Nostalgia at Cliftons Cafeteria Los Angeles

The renewed storefront on the 600 block of Broadway, Los Angeles

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.

clifton's cafeteria dining room

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.

Memorial plate from the original Clifton's Cafeteria

Once you could “Dine free unless delighted.” Memorial plate.

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.

The original neon - shining continuously, just, since 1932.

The original neon – shining continuously, just, since 1932.

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.

Downstairs bar at Clifton's Cafeteria

Downstairs bar at Clifton’s downtown LA

wildlife inside Cliftons Cafeteria Los Angeles

A few dining dioramas inside Clifton’s downtown LA

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!


Bandstand inside Clifton's Cafeteria

Bandstand inside Clifton’s Cafeteria. Note the quote in brown, to the left on the wall.

Quote from Joseph Conrad on the Clifton's downtown LA bandstand wall.

Quote from Joseph Conrad on the Clifton’s downtown LA bandstand wall.

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.)

Map room in the upstairs bar at Clifton's downtown LA

Map room in the upstairs bar at Clifton’s downtown LA

Clifton's Cafeteria line

Clifton’s Cafeteria line

Jello at Clifton's Cafeteria

Classic Jello at Clifton’s Cafeteria


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.

On the counter at Clifton's Cafeteria.

On the counter at Clifton’s downtown LA.

If you go to Clifton’s downtown LA:

Location: 648 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014

Hours (check website as these are expanding)

  • Weekdays
    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:


Clifton's Downtown L.A. Pin