The other week I was lucky enough to not only score an exclusive interview for LA Weekly’s Squid Ink with Andrew Meieran, owner/designer of The Edison downtown, but a personal tour of all five levels of his newest conquest, the iconic downtown restaurant, Clifton’s Cafeteria. This legendary eatery has occupied that space on Broadway and 7th since 1935 and has gone from a bustling restaurant serving about 10,000 people a day to a quiet museum. The green jello is still there, as well as that one-person Redwoods sanctuary, but all that’s really left of its past glory are the pictures on the walls and the bits of artifacts.
So I felt very fortunate that Meieran was able to take me through all the photos and tell me the story about this, the largest public restaurant in the world. Tidbits he told me about Clifton’s that you probably didn’t know:
- Neon palm trees (inspired by the Coconut Grove), a water wheel and an organ once decorated the main dining room.
- Lime-aid springs were these fountains of green water that bubbled up from a pool. People could just fill their cups to drink from it. Apparently the green water promised enduring friendships as explained on a wall plaque. The water “through volcanic and mineral pressure became impregnated with rare and enduring qualities. When released to the air it appears green to those allergic to its spell. If he who proffers and he who drinks are in harmonious accord, enduring friendship will follow.”
- Sherbet used to be shot out of a “geyser” and into your glass.
- Before soda fountains became all the rage in the ’50s, Clifton’s used to have its own in the long hallway to the cafeteria on the first floor.
- Founder of Clifton’s, Clifford Clinton built the Redwoods theme because it reminded him of his childhood.
- When the restaurant belonged to the Boos Brothers (owners of the biggest cafeteria chain in the early 1900s), after it was a furniture store and before it was Clifton’s, the Red Room on the third floor used to be its elegant dining room.
- Ray Bradbury co-founded a sci-fi club with Forrest Ackerman on the 2nd floor of Clifton’s during the Great Depression and they’d meet every week. Club members included such authors as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert A. Heinlein as well as filmmaker Ray Harryhausen.
- Clifford Clinton had been a missionary in China and it was his experience with starving people there that inspired his cafeteria’s golden rule of “pay what you can.”
- Clifton’s doesn’t have a shady past of bootleggers or the mob as it’s been owned by the Clintons, a family of missionaries since the beginning.
Running around the building with Meieran, I couldn’t help but appreciate his genuine fascination and respect for the old cafeteria’s history. So I’m really excited about his plans to renovate it. OK, I’m especially excited that he’s building four bars into it. But here’s a guy who is really into taking what’s been neglected from our past and making it wayyy better. Read more about what else he’s going to do with it here.