With the highly anticipated but curiously slow-motion reopening of the 1930’s Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria in Downtown Los Angeles, media attention is building and Clifton’s stands poised to serve a whole new generation of hungry hipsters, a far cry from Clifford Clinton’s original Great Depression-era vision of “Pay What You Wish.”
Clifton’s Cafeteria photo by Ed Fuentes
From a wonderful article on Collectors Weekly by Hunter Oatman-Stanford:
Long before the Civil Rights movement allowed black Americans to freely patronize white-run establishments, Clifton’s restaurants were integrated. In response to a complaint about his progressive policy, Clinton wrote in his weekly newsletter, “If colored skin is a passport to death for our liberties, then it is a passport to Clifton’s.” Regardless of income or skin color, Clinton wanted everyone who ate at his restaurants to be completely satisfied, so the phrase “Dine free unless delighted” was printed on every check. Though many patrons ate for free, enough customers gave significantly more than they were asked to keep the business afloat.
Clifton’s was for the working classes and it was founded on the guiding principle of the Golden Rule. But times change, the mood of the country has changed and Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria will be reborn as a multi-story pleasure palace, including a high-end steakhouse, a speakeasy and all the bells and whistles to please the palates of a prosperous new crop of downtown LA residents. Nevertheless, we’re all about the rebirth of Downtown Los Angeles and historic preservation, and we’ll happily applaud this venerable building’s grand reopening.
Alice Bag, photo by Angie Skull
Native Angeleno and punk rocker/author/artist Alice Bag recently shared her memories of Clifton’s and her fondness for “wild, organic Salisbury steak” with us.
Q: You briefly mention Clifton’s Cafeteria in your book, Violence Girl. I’ve heard other interviews with you where you delve into more detail about this unique part of LA’s restaurant history. Why didn’t you write more about it in your memoir?
Alice: I actually wrote much more about Clifton’s. It’s possible that it was in an early draft, but I had to cut out some scenes that didn’t advance the overall story. It may have ended up as a deleted scene.
Q: Why was Clifton’s so memorable for you as a child?
Alice: It was a total sensory experience. For me, atmosphere is really important in a restaurant. Clifton’s definitely had atmosphere and it started way down the street. You could tell you were getting close because you could hear the tambourines going and the preaching and singing from down the block. The hallelujahs were out front, preaching The Word. I was a little kid, I thought they were there to entertain the customers going into Clifton’s. My parents just wanted to get through them as quickly as possible and not have to give them any money.
Q: Describe the interior of Clifton’s for us.
Alice: It had a forest theme with lots of trees, taxidermy woodland creatures, bears, giant boulders. I think it was four floors, altogether. On the left side were terraced dining areas set at different height levels, almost like a series of little balconies set progressively further back. Straight ahead was a staircase leading to the second floor dining rooms and a small chapel.
I recall that there was a little chapel to the right of the top of the stairs on the first level, really just a small room tucked into a quiet corner of the restaurant. Inside, there was a religious painting on backlit, translucent glass with what I think what must have been a painting of Jesus. There was also a button you could push to hear some kind of religious soundtrack…anyway, it was a place where you could go to pray if you were so inclined.
Photo of Clifton’s by Jesse Monsour
My favorite room was at the very top. I think it was called the Red Room because it had red painted walls, flocked red wallpaper and red carpet. I thought it was very elegant. Come to think of it, I have used that same deep red color in my own house for years now. My daughter calls it the “Welcome to Hell” look.
Q: What were some of your favorite things to eat at Clifton’s?
Alice: Well, it was kind of tricky because of the cafeteria style. If you walked by and picked up the first tasty thing you saw, the (side) dishes would accumulate. You wanted to take the tasty thing, but if you took it too early, you would load up your tray before you got to the main courses. So you had to exercise some willpower. I tried to get either mashed potatoes, or the mac n’ cheese - not both (laughs)… although I really wanted both! I would usually get peas, although I also liked the carrot raisin salad - really good. And then, they had Waldorf Salad too, that was really good, and it sounded fancy cause it was from The Waldorf in New York City.
Q: I’m pretty sure Waldorf Salad is just the name for that particular salad.
Alice: No. It came from the Waldorf Hotel in NYC, check your facts. My main course was always Salisbury Steak!
Q: Salisbury Steak? Isn’t that just a hamburger patty with gravy?
Alice: No, Salisbury Steak is made from wild, organic Salisbury. Free Range Salisbury Steak - it’s really good, you should try it sometime. I think they carry it at Whole Foods.
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Zodiac Chandelier, Park Plaza Hotel on Flickr.
Wonder is seeing the ordinary through extraordinary eyes.
The Muse of Music, George Stanley’s 1940 #StreamlineModerne sculptural masterpiece. On the left is the Muse of Drama/Comedy. This massive granite fountain welcomes visitors to the @hollywoodbowl on Highland Blvd. Stanley’s best known work is the iconic Oscar statuette. #hollywood #artdeco #losangeles @discoverla #lastory #laigers #losangeles #hbtour (at Hollywood Bowl)
It is neither the clouds nor the wind, but it is your mind which moves. #Peace #Saturday #CaveCreek #desert (at Cave Creek, Arizona)
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The top 3 floors of Henry Huntington’s 1905 Pacific Electric Building on 6th and Main in Downtown Los Angeles were originally the home of the exclusive and elite Jonathan Club, the Soho House of its time. This is the western view from one of the exquisite, pivoting circular windows, set into marble-clad walls. At the time of the building’s creation, it is conceivable that one could have looked out this window and viewed the Pacific Ocean in the distance.