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Clifton's cafeteria: The place where L.A. finds itself

With its long history and family tradition, Clifton's Brookdale still draws diners of all stripes. 'It's like coming home,' one patron says.

February 04, 2009|Mary MacVean

On Broadway downtown -- amid a jumble of shops selling gold necklaces and sports socks and electric guitars, amid exhaust and noise and has-been theaters, amid hipsters, the down and out and the just plain out of it -- an authentic piece of history goes about the business it began during the Great Depression, feeding everyone who walks through the glass doors.

Wander into Clifton's Brookdale, the cafeteria on Broadway at 7th Street, and it might seem obvious what makes it unique. Perhaps the waterfall that cascades over several ledges. Or the huge moose head hanging on a wall overlooking one of the dining rooms and the bear holding a fishing pole. Maybe the tiny -- and popular -- tree trunk chapel with its neon cross and inspirational recorded message. But it's more than these. Walk the winding cafeteria line and choose tiny red and green cubes of Jell-O (or three or four other kinds), liver (beef or chicken) and onions. Or stuffed peppers, pot roast, deviled salmon or Vienna loaf. Coleslaw, corn bread. Or, all of the above.

Dessert greets diners with their trays at the start of the line, and it's the last food on the stainless steel racks leading to the quick-fingered cashiers: tapioca and rice puddings, raisin pie. And the cakes: chocolate banana cream, red velvet, carrot, German chocolate, strawberry cream -- all made on the fourth floor under the direction of Margareto Sanchez, the 64-year-old baker who has worked at Clifton's since 1968.

At lunch one day recently, local historian Charles Phoenix called Clifton's the "world's greatest place to eat." He conducts downtown tours and has brought thousands of people over the years to Clifton's to experience the collision of down-home and theatricality. "But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what's so special, it's the people," Phoenix says.

lifton's, with more than 600 seats on three floors, is the last remaining of eight cafeterias around Los Angeles that the Clinton family has owned since 1931. It must be one of the most diverse spots in the city -- ethnically, economically, just about any way you cut it. It's like home is supposed to be, a place where they take you in no matter what, where you're respected even if you don't fit in perfectly elsewhere.

A woman whose close-cropped hair is dyed in a leopard pattern carries her tray through one morning at Christmastime. At lunch another day, a family of five pauses to say grace, the two little boys join hands in prayer before eating fried chicken legs. Another table has the unlikely trio of a young black woman whose face is obscured by a hoodie, a middle-aged Middle Eastern man in a yarmulke and a conservatively dressed balding white man.

The average check is about $8; Thanksgiving dinner was $6.89, $4.99 for kids. Clifton's sells the comfort of rice pudding or stuffed cabbage, neither fancy nor fabulous. The goal is affordable standards, homemade, not haute. Today's leftovers make tomorrow's soups.

The place is "kind of an equalizer," says Robert Clinton, who today owns the cafeteria with his father, Donald. "Some of our prejudices may be lessened."

It's also a place full of regulars, people who have come to Clifton's for decades, as children after church, perhaps, or while shopping with their parents.

"I can't change any condiment or spice -- they would know," Armando Orta, a food manager, says in amazement.

On the first floor, tables are often shared, and though there are no rules, people who wish to eat alone usually head up the stairs. ("Busboys," often women, will carry diners' trays for them if desired.)

Many mornings around 7:30 on Clifton's second floor, a group of regulars gathers, spreading out over four or five tables. They don't come in together and they don't actually sit together, preferring to talk across the tables. They talk sports and politics, work on crosswords, read newspapers or use a laptop.

Van Jones says some of them have been coming off and on for 30 years, originally sitting in the smoking section.

"We don't have anything else in common other than that we come here," Jones says. "But let me tell you something. If you get this whole group together, I don't think there's a topic that's sacred."

They like being left alone and sometimes keep the chairs warm until 10 or so.

"You come here and it's like coming home," says Jones, 63, a widower and father of two grown daughters.

Owner's philosophy

The cafeteria's founder, Clifford Clinton, made the Golden Rule a pillar of his business philosophy: How would you like to be treated?

"When things happened that required a difficult decision, he would ask that question, and answer it honestly. Sometimes it cost money, and it was painful," says Robert Clinton, Clifford's grandson. "We try to do that."

And these days it is painful.

In the restaurant's busiest period, the 1940s, lines would form down Broadway, with as many as 10,000 customers coming through the door on a good day. Today, Clifton's serves 1,800 to 2,000 people a day; Sundays are busiest.

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