At the height of the Great Depression, Clifton’s Cafeteria was born with the greater good of the community, and humanity, in mind. With America at its poorest, founder Clifford Clinton had a ‘pay what you can afford’ policy, so no one left his restaurants hungry. As America recovered, Clinton and his wife passed the restaurants to their children after WWII, moving on to take their fight against hunger worldwide. Clifton’s soldiered on, continuing feeding the masses of Downtown’s community of elderly, working poor, creatives, and homeless under the Clinton family’s loving hand. The wildly playful decor that influenced Mr. Walt Disney himself, menu, classic 30s architecture, and communal vibe remained until 2010. By then, Clifton’s was showing its age. The family friendly vibe diminishing, a growing Skid Row, and wave of well-heeled new-comers, left Clifton’s in a precarious state. This rapidly polarized community meant Clifton’s reinvention had many boxes to check.
Enter Andrew Meieran. Owner of The Edison, Meieran bought the overwhelming task of restoring not just the 80 year old building and its storybook fixtures, but the charm, food, and history of what it means to a Downtowner to be Clifton’s. Businesses like Clifton’s that have historically catered to their lower income neighborhoods are being replaced by chic, upscale outsiders cashing in on the allure of the grit and spirit that they ultimately price out. Not Clifton’s.
Meieran and Cliftons’ President Barbara Jacobs have updated the charitable ethic of the business with a more sustainable approach, Jacobs explains, “We’re hiring people. Clifton’s has a rich history of honoring everyone who walks through the door: the homeless, vets, families. We did a giant outreach to Union Rescue, Chrysalis, The Downtown Mission and we are fortunate to say 10% of our employees are from those programs.” Jacobs explains patrons can support too, “Guests can go up on their bill, proceeds will go to vouchers for people who can’t afford to pay.” The philosophy goes further, “We’ll also have social programming for all ages. We’re having a senior citizen mentorship program for inner city kids, outreach with non-profits like arts enrichment programs, reading programs… all of our programs will have a social responsibility component. I hope it inspires other businesses to do the same.”
“Very few people would purchase a 50,000 square foot space, for 2,000 guests and 300 employees and populate with many disenfranchised, the homeless, and vets returning from wars that aren’t getting services,” says Jacobs of Meireran, both meticulous to ensure the moral ethic of Clifton’s is restored, as well as the dining experience. “We’re going to have the iconic cafeteria menu, but the big difference is the food will be farm to table. The food will be fresh and locally sourced”. They’ve updated service by having an additional 3 full levels of uniquely themed cocktail bars. It’s one of the rare places where babies and barflies alike can revel in an otherworldly wonderland. Every inch of the dining rooms and bars are feast for the eyes and imagination, with phenomenal frescos and one-of-a-kind, hand built furniture that adorn all 4 floors.
As much a playground as restaurant, the art deco adornments create an occult-flavored urbanity, drenched by the slow but constant change of colored lighting throughout. The animatronic animals of yore have been replaced by 100 year old taxidermic animals, brought in by the Natural History Museum. There’s more to come as well, the basement to be a stunning and wonderfully creepy bar, including enough curiosities and haunted spaces to put The Magic Castle on notice.
Simply put: go. Go and see it for the first time and stay to enjoy everything the Clinton family imagined for their beloved Downtown and its people. Or, go back and see everything you loved in a new, brighter light. Either way you can eat, drink, explore, and create with confidence knowing the spirit of Clifford Clinton and his family are alive and are seen and felt throughout. Clifton’s isn’t the same. It’s wonderfully evolved to support another generation and continue to truly epitomize the Downtown LA we love.
Kort Havens & Logan Havens