A whiff of memory was all that remained – the whoosh of an indoor waterfall, giant trees stretching overhead and lunch with my father in the big city. That toddler’s memory came back into focus as I entered the newly re-opened Clifton’s downtown LA. It was all there – the waterfall, hand-painted murals and a giant Redwood tree lifting its branches several stories into the atrium.
The space overflows with odd impressions of nature and that was exactly what Clifford Clinton designed. He opened the doors in 1932 as an oasis for the spirit during the Great Depression. Clifford was born to Salvation Army parents. With philanthropy in his blood, he offered meals on a pay-what-you-can plan at a time when one out of four restaurants were closing. It worked and before he moved on to fighting corruption at City Hall, he opened three cafeterias. Today only the ‘Brookdale’ location remains.
Within these doors a forest calls to you – a
mountain land of forest trees and sky –
offering woodland peace and beauty to the tired heart and city weary eye.
So enter, friend, to walk where brooklets run down rocky crevices, through fern and reed. Dine here and rest; and when your meal is done, may something more than food have met your need.
~ Esther Baldwin York’s quote from the original Clifton downtown LA postcard, and still sold.
Truly it’s a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities.’ In the basement near the women’s bathroom sits the “oldest continuously active Neon sign in the world,” (except for a couple of WWII blackouts and a city grid failure.) Hard-wired into the electrical system, the tubes were discovered still shining during the recent renovations. Originally they illuminated a painting of a forest. Clifford was a fan of neon and had it installed after seeing one of the first West Coast neon signs at a Packard showroom a few blocks away.
Elsewhere there are tree stump bar stools, tables adjacent to buffalo and bear, hand-painted murals and even a quote from Joseph Conrad painted on the wall. If only the walls could talk and explain why they’re painted at that spot and why that cryptic line!
The wise visit the cafeteria food line and eat before exploring. There are four floors of space and three bars. The top floors are open for special events and music on the weekend. The map room oozes lux and a Tiki Bar is in the works on the top floor (hopefully it will resurrect some of the destroyed Pacific Seas’ cafeteria furnishings. For now, study the jukebox by the front door. It houses a miniature of that facade.)
Booths and tables, alcoves and more stuffed wildlife fill the upstairs cafeteria mezzanine. I brought ice tea and a slice of apple pie to a table under an arch and studied the street below. The sidewalk is mottled and grimy. Modern storefronts line the street but above them sit the original Art Deco and Art Nouveau, terracotta tiles. Elsewhere in the neighborhood gargoyles and embellishments are shrouded in dust. Filigreed rooftops reach into a smoggy sky.
If ever there was a time that visitors could use a little whimsy and fantasy; a glimmer of ‘woodland peace,’ that’s now. Visit Clifton’s downtown LA and leave warmed in the belly and the spirit.
If you go to Clifton’s downtown LA:
Location: 648 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014
Hours (check website as these are expanding)
11am – 9pm Cafeteria
11am – 2am Monarch Bar
6pm – 2am Gothic Bar
- Saturday and Sunday
10am – 9pm Cafeteria
11am – 2am Monarch Bar
6pm – 2am Gothic Bar
Visit the website for the latest renovation news and event listings.
Step out in style as Dapper Day hosts a NYE 2016 soiree at Cliftons. Tickets here.
Interested in more vintage glamour? Read my post about the Cicada Club in West LA.
The Trip Well Gal would jump for joy if you share this post. Here’s a couple of Pins:
Would love to have seen those landscapes. I wondered about how naked that bulb in the basement was.
What a fun place to visit. Going to Clifton’s looks like stepping back in time~
It was time-tripping truly. You’d love it, Irene.
OMG, does this bring back memories for me! I remember going to Clifton’s with my mom when I was a kid. Coincidentally, I was just thinking about it a few days ago. What a treat to see your post!
Thanks, Carole, it seems that many of us Boomers have memories of this place. I was thrilled to step back into time and visit.
What a cool place! A real slice of Americana. Especially love the bar. Definitely have to check it out next time we are in LA.
There’s a trio of bars from the main floor and up. Special events keep the top floor busy but on weekends I’ve been told there’s live music upstairs and you can see the Map Room and Gothic Bar. Very cool.
I vaguely remember going there with my Grandma when I was a little girl. After seeing your photos, my memory came back to me. I will need to get down there sometime soon. Great post.
How sweet to re-discover that memory, Suzanne. It was the same for me and I need to return now after dark for some grown-up fun in the club upstairs!
I love the thought behind everything and the history. Tree stump bar stools, what a nice touch. It certainly seems like an experience full of whimsy and fantasy.
You got it,Alyssa.Clifon’s has been reborn & there’s more in the works.
Fascinating place. I’d definitely have a drink in the Gothic Bar.
I look forward to returning some evening when Clifton’s transforms again.
Clifton’s sounds like such a cool place to eat. I’d love to sit in the map room! The history of it all sounds so amazing, especially knowing that they helped feed so many people that couldn’t afford much during the Depression.
I hope you get a chance to visit. The map room is indeed cool.
What a wonderful place with so much history. I had never heard of places that were charing what you can pay, it is probably a smart move as well as socially responsible at that time. Also no disappointment when you pay what something is worth to you. The longest running neon sign is a cool claim
Truly Clifford Clinton was a visionary philanthropist. His success as a businessman should be a model for our times.
I love learning about the history of Clifton’s, I’m sure the reason for its success was largely due to Clifford clinton’s generosity. I imagine it’s a very popular place for tourists and locals alike. I’d love to spend a few hours observing the map room.
When Clifton’s re-opened there were lines to get in. Today it’s easier to visit. I so hope the current owners are successful.
It would be such a treat if the walls and animals could talk at Clifton’s downtown LA. It sounds like such a historic location. I look forward to a visit to Clifton’s downtown LA, the next time am in town. The classic fruit Jello will be a hit with the family.
That sounds like a great family trip in the works!
Sounds like a fabulous dining experience, and that they’re really dedicated to conservation, preservation and education. I love that the oldest continuously active Neon sign in the world is here .., so much history, it seems like a museum experience as well as dining from what you’ve described 🙂 How fun!
A living Museum perhaps but more a hang-out unparalleled – for all ages.
Wow, they’ve really thought of everything at Clifton’s Downtown. I love the idea of the tree stump seats.
Each of the 3 bars is so unique. Hopefully you’ll be able to visit.
Isn’t it great to revisit a place after many, many years and discover it’s still you remember it? I’ve never been to this restaurant before, but your post made me curious. I’ll check it out, Elaine. Thank you for letting me know about it.
I hope you get to visit sometime.
So much interesting history at this restaurant! I especially like those animals, ahhh, and the map room – how cool!
It’s very cool & getting cooler.
You have no idea of how much I have wanted to visit this place since it reopened. It has been on most of Los Angeles’ publication for the last month. Plus, the I am a fan of the new chef. Have to make it to Downtown soon.
Now I have to find out about the new chef. The lines have calmed down now too.
LOVE Cliftons! We stood in line for EVER the first week it opened because we couldn’t wait to see it. We only moved to LA after it had been closed and had heard so much about it. My son is an outdoor fanatic, so it was high on our list to check out. I haven’t been in the holiday season, looks so nice with the tree up!
I couldn’t get up to LA when it first opened & was lucky to walk in on a whim. I hope your son enjoyed it. I can’t wait to share it with my son.
I love it when you go somehwre from your childhood that has such strong memories like that and its just like you remembered, looks a great place with a really interesting history
It was such a sweet visit & such fun to talk my way into the upstairs spaces!
Such a nifty salute to the golden age of LA. How have we missed this place over so many trips through LA and even living there? Thank you for giving us something new to check out!
It reopened this fall after being shut fir decades, so easy to miss. Perhaps you’ll get a chance to see it yet.
Looks like quite the place to visit with an amazing history. The neon sign trivia is amazing that its been running that long. The forest walls are also very impressive
I hope you get a chance to see it yourself one day.
That is wonderful to read. I love old lightbulbs but this is really special.