Downtown LA’s Forest Wonderland
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~
Originally published in New Angeles Magazine
Outside, it is 2009 on South Broadway – Mexican pop and rap blares from stores selling cheap toys in the shells of grand buildings, ornate facades painted over or covered with bright signs. Most people rush by the entrance to the restaurant, but a few, some dressed in business formal, some dressed casually, and some in mismatched castoff clothes, go inside. Many have the haggard, strained expressions of people enduring the stress of economic uncertainty.
Inside Clifton’s Brookdale Lodge Cafeteria, it is 1935, also a period of deep economic turmoil, but this is not the Thirties you’re thinking of, featuring bathtub gin and mobster molls. It’s a cleaner, purer vision of the glorious and mostly unspoiled state that California used to be. Restaurateur Clifford Clinton had spent his youth in the Santa Cruz mountains, and he sculpted an idealized mountain lodge in a downtown Los Angeles office building, complete with a twenty-foot waterfall, life-size bears, and giant redwood trunks disappearing seamlessly into murals. Clifton’s is the last relic of an era of grand cafeterias that used to be one of the signatures of Los Angeles. Though they’re now a symbol of utilitarian dining, cafeterias began in Los Angeles in the late 1890’s and once competed with each other for exotic themes. The nearby Pacific Seas offered a romanticized vision of the tropics, while other establishments celebrated the Old West or offered views of Europe’s landmarks in miniature.
Of all of these, only one is left, but that one is still impressive. When you pass through the food line here, you walk in the steps of authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, who used to come here when the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society met in the upstairs room. (Any group meeting here got all the free sherbet they could hold, which made it popular with hungry writers.) Movie stars, politicians, and other celebrities ate here too, and pictures of notables, some famous and some forgotten, line the halls. There are no photos of the countless others, the desperate and hungry of that recession, but they dined here too – kind-hearted Mr. Clifton never refused anyone a meal just because they couldn’t pay for it, and his heirs have continued that policy to this day.
So much for the past – what is the experience in 2009? Pick up your tray and you’re in high school again, wondering if that bully from math class is going to hit your elbow just as you get your soda completely full. The food looks better than high school, though – the fried chicken is appealing even in a steel tray, and the cooks are serving fresh items fast enough that you know it hasn’t been sitting long. Grab a slice of pie because it looks good, a salad because you feel like you ought to be eating healthy, and hey, you have as much as you can possibly eat, and the numbers on the cashier’s receipt are lower than you expected. Then it’s out of the cool, sterile environment of the lines and upstairs to wonderland, where you eat your meal beneath realistic looking pines festooned with glass-eyed birds. The magic comes flooding back – you’re dining in 1930’s vision of the California wilderness, and you haven’t left downtown Los Angeles.
Clifton’s is at 648 S. Broadway in LA – open daily 6:30 Am – 7:30 PM. 213-627-1673.