RENOVATED CLIFTON’S INTRODUCES CAFETERIA NOIR
By Bob Vickrey
Remember that disorienting feeling as a kid when you came out of a dark movie theater after the Saturday matinee and made the difficult adjustment to the harsh afternoon sunlight?
That was the same bewildering feeling our monthly lunch group had recently as we emerged from the dark labyrinth of mysterious corridors in the newly refurbished Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.
If there is such a thing as cafeteria noir, the owners have certainly succeeded in creating the definitive dream-like dining experience. Surely, surrealistic filmmaker David Lynch had some input into the set decoration here. And I’m guessing the ghost of Vincent Price provided the inspiration for the eerie lighting throughout the place.
Our group had decided that we were ready for a dramatic change of pace for our October outing, so when we heard that Clifton’s was reopening under new ownership, we quickly put it atop our monthly destinations.
When you think of famous Los Angeles restaurants, the first places that likely come to mind are Musso & Frank’s, Chasen’s, Perino’s, Lawry’s, and the Brown Derby. Somehow, Clifton’s Cafeteria doesn’t quite fit with that elegant group, but in many ways it deserves mention when listing the most enduring names in Southern California’s rich dining history.
Clifton’s downtown location opened in 1932, and once served as many as 15,000 meals a day to eager Angelino diners. When it closed its doors five years ago for a major makeover by new owner Andrew Meieran, it was still serving up to 1,500 meals a day. Ten million dollars worth of renovations later and it’s not quite clear whether Meieran has reopened a cafeteria or created an amusement park.
The new Clifton’s is five stories of pure wonder, including a cafeteria, restaurants, and bars—all surrounding a four-story (fake) redwood tree located in the middle of the building. The main cafeteria is on the first floor. There is a craft beer bar on the second, a special events center and another bar on the third, as well as plans for a fine-dining restaurant and Pacific Seas’ tiki lounge on the fourth. Coming in future months are the Brookdale Ballroom and Shadowbox Bar, located in the basement. We quickly realized that Clifton’s was definitely not your father’s cafeteria.
Each floor features various curiosities like wall murals of California nature and dioramas of stuffed animals that are showcased throughout the building. There are even fossilized dinosaur eggs embedded in the floor of one bar. Can a Jurassic Park ride be far behind?
Despite the novelty and glitz of the new place, our pal Arnie had one single purpose in coming, and that was to find the jello. Some childhood memories are indelible, and to him, jello was synonymous with Clifton’s Cafeteria. Now I don’t have any personal grudge against jello—except lime, of course—but that green quivering gelatinous mass brought back unpleasant memories of the four-year hostage crisis, better known as the high school cafeteria experience.
We had heard about the huge crowds that were arriving daily after the reopening, and Barry reminded us that we were in danger of living out the late Yogi Berra’s famous saying, “No one goes there anymore because the lines are too long.”
Fortunately, the line that day seemed to be one we could tolerate, although we had no idea exactly where that line was headed. When we finally came through the dark corridor to a clearing, we discovered there were “food stations” instead of the traditional single lines for service. The circular stations were arranged in such a way that it was necessary to visit each one in order to find what choices were available.
The staff members at Clifton’s were attentive and helpful as they came to the aid of the many zombie-like customers wandering aimlessly between the food stations with empty trays who appeared to be searching for something to eat—or perhaps looking for the exit.
I occasionally spotted members of my own group who looked like lost children in search of their mother. We convened at the drink counter and devised a meeting plan on the other side of the pay station.
When we finally arrived at our table with the help of our “tour guide,” we all chuckled about our exasperating adventure as we stared down at our now-cold food. It had taken so long to figure out the system, we were all exhausted and agreed that we probably needed a nap more than our lunch.
When we left the building, I noticed the doorman had an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Dennis Hopper. I may have been right all along in thinking that we had inadvertently stumbled onto the set of a new David Lynch film. I became convinced that we had been unknowing walk-ons who had been duped into thinking that this was a real cafeteria. Now this whole experience was beginning to make perfect sense.
Bob Vickrey writes for several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and a regular contributor for the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.