Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Downtown Los Angeles Landmark Makes A Hollywood Comeback


Clifton's Cafeteria Brookdale exterior c. 1936
Image courtesy of the Whittington Photography Collection
USC Digital Library 
Hello Everyone:

Cafeteria trays and blogger are rejoicing at the news that after almost fours years, the newly renovated iconic Clifton's Cafeteria is about to re-open.  Roger Vincent, in his Los Angeles Times article "Happy trays: A renovated Clifton's cafeteria is set to reopen after nearly four years," writes about "...Andrew Meieran, a local developer with an obsessive streak, has reimagined the downtown Los Angeles culinary institution, probably better known for its kitschy forest-themed dining room than its comfort food."  What started out as a simple rehabilitation project, intended to last only a few months, stretched out longer as Mr. Meieran circled the globe and lashed himself to his computer looking for the perfect tchotchkes for the place.  Blogger's inner foodie is already daydreaming of  creamy golden orange macaroni and cheese.

Clifton's "Pacific Seas" Cafeteria c.1940
When Clifton's makes its grand re-opening in a few short weeks, restaurant goers will find a three-story atrium built into the structure-where they will be confronted by a 250-meteorite perched on a Gothic-esque bar made out of a hundred-year-old church altar procured in Boston.  That is before you go to your table. Walk down a flight of stairs and hiding behind a sliding shelf is speakeasy (#historichappyhour likes this one) featuring tables made out large slices of twinkling geodes.  If that doesn't catch your attention, then maybe the glass floor with the nest of real dinosaur eggs, scanned to reveal the skeletons of REAL baby brontosauruses, will surely pique your interest.  Cool.

Clifton's tropical themed dining room c.1939
Everywhere you go, reveals a giant cabinet of curiosities filled with "...machinery dating from the 19th century, elaborate murals and wildlife habitat display-even a 9-foot-tall woolly buffalo."  As #historichappyhour would say, "A three martini cheer" for the man who took a former power station on 2nd Street and morphed into the Steam Punk Edison. Blair Besten, the executive director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, told Mr. Vincent, We have been waiting in great anticipation for this because we knew the scale and scope of what it would be.

Clifton's relaunch heralds the return of the once-popular eatery dating back to 1935 that served as many 15,000 meals a day when Broadway was Los Angeles's entertainment hub.  For whatever you could afford to pay, you would be served traditional cafeteria fare such as: pot roast, mashed potatoes and Jell-O in a rustic setting, complete with faux redwood trees and stone-clad waterfall referencing the Brookdale Lodge in Northern California.  Ms. Besten continues, People can be obsessive about every feature but get lost in the weeds...Andrew understands why people respond to interesting historic places and how to maximize that.

Typical Clifton's roast turkey lunch
Clifton's attracted a number of devotees, both high- and low-born.  Among its fans was Walt Disney who would bring his daughter Diane.  When the late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was still struggling to make a name for himself, he would avail himself of Clifton's Depression-era policy that allowed down-at-heel patrons to pay little or nothing for their meal.  More recently, the cafeteria attracted some of area's younger residents.  At a monthly Art Walk, film director David Lynch presented a lecture on his work at Clifton's.

This legacy weighed heavily on Andrew Meieran's mind as he set out to restore the landmark cafeteria, while adding his own thumbprint, turning Clifton's into foodie destination.  Mr Meieran understood that he would be pilloried by the devotees if ruined the Clifton's they venerated.

Who wants Jell-O?
Clifton's Cafeteria
The biggest challenge Mr. Meieran was deciding which Clifton's era he should preserve.  Mr. Meieran made the right decision to return Clifton's to its thirties-era period of significance; removing the sixties-era metal fa├žade and clear out the most current interior additions to the ground floor.  In the process, he discovered rock grottos from the 1930s and long hidden, hand-tinted photographs of California near the entrance.  In the basement, he found a still burning neon light that had been on since the restaurant opened, when its founder Clifford Clifton converted the Boos Bros. Cafeteria into his namesake forest-themed cafeteria.

Roger Vincent writes, "Clifton's Brookdale, as it was once known, was part of the Clifton's family cafeteria empire, which had a 79-year run that ended with the sale of a long-term lease to Meieran in 2010."  In an acknowledgement to the Pacific Seas, one of the chain's eleven restaurants that closed in the sixties, the rehabilitate Broadway site will feature a Polynesian-style.  The bar will share the fourth floor with a restaurant.  Both rooms will be separated by an Art Deco-themed "map room" decorated with paintings of air travel when it was still glamourous by Los Angeles artist Sammy Beam.  Mr. Beam also painted three-story murals of Yosemite Valley and the Muir Woods in the new atrium.  The new Clifton's will house two restaurants, including the cafeteria, and five bars.  Mr. Vincent reports, "In the basement bar, ice sculptors will carve frozen blocks in a glassed-in freezer..."

Clifton's customers during World War II
Vilma Halet
Andrew Meieran is best known for the Edison, a trendy bar he built out of the ruins of an early 20th century power plant.  Among the bar's odder elements are old Staten Island Ferry searchlights and electrical insulators from the nineties-1890s.  Mr. Meieran is no stranger to restoration work.  He restored and expanded the Charlie Chaplin estate in Beechwood Canyon and rehabilitated several historic office and apartment buildings.

Clifton's Cafeteria, is possibly, Mr. Meieran's most elaborate project and it exacted a toll. During the project, he had to deal with divorce, the deaths of family members and interested acquaintances.  Mr. Meieran admitted to Mr. Vincent, This has been a very tough personal time for me.  Mr. Meieran is a filmmaker whose credits include co-writing and directing Highland Park (2013) and is currently working on a biographical movie about Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.  He continues, I have a passion for storytelling in film or in actual spaces...It's about the narrative elements of history and design.  Yes, thank you.

Ray Bradbury in line at Clifton's
The Clifton's project was not without its ups and downs.  The work ran past deadlines and over budget as Mr. Meieran forged ahead with the renovations and redecoration of the 109-year-old building.  Roger Vincent writes, "He first hoped to invest a few million in improvements while keeping the cafeteria open.  But he closed the place in 2011 and has spent about $10 million so far."  Strangely, Mr. Meieran considers this sum low because of the amount of he spent logged onto EBay and hunting down pieces like a 1935 Art Deco-style soda fountain and a Chris Craft mahogany runabout boat (?!) from the same period.  Mr. Meieran told Mr. Vicent, I search while on airplanes, in random hotel rooms, even on beaches...Wherever there is access to WiFi, I explored the Internet for interesting curiosities.  Way to go.

"Search and you shall find."  Find, he did, connecting with niche online communities.  This is how Mr. Meieran was able to find wood from a "...naturally fallen 1,700 year-old Sequoia redwood tree that was carved into a bar and a piece of ancient bristlecone pine that is now a tabletop."  He also picked up assorted odds and ends from a Parisian flea market.

Nelda Mae and Clifford E. Clifton

The newly rehabilitated Clifton's set to open in stages beginning September 17, with the denouement, the opening of the Pacific Seas Bar targeted by Halloween.  How perfect.  In the meantime, the Clifton family is eagerly waiting to see what has become of their family enterprise.  Edmond Clifton III. the grandson of Clifton's founder, told Roger Vincent, We don't know much...We're all very interested to what they have done with the place.  As are the Clifton's devotees.


No comments:

Post a Comment