Andrew Meieran examines a 70-year-old neon light behind a wall at Clifton’s… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
The gig: Real estate developer and moviemaker Andrew Meieran, 46, is staking his reputation and millions of dollars on an attempt to revive one of the most beloved restaurants in Los Angeles history — Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway.
Known for its Disney-like forest theme, Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria served an estimated 170 million meals starting in 1935 but lost traction in recent decades as the city's historic core fell out of favor.
Meieran took it over in 2010 and closed it the following year to begin its renovation.
As longtime fans of the cafeteria wait, Meieran is laboring on a $5-million makeover that he hopes will make Clifton's an elaborate dining and drinking establishment unlike any other in the city and bring back crowds.
PHOTOS: Unveiling original facade of Clifton's
The vision: Plans call for Clifton's to have multiple bars and restaurants in markedly divergent styles throughout the four-story building. Each is to be crafted with the sophisticated attention to detail that Meieran brought to the nearby Edison, the Jules Verne-like subterranean nightclub he created deep under a century-old building on 2nd Street.
How to stand out: A memorable bar or restaurant must stay intriguing even on repeat visits, he said. "If you come back, I want you to notice more," Meieran said. "If we don't get the details right, we have a huge potential to miss the mark with our audience."
Comfort food: Meieran aims to restore and improve the forest-themed dining hall that generations of Angelenos associate with Clifton's and continue to serve such traditional cafeteria comfort food as pot roast, mashed potatoes and Jell-O.
Defined spaces: There will be distinct venues throughout the building, much of it rarely visited by the public in years past. The basement will house a bar full of historic local relics intended to transport visitors back in time. The ground floor and mezzanine-like second floor will remain a forest-themed cafeteria, with added details such as an old-fashioned soda fountain.
The third floor, which most recently held Gay '90s-themed banquet rooms, is being turned into a sit-down restaurant with classic food, Meieran said, but "not fine dining." It will also house a museum that he would not describe other than to call it "a cabinet of curiosities."
The fourth floor — Clifton's old offices — will get a Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar called South Seas, named after a Clifton's cafeteria on Olive Street that was popular in the 1940s and 1950s.
Also on that floor will be a second historic-themed bar and restaurant, this one Art Deco style. It's intended to be an upscale yet casual joint where diners can get a steak or chili.
SLIDER: Clifton's Cafeteria, before and after
Speed bumps: Renovation of the building, which opened in 1915 as a Boos Brothers cafeteria, has been far more costly and time-consuming than anticipated. At first, Meieran hoped to keep Clifton's open during construction. Then he closed it in fall 2011 for what he hoped would be a $3-million rehabilitation lasting three to six months.
Now he aims to finally reopen by Halloween, and even then some of the venues won't be complete. He's trying to keep the final tab under $5 million.
"Everything takes longer and costs four times more than you expect," he said. "What can go wrong will go wrong. My feeling is that there is just so much incredible potential in this project that it would be a disservice to not do it right."
Early years: Meieran was born and raised in the Bay Area and educated at UC Berkeley. As a young developer he bought a former Roman Catholic church in San Francisco and turned it into a live-work space.
In 1988 church leaders asked him to evaluate the real estate potential of St. Vibiana's, a Los Angeles landmark dating to the 1870s.
Meieran stayed in L.A. to help rehabilitate the adjacent abandoned Higgins Building office tower into housing and created the Edison in its basement.
Domestic front: Meieran and his wife, Christy, renovated and live in Charlie Chaplin's former home in the Hollywood Hills. They have two daughters, Amelie and Natasha.
Hollywood connection: Meieran produced and directed the upcoming "Highland Park," which stars Parker Posey and Danny Glover. Scheduled for release March 20, the movie, set in Detroit, is about the revitalization of a neighborhood.
Like Clifton's, he said, the movie "reflects my philosophy about taking responsibility and doing what you can personally to inspire pride and hope in one's community."