Friday, 2 February 2018

Clifton's: LA's Retro Cafeteria Lives Again

From 1935 to 2011, Clifton's Cafeteria served meals on Los Angeles' Broadway as the LA Downtown went from boom to bust, then gradually became fashionable again. 

I visited the legendary eatery in 2015, when I was being hosted by Discover LA. It had just reopened after extensive renovations, intended to update it for the 21st century while not losing too much of its retro appeal.

Here's what I found...

Clifton's attractive retro exterior gives way to a wild interior. Simple wooden tables are set on four cascading levels, tiered as if placed on a hidden hillside.

Each of these terraces has a rough-hewn look, with massive timber logs holding up the roof and criss-crossing each other.

This faux forest look is enhanced by murals of more trees, and pot plants scattered between the tables. There's also a big fake bear above the entrance, captured in mid-growl.


Facing the bear is a rough castle facade, and a staircase leading up to a bar area.

All this cheesy splendour is backed up by the soundtrack, a selection of mid-20th century popular songs: All of Me, You Ain't Got That Swing, various jazz tunes.

The bar area is impressive, the void in its centre dominated by a hollow tree trunk rising up several storeys.

Beyond the crazy tree there's more of the feel of a Western saloon, with waistcoated bartenders pouring drinks to customers seated on bar stools, or lounging in armchairs.

The downstairs cafeteria is the prime focus, however.

In addition to its outlandish decor, Clifton's was famous for not turning anyone away, subsidising the meals of those who couldn't afford to pay.

There's still an original water feature by the entrance with a plaque asking people to toss in coins to help the needy.

Past the tables, diners enter the kitchen area, which is laid out like a food hall with separate counters serving burgers, roast meats, salads, deli-style sandwiches and desserts.

You collect what you fancy, then pay for the lot at one of the tills on the way back to the tables.

If the tray is a bit unwieldy or too heavy to carry up the stairs to a table, one of the energetic resident busboys in their striped shirts will take it there for you.

Even when I call in on a Monday afternoon it's extraordinary how much energy there is in the place - from the lively music, the busboys hurtling to and fro, and the buzz of conversation from diners stimulated by the over-the-top decor.


Attempting to assemble a vegetarian meal (not so easy, considering the meat-heavy menu), I select three side dishes from the burger counter - a bowl of sauteed vegetables, a serve of mac and cheese, and a serve of fries.

Not entirely healthy, but tasty in combination, with a sachet of hot sauce drizzled over the mac and cheese.

This is teamed with a large, chilled glass of lemonade, a drink the Americans do inordinately well. It has just the right balance of sweet and sour, with a refreshing crisp chill. Perfect.

And the whole thing costs me just US$11.98. Fine by me.

Clifton's is located at 648 S Broadway, Los Angeles, USA. See cliftonsla.com.