I love quirky tours so when I found out about the Clifton’s Living History Tour at the old Clifton’s Cafeteria that closed in downtown Los Angeles in 2011 – and was renovated into Clifton’s Republic – I signed up.
My guide was the knowledgeable Kahlil Nelson who started the tour by having me take The Clifton’s Living History Tour oath.
Look at me, I’m unstoppable.
It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.
From outer space to redwood forest.
The best adventure’s lie before us.
History of Clinton’s Cafeteria
The building was originally a department store. The Boos brothers opened some of the first cafeterias in LA and opened one on the site When Horace Boos died in 1926 his other three brothers sold their cafeterias to the Childs restaurant chain out of New York. Childs later sold two of them to Clifford Clinton in 1935. For many years, cafeterias were as popular as coffee houses are now.
Clinton came from a restaurant family in San Francisco. The name Clifton’s is a combination of his first and last names. The family voted him out of their business because he wanted to do things like give all the food away to people who couldn’t afford it. Clinton set off on his own and moved his family from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
In its heyday, there were 10 Clifton’s Cafeterias in Southern California. The one I visited on Broadway, in the old LA Theater District, was redwood themed and called Clifton’s Brookdale. It was inspired by Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Clinton liked to stay to get away from it all. The Clifton Pacific Seas Cafeteria on the west side of Olive just below Sixth had a Polynesian theme. It closed in the 1960s. The other 8 cafeterias were not themed and had a mid-century modern design.
A lodge-like atmosphere in the city
One of the reasons Clinton wanted his cafeteria to resemble Brookdale’s was because it opened during the Depression. He wanted to give the citizens of LA a place to go where they could feel they were in a forest in the midst of the urban jungle. Nelson told me that Brookdale Lodge is still in the Santa Cruz mountains and is said to be haunted “as all get out.” It recently reopened and conducts haunted tours.
Clifton’s Cafeteria closed in 2011 and was purchased by Andrew Meieran who renovated and renamed it Clifton’s Republic. It’s now a popular and multi-themed vintage-style nightclub. They have retained some of the original murals, 1930s furniture, and rockwork. It’s filled with dioramas and taxidermied animals that were made in conjunction with the Natural History Museum.
You can still see the old terrazzo sidewalk in the front of Clifton’s Republic that was designed by Welton Becket. He also designed the Capitol Records building, the Cinerama Dome, Bullocks Pasadena, and the Pan Pacific Auditorium, among many others. It has vignettes of where you could go after you finished your Jello and meatloaf such as the La Brea Tarpits, Catalina, Griffith Observatory, movie studios, and the oil fields.
The first area I saw when I walked in featured late 1930s vintage furniture and décor. Kahlil then led me into a large room with a huge redwood tree that stood from floor to high ceiling. It was designed to resemble the interior of the Brookdale Lodge. The tree was sculpted on-site by a company called Nature Maker in concrete and steel, but it looks real!
The bar in that section is called Monarch after the California state bear. It was fashioned out of redwood and cottonwood and was inspired by Walt Disney who was a frequent customer at Clifton’s cafeteria. Disney grew up in Marceline, Missouri, and he had a cottonwood tree in his backyard that he called “The Dreaming Tree.” He said that when he sat under it, it inspired some of his most famous cartoons. Another old LA restaurant that Disney frequented was the Tam O’Shanter, which I wrote about in a previous post.
There’s a pillar outside the front door of the building of Clifton’s Republic that read “Florists – Weddings, Funerals, and Designs $1 and up.” It was discovered during the renovation and was part of the old 1904 department store before it became a cafeteria. You can also see part of the department store ceiling inside the club.
Andrew Meieran used to own a home that was once belonged to Charlie Chaplin in Beachwood Canyon. A part of the ceiling from that home has been installed in the nightclub. Don’t tell Andy Sandburg who now owns the Chaplin home because he may not have noticed that he’s missing part of his ceiling.
Another remaining piece of the original Clifton’s Cafeteria is a stone chapel that was used as a meditation spot for customers. When you walk in and sit down in the tiny chapel you’ll see a small diorama in front of you with a nature scene. Customers would push a button to hear an old-time radio-voice narration that made them feel like they were in the woods. The button no longer works but I got to listen to the audio recording.
“Stand very still in the heart of the woods . . . “
There are 5 bars inside Clinton’s Republic that include the Gothic Bar made of a 1400-year-old redwood with a real 4,7 million-year-old meteor called “The Bradbury” sitting on the bar, the Monarch Bar, Treetops Bar, The Pacific Seas Tiki Bar, and one yet to be named. Each serves specialty vintage drinks.
Stories from the old Clifton’s Cafeteria
Clifton’s Cafeteria was a popular venue for local meetings. One group that met there every week was the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Science Fiction aficionado Forest Ackerman and novelist Ray Bradbury were members. Bradbury came all the time because Clifton’s had a policy that you didn’t have to pay for your food if you couldn’t afford it. It attracted many creative people and Bradbury took advantage of it.
The new Clifton’s turned the space where the group met into what’s now called the “Bradbury booth.” Beautiful murals of the Muir Woods, Yosemite, as well as inspirational quotes, can be seen on walls.
Clifford Clinton was friends with John Anson Ford. He was a journalist, politician, and member of the LA Board of Supervisors. There’s an outdoor theater in the Cahuenga Pass that’s named after him. He told Clinton that he was in charge of the General Hospital.
The food there was no good so he asked Clinton to go there and write a report about it. Clinton went and agreed that the food was horrible. The higher-ups knew it was so bad and also knew that the patients would refuse to eat it. They sold it to farmers for a profit so they could feed their animals. The higher-ups ate steak while the patients starved. Clinton wrote the report and the higher-ups were let go.
After that, Clinton set up a system so that the patients were well fed and saved the hospital over $100,000 in the process. The higher-ups had been hired by Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw who was known to have ties with the mob in exchange for political support. The mayor became angry that his friends had been fired. He hired some of his cronies to go to Clifton’s Cafeteria to fall down the stairs or claim they had food poisoning. They even put smoke bombs in the bathroom.
Clinton was told to lay low but instead, he got on the radio and told everyone who listened, how corrupt Shaw was. Furious, Shaw had his minions put a bomb in Clinton’s basement. The bomb went off, but fortunately, no one was there. Then, Shaw, had someone put another bomb in Clinton’s private investigator’s car. The guy was injured with shrapnel but was able to continue working for Clinton. When all finally came to light, Shaw became the first mayor to be ousted from office.
Clinton and his kids served in WWII, After the war, Clinton sold all the cafeterias to his kids. He and his wife Nelda went to Cal Tech where they funded a biochemist who developed a multi-purpose food. It was a meal replacement powder that had all the necessary nutrients. He sold it at the cafeteria for 3 cents a portion or free if a customer couldn’t afford it. He also sold it to hospitals. His goal was to end hunger on the planet.
As a child of 10, his Salvation Army parents took him to Asia to work in an orphanage for blind children. His job, at that tender age, was to go out in the morning and find all the abandoned blind babies and take them back to the orphanage. As a result of that experience and other reasons, all the receipts at Clifton’s read “Dine free unless delighted. Pay what you can.” All the cashiers were directed to treat everyone with dignity.
Clifton’s Cafeteria was also listed in the Green Book as a safe place for people of color to eat. Clinton would host award shows and fashion shows for local black colleges.
This is a neon light that has never gone out since it was originally installed over 70 years ago.
Clifton’s Pacific Seas Cafeteria
The Polynesian themed Clifton’s Pacific Seas Cafeteria was like Disneyland’s Tiki Room before Disneyland ever opened. It had a waterfall cascading down the roof, waterfalls & giant flowers, Hawaiian bands inside – the works. It even had a rainstorm that went off in intervals in one of the dining rooms.
Clinton was a staunch Christian and had some of the employees dress in costumes and perform religious scenes in the basement. Some people say that Clinton had his fingers on the pulse of strange LA.
In homage to the Pacific Seas Cafeteria, Clifton’s Republic has installed the Pacific Seas Tiki Bar. It’s an affectionate nod to the old cafeteria’s past but much of the décor was purchased from the now-closed Bohooka Tiki Bar in El Monte. Some of the artwork has been done by Bamboo Ben, who is a Tiki Room Designer and Sammy Beam, who is a muralist,
A former busboy at Clinton’s Cafeteria was Jerry Leiber who went on to write the lyrics for Jail House Rock and Hound Dog.
Cafeterias eventually shut down because they became associated with school cafeterias and also because people started to move away from big cities into outlying areas.
You may also enjoy: The History of Drinking in Los Angeles – Vintage Boozing
Clifton’s Republic is located at:
648 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014
To take the fabulous Clifton’s Living History Tour with Kahlil Nelson, you can visit his website at CliftonsTour.com