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Restaurant Preview: Kitsch in the Kitchen

Clifton's Cafeteria

By Lauren Beale, Guest Blogger

If you’re looking for an off-beat dining experience that includes a hefty slice of Los Angeles history with a side of frivolity, head downtown to the renovated Clifton’s Cafeteria.

The landmark eatery was the first of a chain established by restaurateur Clifford Clinton beginning in the early 1930s and was known to let patrons eat for free when they couldn’t afford a meal. The Depression-era cafeteria just reopened in October after four years of restoration.

Clinton was a collector of taxidermy animals, among other eclectic items, and the real draw is the north woods-themed atmosphere. A realistic-looking redwood tree stretches up several stories in the center of the dining hall. A bubbling waterfall flows over fake boulders. A faux moon that silhouettes an owl lights a night sky mural on one wall.

There’s a grizzly bear, a bison and other stuffed critters. The result is a hybrid natural history museum and retro diner with live music.

The menu retains the old-style Clifton’s staples of hearty soups and gelatin salads. The fare is cafeteria food of the warm fuzzy variety: soul-soothing turkey with gravy, flavorful sliced ham and home-style mac ‘n’ cheese made with corkscrew pasta. Sandwich, salad and dessert bars round out the selections.

At a recent Sunday supper there our dining party found the ample serving of carved beef stringy and cold by the time we had made our way through the line, paid and found a table. Other disappointments were the sour cranberry side dish and a lack of cooked green vegetable selections.

Rather than visit Clifton’s as a lunch or dinner spot, other fun options would be to come in just for pie and coffee or for a drink at one of the bars. Carved wooden mushrooms serve as foot stools at the Art Deco Monarch Bar near the fireplace inside the redwood tree. The upper level Gothic Bar is open from 6 p.m. Either spot would be a stellar stop on a pub crawl.

Our group of four lifelong eaters rated the experience on a scale of 0 for abysmal and 5 for perfect. Here are the results:

Décor: 4.75
Cleanliness: 4
Service: 3.25
Food quality: 2.82
Menu selection: 3.3
Value for money: 2.86
Fun factor: 4.75

Set across the street from a $6 flat-rate parking garage, the cafeteria is flourishing in what remains a somewhat gritty section of South Broadway. Be sure to take a moment to study the mosaic sidewalk murals outside the entrance.

Put this on your list of must-see downtown destinations next time out-of-towners come to visit: Clifton’s Cafeteria, 648 S. Broadway, L.A. For more information, call (213) 627-1673 or visit cliftonsla.com. The Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/Cliftonscabinetofcuriosities.

Lauren Beale is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. She was the editor of “Dear S.O.S.: Dessert Recipe Requests to the Los Angeles Times” (1996) by Rose Dosti.

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