Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chow Time: Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria

Usually, I am loathe to include anything too personal in this blog.  I much prefer adhering to the cardinal commandment of wacky tacky - "Thou shalt not take thine own self too seriously."  There is, however, no escaping the fact that I am currently laid up!  Suffering from the symptoms of an indeterminate ailment,  I should have had plenty of time to blog but my bleary-eyed, semi-conscious waking hours have been filled with prescriptions, appointments and streaming Netflix.  As I lay in what will surely become my death bed, I feel fortunate to have both the strength to type and a small backlog of material about which I can post.  The doctors say that over-dramatization is a probably the most prominent symptom of my illness - whatever that means. 

This is the forest primeval!  Walking through the front door of Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, one is immediately transported into a Depression-era dreamer's vision of the great outdoors.  It might not be what Longfellow was scribbling about, but it is pretty great by wacky tacky standards!

Clifton's Brookdale

The history of Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria goes back to 1935 and is best described by the Clifton's website:

"In 1935 Clifford Clinton purchased the lease of the former Boos Brothers Cafeteria and began to transform the dowdy interior into an imaginary wonderland rivaled only by his other cafeteria, the legendary Clifton's Pacific Seas.

As a youth, Clifford spent his summers in the Santa Cruz mountains among the coastal redwoods, not far from the famous Brookdale Lodge.  This mountain feeling was the theme Clifford wanted for his new location.  Working with rock sculptor Francois Scotti, Clifford created a 20 ft. waterfall cascading into a quiet stream that meanders through a dining room.  Redwood trees were used to conceal steel columns and a renowned L.A. muralist, Elinar Petersen, created a life size forest on canvas covering one wall.  A Little Chapel perched high amongst the crags fulfilled Clifford's desire to feed the soul as well as the body of depression weary Angelinos."

The Clinton family's recent sale of Clifton's had foodies, history nerds, downtown enthusiasts and regular customers alike a little more than worried about the fate of the grand institution.  After a recent visit I found that in fact there is very little about which to worry.

The deco-style, terrazzo entry is the same.

The signs are the same.

The food is largely the same.

In something as simple as the trays, the noticeable changes might even be seen as improvements.
It may seem like niggling, but the one devastating change is the new computerized registers.  In days of yore the women at the check out knew every price and product by heart and rang each guest on vintage, push-button cash registers with lightning speed and the accuracy of Swiss watchmakers.  The new system may benefit Clifton's bookkeeping but it sure slows down the line and takes away some of the fun!

The old tray
The new tray
Mary puts the new tray to good use
Normally - and to everyone's great surprise - I am not a buffet/cafeteria type of guy.  Call me self-conscious, but as one of larger proportion, I just don't feel quite comfortable shuffling along, testing the tensile strength of my heavy-laden tray.  I like to sit down, order and have a genial person set my food before me.  If there is one giant exception to this rule, it is Clifton's.  Cafeteria food has a rather-dicey reputation and in most cases this reputation is justified; Clifton's notices range from sublime to mediocre to scathing.  However, I must say that every time I have eaten there, I have found the food quite good and I left feeling fat and sassy.  Although, it must be said, I came in feeling pretty fat and sassy.

It's not what it looks like...okay, it's exactly what it looks like!
Mmmmmm, Clifton's meatloaf is good!

Because Clifton's is the type of landmark with which people feel such a personal connection, theories and rumors about the "changes" abound - especially about the Clifton's third floor which until recently looked like a mix between Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe Saloon and a small-town museum.  The most persistent of these rumors is that the third floor is being remade into a Polynesian paradise reminiscent of the long-since-closed Clifton's Pacific Seas Cafeteria.  On our most recent visit, the third floor was still shrouded in both drop cloths and mystery.

The famed third floor

Views of Clifton's Pacific Seas

Happily, the remainder of the cafeteria appears to have weathered the change in ownership unscathed.

The amazing, cow hide, hearthside chair still
beckons guest to take a load off and set for a spell.

Bears are still fishing
A postcard view of the chapel and the main dining room

The Chapel is still chapel-ing
We should have taken video of the spiritual message delivered
at the push of a button inside the chapel but perhaps that is
just the incentive one needs to get to Clifton's Brookdale!

An additional dining nook still carries the theme

"By a waterfall, I'm calling you..."
The water is still falling.

The country cabin still welcomes visitors.

 And taxidermy, always taxidermy!

Again we must bastardize paraphrase the great poet Longfellow:

"...List to a Tale of Love in (Brookdale), home of the happy."

As luck would have it, there is a fitting Disney cartoon for every occasion.

"Morris the Midget Moose" (1950)

Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria
648 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA

Hours of Operation:

Tuesday - Sunday: 6:30am - 10:00pm
(Please verify hours before making your way downtown and paying to park.  Due to the renovation, the hours may vary.)



Mr. Tiny


  1. YAY I love Clifton's, I'm glad it hasn't changed in the 4 years since I've moved to Chicago. I usually got the turkey or meatloaf too hehe. I'm glad LA has preserved the cafeteria since so many great places were torn down in the '80s. Do you ever go to Philippe's French Dip sandwiches in Chinatown?

  2. Woohoo! I only went here once, back when I was in college, but I *loved* it. I really want to go back. Thanks for posting such awesome pictures! My grandma worked at the Pacific Seas Clifton's for a while before she was married. Wish we could have seen that one!

  3. Lauren, it is right around the corner from California Millinery - sounds like we all need a downtown adventure day!!! Do you have any pics from when your grandma worked there? Do you know what the staff wore? I'll bet it was AMAZING!

  4. Leilani, we definitely go to Philippe's but being the odd ducks that we are, we usually go for breakfast! Next time you are in town try it for breakfast and then go to Clifton's for lunch!!!

  5. Oh my goodness, I wish I could go there right this instant! I'm drooling (not at the food as I'm with you about cafeteria food). It looks like such an amazing place.

  6. Hi! Thanks for the comment on my blog - I'm trying to think of events that would be coming up in Adelaide but am currently drawing blanks. Feel free to drop me an email at andi.b.goode@gmail.com and I'll try to think of something. =)
    -Andi x

  7. In the immortal words of Liz Lemon, "I want to go to there."

    Killing me. Softly. With indoor plastic plants. I need to plan a road trip! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hey... didyah hear about this? Fingers crossed they won't muck it up too much!