple who ran the flower shop asked me if I would like to work in the flower shop on Saturdays during the school year. And I said, ‘Yes I would!'”

“When I was the bread girl I made 50 cents an hour and when I went to the flower shop I made 75 cents an hour. I learned how to make corsages, which I have done throughout my life – I just had my 75th birthday. I have made more corsages for more organizations, more weddings, engagements, proms – I was big in my neighborhood for proms, because I always bought the flowers and did them for free. And I’m thrilled to be here today.”

And how did it feel to return to Clifton’s? “Oh, when I walked through the doors I felt like I was just here yesterday. Stepping back in time. Very emotional. Very, very wonderful.”

Clifton’s Cafeteria is opening on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 at 11 a.m.

Clifton’s Cafeteria
648 S. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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