When I think about iconic old Los Angeles, a few places immediately spring to mind. The Bradbury Building, LA City Hall, Angels Flight, Griffith Observatory, and Clifton’s Cafeteria. Clifton’s is most certainly an institution in here southern California, and it’s one that was reborn last night, and Patrick and I were lucky enough to attend the grand re-opening. There are three stories that I feel are important to tell, so, this is going to be a longer than normal post.
First I want to tell the story of Clifton’s Cafeteria and its owner, Clifford Clinton. And while at first that may sound kind of boring, I’m telling you it borders on sounding like a James Elroy novel. The first Clifton’s Cafeteria was opened by Clifford Clinton (the name Clifton’s was created by taking portions of his first and last name and putting them together), in 1931, and was called Clifton’s Pacific Seas. The cafeteria was jungle themed, with murals, faux palm trees, waterfalls, and, my favorite detail, a rainfall every twenty minutes. The Pacific Seas location would remain open until 1960. Clinton opened his second cafeteria in 1935, Clifton’s Brookdale as it was called, and it featured a Redwoods inspired interior, rock work and water features. Clinton opened his cafeterias during one of America’s most difficult time periods, the Great Depression, and while other restaurants were turning away customers who couldn’t pay, Clinton had the following printed on guest checks, “Regardless of the amount of this check, our cashier will cheerfully accept whatever you wish to pay – or you may dine for free.” His openness did not end there. In a time when there were separate drinking fountains and much, much more for blacks and whites, Clinton welcomed everyone, regardless of race.
In the same year, Clinton was invited to inspect the food operations at LA County General Hospital, and it was the stepping off point on a crusade against corruption. At the hospital, Clinton made a report siting waste and poor patient treatment, and offered suggestions to trim the budget, but what he didn’t know was that the hospital and its budget had political ties, and Clinton’s suggestions were not welcome ones. In 1937, Clinton found himself selected for LA County Grand Jury, and specifically a jury that would hear offenses punishable by a year or more in prison, and the service would last one year. Shocked by what he learned while serving, and the resistance he met within the grand jury, Clinton created his own group, Citizens’ Independent Vice Investigating Committee (CIVIC). He compiled a report highlighting the relationship between city officials and the criminal underworld, and after the grand jury refused to print it, Clinton printed it himself. After the report, Clinton soon found his own restaurants were being issued violations, and even lawsuits by people claiming food poisoning and more. In October of 1937, a bomb exploded in the basement of Clinton’s Los Feliz home, and just a little while later, another bomb exploded in the car of an ex-cop, who was giving information to Clinton. The bombing was tied to an LAPD Captain, who was soon put on trial. The trial also exposed that the Captain was running illegal wiretaps, and soon the public became aware of the corruption within the city’s government. With the bombing and other corruption now pubic, Clinton with his CIVIC allies then began a recall campaign against the mayor, and they were successful.
After Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into World War II, Clinton, at 41, joined the army and worked as a mess officer. After the war, he attempted to run for mayor. When he lost, he turned to the problem of world hunger, and teamed up with a Caltech biochemist to develop a food supplement to give proper nutrition, and did so at the cost of five cents per meal, Multi-Purpose Food, as it would be called. He then used this to create Meals for Millions, which has continued to this day in the form of Freedom from Hunger. During his crusades against corruption and hunger, Clinton continued his restaurant businesses, and opened several more locations, however, Clifton’s Brookdale was the only one to survive, being sold in 2010 to Andrew Meieran, who then closed it for refurbishment, and underwent many, many delays, as well as $3 million before it reopened its doors Monday night.
The second story I want to tell is the shortest of the three. As some of you might already know, my dad is originally from the Los Angeles area. He grew up down here, and he can tell you where nearly every business used to be, and recalls stories of his childhood and teenage years before he headed to Oregon for college. It is his stories, along with California’s lush history, that I want to track down and relive, they are stories that inspire me. When he told me about visiting Clifton’s, I longed to go, and Clifton’s shot to the top of the list of places to visit after we moved. But, like many, we found out we had to wait.
And now, the wait is over, and I get to tell you about our experience! Clifton’s Grand Re-Opening was a ticketed event to benefit the LA Conservancy, and Patrick had surprised me with tickets awhile ago. So I had been eagerly counting down the days, while simultaneously trying to avoid looking at pictures from the news articles that were popping up on the internet. Finally the day arrived, and the date couldn’t have been better as it fell on our one year anniversary of moving to California. Seriously, what better way to celebrate? Clifton’s pretty much sums up the reasons why I wanted to move here.
Clifton’s on one level may come across as kitsch to the max, but it is also incredibly charming, and classy. It still evokes all of the fun it did when it opened, while giving the menu a facelift, but there is still mac and cheese and Jell-O. I loved exploring its nooks and crannies, and taking pictures, despite difficulties (seriously, this place was a pain to shoot in, because it is so dark). During the party, the first and second floors were open to the General Admission (which we were), with the next two floors open for VIP admission (which we instantly regretted not purchasing, though they cost double what GA cost). And while the doors might be open, it’s still not completed. Talk of a tiki bar and speakeasy are on everyone’s lips, and I look forward to many, many returns during our visits into LA and exploring it even further.