September 14, 2007

cafeteria crusade

My friend Russ was in town for a few days this week, so on Wednesday I took him to one of my favorite places in Los Angeles - Clifton's Cafeteria. I don't think he was too excited when I told him I was taking him to a cafeteria, but he is still raving about the place. Clifton's is an other-worldly experience - somewhere between time travel and Disneyland in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Fare is typical cafeteria fare (which to me is still kind of a treat): all kinds of Jell-os, turkey, dressing, fried chicken, sandwiches, an ungodly assortment of pies and cakes, etc. But the attraction here is the dining room - a Redwood Forest theme of cascading levels, tree trunks, cabins, bears, raccoons, deer, moose. Every time you turn around you find something new to make you smile. Be sure to climb into the chapel in the corner for an intimate inspirational experience. And don't miss the third floor - a more elegant dining room with walls covered in pictures and memorabilia from Clifton's history.

Cliftons Brookdale, as it is officially called, opened in 1935 and is the only remaining location of Cliftons. The first cafeteria opened in 1931 with a Pacific Seas theme by Clifford Clinton, who as a child working as a missionary in China had vowed to work against hunger. He opened his depression-era cafeterias with a "pay what you can" policy - meaning they would feed anyone, and customers paid what they could. Clinton's Golden Rule philosophy and utopian ideals extended to every aspect of his life. He became a social crusader that inadvertently led to one of LA's more interesting chapters. In 1937, City Hall and the LAPD were run by an entanglement of bootleggers, prostitution, gambling and mob gangsters. As a PR move, Mayor Shaw created a commission to "clean up" corruption in LA and appointed Clinton to the commission. Little did he know that they would uncover the corruption and entanglement of his own office. The LA Times (also entangled in the corruption ring) ran articles about unsanitary conditions in Cliftons restaurants. LAPD bugged and spied on Clinton's residence. Planted "customers" began claiming accidents and poisoning in the restaurants. Eventually the LAPD, under Chief Davis, even bombed Clinton's Los Feliz home and then the car of his PI Harry Raymond. No one died, and the bombings turned public sentiment against the Mayor and he was recalled from office and Chief Davis was forced to resign after the conviction of his officers for the bombings.

More details of the unbelievable story can be found in the Nocturne link below. Clinton survived it all and went on to found Meals for Millions and turn over the cafeterias to his children. Like him, Clifton's continues to survive despite its challenges and is still the largest restaurant in Los Angeles, and the largest public cafeteria in the World. Go experience it for yourself, if only just to eat among the bears!

  • The Cafeteria Connection
  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Whoa..thanks for the flashbacks! I remember my mom used to take us to Cliftons on the weekends. A short bus trip away from Silver Lake. Sounds like it hasn't changed much in the 20 years i've been there. Hope to be back in L.A. soon, and will definitely make it a priority to visit again.