Clifton's cafeteria is finally reopening, crammed with curiosities on every floor

Russ Parsons
The California Cook

The newly renovated Clifton’s cafeteria downtown, scheduled to open Thursday at 11 a.m., is massive — five stories of cafeterias, bars and restaurants crammed as full as a curiosity cabinet with artifacts. The design theme is set by a giant fake redwood tree four stories tall growing up the center of the building. It’s like a David Lynch fever dream.

It takes chef Jason Fullilove a half-hour to just give a highlights tour of the place. And when it opens, he’s expecting to serve 1,500 to 2,000 customers a day from Day One.

So why doesn’t he seem more stressed out? “I’m a masochist,” he says. “Give me a big job and I just say, ‘Bring it on; give me more.’ ” 

Fullilove, who last cooked at Malibu Pier, was hired in July to bring culinary order to developer Andrew Meieran’s vision. 

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Much more than just a cafeteria, the historic downtown space, on Broadway just north of 7th Street, will include not only a huge cafeteria on the first floor, but also a craft beer bar on the second, a special events space and another bar on the third and a fine-dining restaurant and tiki bar on the fourth. In the basement will be a high-end mixology bar that you enter through a door hidden behind what looks like an antique electrical circuit panel.

Every floor is crammed with curiosities — wall murals of California nature, dioramas with stuffed animals, a bronzed meteorite in the middle of one bar, fossilized dinosaur eggs hidden in the floor of another. 

For the first week after the official opening, the cafeteria and second-floor bar will be operating from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The second week the hours will expand to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and by the third week, it should be open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Most of the food will come from the fifth-floor kitchen, 10,000 square feet, with a cooking staff of 50.

It’s volume feeding on a scale that is rarely seen outside of Las Vegas. But what seems to be foremost in Fullilove’s mind is designing a menu that will be true to the Clifton’s legacy — or, rather, legacies.

The cafeteria was opened in 1935 by the eccentric Clifford Clinton (he combined his names to get Clifton’s). It ran for almost 75 years, until 2010 when Meieran bought it and closed it for five years and $10 million worth of renovations.

At its peak, the cafeteria was serving 15,000 diners a day. Even at the end, when it had faded to mainly a curiosity, it was serving 1,500 to 2,000.

That’s a lot of history and a lot of memories to contend with. Fullilove has been busy researching not only the early dishes, but also the more recent ones.

“There’s a huge difference between what the place was like when it opened in 1935 and what people who ate here more recently remember it being,” he says. “My job is to find the best in both.”

He’s been aided by a cache of all of the original Clifton’s recipes he discovered in a set of file drawers.

“What’s interesting about the food is that in 1935, during the Depression, a lot of the food that was being served was off-cuts of meat — a lot of oxtail and offal, things that are considered to be sexy foods now. 

“On the other hand, I’ve also been talking to people who remember the place when they were growing up, coming here with their grandparents and their parents. They talk about macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, Jell-O, things of that nature. Those are things that I grew up eating, too, that I feel very comfortable with. 

“So my approach is to try to pursue all of those things, but execute them at the highest level.”

The first-floor cafeteria includes a salad bar, a soup station (Clifton’s classic chili will be served), a carving station for roast meats, a pizza oven, sandwiches, pastas and vegetables. Then there’s a whole array of desserts and pastries — some of which will be served riding atop a model train set circling the area— and a soft-serve ice cream machine.

The remaining spaces — the Brookdale Ballroom, the Shadowbox bar in the basement, the Treetop fine-dining restaurant and the Pacific Seas tiki lounge —will be opening gradually over a period of months.

“We’re not just opening a restaurant, this is a part of history,” Fullilove says. “It’s a huge responsibility. Some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it, the same as any project. But I think most people are going to love this space.”

Clifton's, 648 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 627-1673, cliftonscafeteria.com. 

Are you a food geek? Follow me on Twitter @russ_parsons1

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

2:12 p.m. This post has been updated to include the opening date and time. 

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