An icon of downtown Los Angeles, Clifton's is the last remaining of ten Clifton's Cafeterias, once the region's largest cafeteria chain.
Welton Becket and then-partner Walter Wurdeman designed the forest-themed wonderland of dining, which became a destination for generations of Angelenos. It is considered the world's largest public cafeteria and the only one remaining from the Golden Age of cafeteria dining.
After seventy-five years in the family of founder Clifford Clinton, Clifton's changed hands in 2010 to entrepreneur Andrew Meieran. The business had suffered from changing times and demographics, and the building had suffered from years of deferred maintenance.
Meieran and his dedicated team spent four years restoring and reimagining the beloved eatery. This was a tall order: how do you make a century-old building economically viable without compromising the integrity of a place that was extremely important to generations of people?
The team painstakingly restored the historic spaces on the first and second floors, as well as the original 1935 facade, which had been covered in the 1960s by a metal screen. They removed other 1960s additions and uncovered original features that were hidden for decades, including murals and a tiny grotto near the front entrance.
Meieran even discovered an original—and still glowing—piece of neon in the basement. (It’s still glowing, just moved to a new location so everyone can see it.) The building had suffered badly from deferred maintenance, requiring significant structural and seismic work.
With the historic spaces well preserved, Meieran let his imagination run loose in the rest of the building. He opened up non-historic space into a three-story atrium featuring a massive replica of a redwood tree. Ultimately, the building will house two restaurants and five bars, including a tiki-themed bar (a nod to Clifton’s Pacific Seas) featuring items from the now-closed Bahooka restaurant in Rosemead.
Clifton's reopened to the public in the fall of 2015 and has been busy ever since. A massive project met sky-high expectations, reviving a beloved landmark while positioning it for future generations.
Founder Clifford E. Clinton grew up working in his father's Clinton Cafeteria chain in San Francisco. He came to Los Angeles in 1931 to start his own business, merging his first and last names into "Clifton's."
He opened the original Clifton's Cafeteria (later remodeled into Pacific Seas) on Olive Street, across from the Oviatt Building. As a boy, Clifford had lived in China with his parents during their missionary service in the Salvation Army. The region's severe poverty and lack of food sparked his lifelong efforts to help the hungry.
Clifford's cafeteria embodied his ideals, with mottos such as "Pay What You Wish" and "Dine Free Unless Delighted." With the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, Clinton nearly went bankrupt honoring his principle of never turning away the hungry, even if they couldn't pay. Yet he persevered and opened his second location, Clifton's Brookdale, in 1935.
The building at 648 South Broadway was constructed in 1904 and is now one of the oldest buildings remaining on Broadway. It was designed by Robert Brown Young, one of Los Angeles' most prominent early architects.
The building's simplified Beaux Arts façade featured expansive display windows to showcase the wares of the original tenants, the J. B. Brown Music Company and Lyon McKinney Smith Company, purveyor of furniture and carpets.
A Boos Brothers cafeteria opened on the site in 1913, operating until Clinton purchased the lease in 1935. Clifford transformed the former Boos Brothers space into a fantasy forest inspired by the Santa Cruz mountains where he'd spent childhood summers, not far from the famous Brookdale Lodge.
Clinton retained the noted architecture firm of Plummer, Wurdeman, and Becket, who designed the iconic Pan-Pacific Auditorium that same year. They redesigned the building's entire façade, with the lower portion evoking a rustic lodge, and turned the interior into the mountain setting that has greeted Clifton's patrons for generations.
Many original feature remain, include the waterfall and meandering stream, the terraced dining sections set among mock redwood trees and stony crags, artist Einar Petersen's mural of a redwood forest, and the Little Chapel with its recorded parable.
At the entrance on Broadway, the firm designed one of the region's most intricate terrazzo sidewalks. The artwork spans the length of the building and depicts local landmarks, destinations, and industries.
In 1963, the building underwent a modernization in which the entrance was recessed and adorned with turquoise and red mosaic glass tile. The remodel also added an expansive entrance canopy, neon blade sign, and aluminum grille.