Hot Dish or Kitsch?

Hot Dish or Kitsch?

After a five-year hiatus, Clifton’s Cafeteria has reopened in Downtown Los Angeles.

The ballyhooed October 1 relaunch followed a period during which new owner Andrew Meieran spent a reported $14 million to purchase and painstakingly repair, remodel and re-interpret the famous five-story South Broadway eatery known variously for kitsch, curiosities, comfort, family, and hipsterdom.

Prominent Angeleno Clifford Clinton established Clifton’s Brookdale in 1935 on the site of the former Boos Brother Cafeteria at 648 S Broadway. Clifton’s has long served as many things to many people: Over-the-top Depression-era roadside architectural attraction; symbol of “pay what you can” Golden Rule compassion; egalitarian gathering spot; and woodland-themed inspiration to theme park builders, science fiction authors and diorama enthusiasts.

Clifton’s is also a Rorschach test for how one views the built, economic and socio-cultural environment of contemporary Los Angele’s rapidly changing historic core.

Opinions are varied: A writer for Vice online called out Clifton’s for its yuppification. Los Angeles magazine’s “Ask Chris” Nichols updated his ongoing 127-year history of the building and the Clinton family. Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne published an intriguing piece that, in part, connected Google’s faster loading logo redesign with Clifton’s collections curated in the meatspace.

Meanwhile, 12,000 people came through Clifton’s during the first four days after re-opening, the restaurant said. Social media was captivated. Eater LA live-blogged. An earlier press preview and a Los Angeles Conservancy fundraiser were likewise packed.

“The idea is creating drama and narrative. If you don’t create that, you may not have succeeded at using space to engender experience,” said Meieran, who is also the developer behind the retro-futurist hospitality hot spot, The Edison.

“Getting the wow factor in a space,” he added, “and getting certain moments where people recognize you didn’t have to do that, but you spent the time, you spent the money, you made sure that with the project in the end, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.”

At Clifton’s, those parts include the cafeteria on the first floor and differently themed bars throughout. “There are areas that are updated and refreshed and historically restored properly,” Meieran said. “And then there are areas that are entirely new and unexpected. The building is designed to be explored and enjoyed at somebody’s leisure.”

Nichols—the Los Angeles columnist and a longtime historic preservationist—offered a similar assessment. Sitting in front of a 40-foot-tall faux Redwood tree, a taxidermied buffalo to his left, Nichols noted that Meieran had incorporated everything from geodes to pieces of a Boston cathedral altar to a tiki collection.

“It’s a spectacular re-imagining of a lot of dead space and a thoughtful restoration of a sacred space,” said Nichols. “These party rooms, store rooms, offices—this haunted house back here that nobody ever used—has been reimagined into this complete Disney-level fantasy environment celebrating nature and science and history.”

Will Wright, Director of Government and Public Affairs, AIA|LA, lived downtown during the years Clifton’s was closed. “The team that restored Clifton’s should be applauded for their patience, perseverance, and the blood, sweat, and tears it took to revitalize this important Downtown L.A. cultural asset,” Wright said. “As more people converge on [the neighborhood] as a place to live, work and play, what’s more important than ever before is that Downtown retains a sense of authenticity—that we embrace the new and yet respect the strength of foundation delivered by the past. Clifton was built to last.”

Edmond J. Clinton III can vouch for that. A grandson of Clifford Clinton, Edmond recently published the Angel City Press book Clifton’s and Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader. In an interview, Edmond Clinton recalled bussing tables at Clifton’s in the early 1960s.

Clinton observed that the new Clifton’s dining room retained its traditional aesthetic. He was also pleased with how Meieran had restored two murals by Einar C. Petersen. “I was trying to stay in touch with Andrew Meieran once we realized he wanted to re-do the Brookdale,” Clinton said, using a familiar name of Clifton’s—as there used to be a dozen locations, each with different themes, across the Southland. “And certainly, Clifton’s did need re-doing,” Clinton said. “It really had run down over several years.”