Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 18, 2016

A Cafeteria Like No Other

In a way, every restaurant is unique. Even the individual locations of massive, global franchises have small variations from one another, and the menu at a MacDonald’s in Texas is different from one in Paris. Celebrated gourmet restaurants strive for uniqueness, but are they — insofar as being like no other — any more one-offs than JJ’s on the shore of Lake Quinault, Washington? Uniqueness is in the perspective of the diner.

IMG_4003 Brad Nixon

(Try the fries at JJ’s: most excellent!)

Still, I know a place that is, truly, like no other dining establishment on earth, and it’s in downtown Los Angeles: Clifton’s Cafeteria. This weekend, we visited it for the first time since it underwent a massive upgrade and reopened last year.

3484 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

This cafeteria-style restaurant has been in nearly constant operation since 1935. As you can see in the photo above, it has a distinctive decor: a combination of kitsch, homegrown theme park and Rainforest Cafe (long before that chain existed). It’s the sole survivor of 8 restaurants once owned by the family who built it.

According to the restaurant, this is not only the oldest operating cafeteria restaurant in Los Angeles, but the largest public cafeteria in the world. There are seats for 600 on three floors, and — in the current updated version which opened in 2015 — several bars themed in exotic decor.

The outdoor theme is carried to extremes on multiple floors of the cavernous space, with trees, fountains, rocks, and inhabited by mounted animals, some posed in dioramas, like this one of a wolf chasing a pronghorn:

3466 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

This being California, whose official symbol is the (now extinct) California Grizzly Bear, there’s a bear up on some of the rocks above the first floor dining room

3481 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

Since California is the home of a significant number of the planet’s Redwood trees, well, there’s a Redwood tree

3456 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

Of course there’s a Redwood tree. Welcome to L.A.

They do serve food at Clifton’s Cafeteria

When we visited Clifton’s prior to its recent makeover, the food was directly descended from classic American cafeteria fare: casseroles, meatloaf, carving station, mac and cheese, soups, salad bar. For dessert? Pie, cake, pudding and, natch, Jell-O. Some of the offerings have been updated, and there’s no longer one continuous line, but multiple stations for salad, deli sandwiches, hot entrees, pizza and more. At the dessert station, though, there is — as there always must be at any true cafeteria — Jell-O.

3471 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

There’s always room for Jell-O. $2.00.

Plenty of other desserts, too, including tiramisu, 6 bucks:

IMG_3656 Cliftons Tiramisu Marcy Vincent

(Some of you may know, but for those unfamiliar with cafeteria dining, the true cafeteria aficionado selects dessert FIRST, prior to deciding what other — if any — items to load onto the tray.)

3476 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

Dessert station

I can’t actually describe all the items you can get sliced straight from the carcass at the carving station, because we don’t roll that way here at Under Western Skies, but judging from the line when we were there, the choices are many:

3473 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

Once you’ve selected your items, take your tray and find a table. Here’s a view onto a portion of the street-level first floor:

3453 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

Notice the actual Redwood trunk on the left, the Redwood forest mural in the background (all the restaurant walls have murals) and the stone fireplace that becomes a rocky ledge. This portion of the restaurant is much the same as it was in 1935.

Or, climb to the second floor and sit next to the lion, who may beg a little, but won’t eat much.

3465 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

The remodeled Clifton’s has some spiffy new bars, including The Gothic:

3463 Cliftons Cafeteria Brad Nixon

What did we eat? Pizza. We shared two extremely large slices, including an excellent one with crimini mushrooms, corn and cheese. $8 for the two.

Only a tiny percentage of L.A.’s millions of annual visitors ever see the city’s downtown. It’s a fascinating city, full of historic architecture (including a significant number of excellent Art Deco buildings), classic old theaters, and a number of other attractions I’ve barely touched on in the 6 years of Under Western Skies. Across Broadway from Clifton’s, you can see the grand old Los Angeles Theater, and 3 blocks north is the remarkable Bradbury Building. Once you finally get here, duck into Clifton’s Cafeteria.

Clifton’s Cafeteria is at 648 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. If you find a listing online that says “closed,” that listing is out of date.

Do you have a restaurant you think rivals Clifton’s? Leave a comment. I’d like to learn about it.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Tiramisu photo courtesy of M. Vincent, all rights reserved.

Note: I’m sensitive to concerns about patronizing a place decorated with dead animals. Those animal trophies date from a long-ago era with a different sensibility. Neither The Counselor nor I consumed any of the more recently deceased creatures being sliced up at the carving station, just to let you know.

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Responses

  1. Clifton’s is also a quick walk from LA’s impressive public library. The free docent tour of that historic landmark is well worth taking.

    Explore the art, architecture and collections, then head to Clifton’s for a refreshment break before trekking on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting!!

    Like

  3. When my wife and I lived in L.A. many years ago, we LOVED going to Clifton’s. There used to be one in Century City, and we usually went to that one, which was closer to where we lived (Westwood Village, near UCLA). And we ALWAYS got dessert!

    Liked by 1 person


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