LA’s Downtown Wunderkammer: Christian Charity, Commercial Oblation and the Enduring Wonder of Clifton’s Cafeteria.


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The story is the thing.

No surprise there. I’ll always say that.

But, sometimes, the story behind the story is even more interesting.

Ipso facto, the story behind the story becomes the thing. If you catch my drift.

By way of illustration, take Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles. It’s an old-time cafeteria, a place of much wonder, even magic. Clifton’s opened in 1935 and it’s continued almost uninterrupted ever since, except for a few years earlier this decade at which time it was lovingly restored, refurbished and reborn into something even more wondrous.

In its time, spanning world wars and social upheavals of so many kinds, Clifton’s served up countless millions, maybe even billions, of meals to customers who were happy to dip into their wallets and pocket books for the privilege as well as those for whom a hot, nourishing meal was simply beyond their financial means.

Due to the humanitarian principles of Clifton’s owner, there was a company policy that  nobody should go hungry. And that was part of the wonder, though it wasn’t widely publicised or recognised, and especially notable as the restaurant was opened in the very midst of the Depression.

What is remembered about Clifton’s, by generations of Angelinos and visitors alike, is that visit was such a special occasion.

Because they never felt like they were just sitting in an anonymous restaurant, eating an ordinary meal. With murals and props equal to any of the Hollywood dream factories, patrons found themselves dining indoors in the Great Outdoors, in a setting reminiscent of the forests of northern California, surrounded by majestic towering redwoods and woodland creatures.

The tranquillity of nature enveloped patrons while, outside, the city throbbed. They may have just stepped off a streetcar, dodging the hectic crush of traffic, or be relaxing after a busy morning shopping at Bullock’s department store or getting ready to catch the latest Tyrone Power swashbuckler in the French Baroque splendour of the Los Angeles Theatre, or enjoying downtime from the office routine by casting a critical eye over the front page of the Examiner as it dissected the latest challenges for President Roosevelt.

 

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Inside, with a tray of comfort food, whether it be pot roast or corned beef and cabbage, maybe followed by Jello, customers were transported to a tranquil sanctuary of their own imagination. Sure, Clifton’s was a theme restaurant, one of the earliest in a city that has always held an enduring as well as endearing fascination for the genre, and gimmickry is what this branch of the hospitality industry is all about.

But Clifton’s was special, to people both famous and not-so. Walt Disney was a regular, often with his daughter, and it’s said that Clifton’s influenced the creation of Disneyland; other frequent diners over the years include Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Lynch. Maybe it’s not too much of a reach to suggest that imaginations such as these were entranced by the juxtaposition of Jello and a faux redwood forest (certainly there’s a thematic similarity between Clifton’s and the north-western setting of Twin Peaks).

The Clifton’s on Broadway that exists today, and others in the chain that at one time existed throughout Los Angeles, was the creation of Clifford Clinton. His father, Edmond Jackson Clinton, was a restauranteur in San Francisco; although they were Quakers, the entire Clinton family – E.J., his wife, Gertrude, Clifford and his siblings – travelled overseas as a Salvation Army missionary.

In 1905, when Clifford was just a young boy, he accompanied the family to China; the incredible hardship and poverty he witnessed stayed with him his entire life. The San Francisco earthquake of the following year devastated his father’s businesses and the family returned to the States although, as soon as possible, they returned to China to continue helping the poor.

He worked long hours, up to ten hours a day, in his father’s restaurants, gaining invaluable experience, while still at school. In 1911, E.J. Clinton opened a relatively new kind of restaurant, called a cafeteria, where the diners served themselves. The Quaker Cafeteria, as it was called, was the first of its type in San Francisco.

He served in Europe in the later stages of World War I, returned home, married and had children, working in his father’s restaurants.

Eventually, as a married man with a young family, he felt it was time to start his own business. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1931, opened a cafeteria on South Olive Street in the downtown area. After searching for the right name, he settled on Clifton’s, a contraction of Clifford and Clinton.

As much as the restaurant trade coursed through his veins so, too, did his ingrained Christian values; his business plan formalised the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity – treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

From opening day at the Olive Street Clifton’s, two policies went instituted  – “Pay What You Wish and Dine Free Unless Delighted” and “No Guest Need Go Hungry For Lack Of Lunch”.

For all his good intentions, however, his timing could not have been worse. It was the midst of the Depression and so many of the hungry and impoverished flooded through the doors that the fledgling company seemed likely to be swamped; ten thousand people were served free meals in the first three months of operations.

 

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Clifford addressed the problem not by limiting the Golden Rule at Clifton’s but by opening another cafeteria, The Penny, nearby on Third and Hill streets, in 1932. There, nutritious servings cost just one cent each; a full meal could be had for four cents. Within weeks of opening, the Penny was serving 4,000 meals a day. The restaurant was so well run, it survived the Depression; by the time it closed, it had served some two million meals.

And it wasn’t just the customers who were well looked after; employee benefits were far ahead of their time, including a medical plan that paid for hospital stays. It’s fair to say Clifford was the very model of the perfect employer, especially as he wasn’t afraid of hard work and could often be found during busy periods bussing the tables.

In 1935, he opened a new Clifton’s at 649 South Broadway, just near 7th Street, in the very heart of Downtown’s theatre district. It was there that Clifford set out to create a point of difference with his new endeavour, something that would attract attention and make it stand out from the competition.

For five months, while the new cafeteria operated night and day, workers transformed it into something otherworldly.

As an inspiration, Clifford recalled visits as a youngster to the Brookdale Lodge, a famous landmark set amidst the redwood forests of northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He had always remembered the Lodge’s dining room which had a real creek, with live trout, winding through it.

It was his intention to recreate a tranquil forest setting amidst the chaotic bustle of Downtown. Murals of redwood forests were painted on the walls, columns were masked in tree bark, a fully operating creek and waterfall, though without the trout, brought the sounds of nature into the dining hall. Backlit mountain scenes, and taxidermied forest animals added to the ambience.

When the renovations were complete, the new cafeteria was renamed Clifton’s Brookdale. It was an instant hit.

Theme restaurants were relatively new; the first appearing in Paris in 1885. This was a café decorated as a prison with waiters serving as the convicts. Another, also in Paris, with a medieval theme, had its wait staff dressed as nun and monks.

The first American theme restaurant appears to be the Pirate’s Den in New York City. It was opened by restauranteur Don Dickerman in 1917 and became wildly popular. A Los Angeles branch, bankrolled by entertainers Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, opened in 1940.

Certainly the most enduring theme, and one that is again increasing in popularity, is the Tiki bar. The best-known chains were Don The Beachcomber, famed for inventing the Zombie cocktail (its LA bar opened in 1933), and Trader Vic’s, which lays claim to the Mai Tai (the first opened in Oakland, California, in 1936).

 

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While Clifford’s business went from strength to strength, his sense of social justice occasionally led him along strange paths.

It happened by accident but, by the mid-1930s, Clifford’s business precision, combined with his commitment to humanitarian endeavours, drew him into the role of political reformer, fighting corruption and government waste. This occurred quite innocently as a result of reviewing a nearby hospital’s food delivery services; his unsparing findings highlighted vast inefficiencies, wastage and supplier contracts tied to supporters of local politicians.

Ultimately, much of the corruption was traced to Frank L. Shaw, a businessman who had entered city council in 1925, and in 1933 became Mayor of Los Angeles.

Although there were some agreeable aspects of Shaw’s administration (LAX and Union Station were both commenced during his time), a lot of people, including the city’s more notorious organised crime figures, depended on the status quo being maintained and didn’t appreciate efforts to interfere.

Political opponents co-opted Clifford’s assistance on a Grand Jury investigation; Shaw, feeling cornered, pushed back.

The city’s Health Department started leaning on the Clifton’s restaurants with trumped-up violations. The Los Angeles Police Department also targeted him; in 1937, a bomb blast demolished part of Clifford’s house. Luckily, nobody was hurt. When a car bomb seriously injured a private detective working for the Grand Jury and evidence led back to an LAPD captain of detectives, the tide turned and a special recall election was held for Mayor in 1938. Support for Shaw evaporated and he lost office.

Once his career as a political reformer came to an end, leaving only his restaurants to occupy his attention, he managed to squeeze in a holiday in Hawaii. But Clifford even managed to turn this to his advantage.

Cognisant of how well his Brookdale restaurant was performing, and aware that the original South Olive Street property was in need of attention, once faced with the exotic South Sea charms of the Hawaiian Islands, he determined he’d found just the right decorating idea.

Returning home to Los Angeles, the renovations commenced – while the cafeteria remained open. In total, some $US100,000 was spent. Clifton’s Pacific Seas, as it was named, debuted in 1938. It was a riot of flamingo red neon, jungle murals, live ferns, eight-metre-tall rubber palms trees, waterfalls, aquariums, a volcano and a rain hut where a tropical storm played out every 20 minutes.

Its critics called it vulgar and tatsteless. The general public couldn’t have agreed, or cared, less. Clifton’s South Seas was an enormous success. At the peak of operations, it served 12,000 meals a day.

And its peak lasted for quite some time, although not quite as long as Clifton’s Brookdale. The South Seas closed down in 1960 and, echoing Joni Mitchell, the building was demolished to become a parking lot.

Don’t it always seem to go /

That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Indeed. Vale Clifton’s South Seas.

 

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And the other Clifton’s branches throughout Los Angeles, all of which had varying degrees of success and longevity. In the 1950s and 60s, such outposts as Lakewood, West Covina and Century City all boasted outposts of the Clifton’s empire. None exist today.

The thing that worked in the Brookdale’s favour was that it was Downtown. Once the throbbing heart of LA’s retail and entertainment, by the 1960s its importance had declined at the same time the suburbanisation and decentralisation of the city headed in the other direction.

In such a sprawling city, Downtown quietly slipped into a kind of hibernation. The land wasn’t considered important enough, economically or socially, to redevelop. The grand old department stores, the Art Deco office buildings, the multitude of opulent movie palaces were repurposed for other uses.

Nobody went Downtown anymore, unless it was really necessary. Clifton’s Brookdale puttered along, a lovely baked anachronism with a side of Mac and Cheese. Progress would eventually have had its way with it; like so much of old-time LA, the Brown Derby (both of them), Bullocks Wilshire, the Mocambo, the Coconut Grove (indeed, the entire Ambassador Hotel), Clifton’s would have been sucked stealthily below the surface by time.

First you lose your relevance. Then, years down the track, you lose your life.

But something wondrous happened. Followed by something entirely unexpected.

Firstly, Downtown began to awaken. Developers moved in to refurbish the historic office buildings as condos and loft apartments. Now in many other places, the appearance of developers would not bode well, but the heritage protections put in place, along with a market eager to live in a revived CBD, proved a fortuitous convergence.

Secondly, the family of Clifford Clinton, who had been managing Clifton’s since his death in 1969, sold the restaurant to Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran is an interesting hypen, a developer-filmmaker (one of his intended projects is a bio-pic of Twlight Zone creator, Rod Serling).

On the developer side, he is best-known as the man who transformed a former Downtown power station into the ultra-hip Edison Bar. Meieran paid $US3.6 million for Clifton’s; he then spent four years and upwards of $US10 million to not only restore the entire place back to what it was but to also make it better.

Nobody knew what to expect when the hoardings came down but on the grand day of re-opening, when June Lockhart (Dr Maureen Robinson of television’s Lost In Space) cut the ribbon, the curious flooded in. It’s pretty safe to say they were enthralled by the changes.

While adhering to the original design concepts, Meieran added some audaciously original touches of his own. In the rear dining area, a central atrium has been cut through the above floors and a giant faux redwood, reaching up twelve metres, was created. On the bottom floor of the redwood, which has a fireplace built into it, is the Monarch Bar; on the floor above, is the Gothic Bar.

Meieran’s creation of hip bars is a canny commercial decision, extending Clifton’s dining hours and clientele beyond the traditional. As Downtown becomes more populated, the reborn Clifton’s, now a destination dining and drinking establishment, will become an integral part of the local community.

There’s another bar tucked away within Clifton’s, this one a little more difficult to find though certainly worth the effort. Behind a mirrored door on an upper floor, and up a few flights of stairs, is the Pacific Seas, a respectful nod to the old South Seas, and already celebrated as LA’s newest Tiki Bar. Its centrepiece is a full-size 1930s mahogany Chris-Craft speedboat.

During the day, the new revived Clifton’s does great business, drawing in the faithful as well as visitors (invariably curious tourists) who stumble a few steps inside the door before having their WTF moments. At night, it’s a whole new ballgame. Cashed-up millennials with a penchant for the offbeat, clubbers, artists, actors and the wealth of creatives who make Los Angeles their own.

While it may be a romantic notion, I like to think it’s a whole new breed of Bradburys and Bukowskis, Lynchs and Disneys, people whose imaginations power their futures and who are drawn to Clifton’s because it’s a place that, externally, complements their own internal dialogue. And makes the wondrous just that little easier to manifest. Because the story is the thing.

For further information, consult Clifton’s & Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader (Angel City Press, 2015), written by Clifford’s grandson, Edmund J. Clinton III. I’ve drawn heavily from this biography to populate this post.

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Author: davidlatta

David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure. During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications. He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music. He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II. As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.

1 thought on “LA’s Downtown Wunderkammer: Christian Charity, Commercial Oblation and the Enduring Wonder of Clifton’s Cafeteria.”

  1. What a wonderful yarn and how interesting these folk were. Los Angeles has such a rich history for such a new city (and county). And good news to see that the past hasn’t been obliterated – long live creativity and those who visit!

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