Customers Saddened to See End of the Line at Clifton's Cafeteria

Times Staff Writer

Customers are up in arms over news that Clifton's Cafeteria in Century City Shopping Center expects to close its doors.

The cafeteria's 20-year lease has expired, and Clifton's is being displaced in a major remodeling that is designed to attract upscale Westside shoppers to the center.

Instead of the cafeteria, where the meal tab averages $3.74, the mall will offer an international food hall with five sit-down restaurants and about 25 gourmet take-out restaurants.

General Manager Michael F. Strle said Clifton's was invited to be part of the restaurant complex, but Clifton's officials felt the cafeteria would not be compatible with the upscale eateries that are going in.

Clifton's has a tradition of low-cost dining that dates back to the Depression, when the restaurant provided food free to those who could not pay.

Old Lease

Strle said Clifton's has been able to keep its prices low at Century City partly because its rent was dictated by a 20-year-old lease, but he added that it would probably have to raise prices to pay today's rents.

"No one in Los Angeles, besides McDonald's, offers prices that Clifton's does," Strle said. " . . . But one of the reasons they can do that is their 20-year-old rent."

Senior citizens, office workers and shoppers interviewed recently at lunchtime said they will be sorry to see the cafeteria leave when it closes its doors in September.

For many years, they said, Clifton's has been a reliable source of freshly prepared foods at bargain prices. And Clifton's dining room provides a welcome contrast to the hectic atmosphere that prevails in most fast-food places, they said.

"There is a graciousness here, something old-fashioned," Eve Weiss said.

"I avoid the fast-food places except in an emergency," said Najla Mussalem, who eats regularly at Clifton's.

"This place has a lot of charm," said her companions, Clyde and Mildred Wenger, who were visiting from Fairbanks, Alaska. "It's homey."

"There's nothing else like it," said Century City investment banker Steve Shroyer as he dug into a $6.50 meal of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and gravy, salad, vegetable and lemonade. "There is no place else in the mall you can have a sit-down meal at this price," he said.

'Big Disturbance'

Clifton's closure "is going to be a big disturbance" to senior citizens, said David Price, a 75-year-old West Los Angeles resident who eats every week at Clifton's with his wife, Emma, and their friends, who are in their 80s.

"My group is consumer-minded, and we have to watch our dollars," he said. Usually Price and his wife share a dinner of roast turkey, roast beef or brisket and their bill is only $6 or $7 for two, he said. "And you don't have to tip," he added.

The fast-food and gourmet restaurants planned in the new pavilion will be no substitute for Clifton's, Price said. "A French bistro is not too satisfactory for senior citizens as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Clifton's Vice President Don Riddell said in an interview that the Century City restaurant is one of the chain's most successful, serving 90,000 to 100,000 meals a month.

"We would like to stay there forever," he said.

But Clifton's does not believe its large-scale operation would be compatible with the take-out food outlets that are planned, he said.

The plan calls for a number of smaller food stalls to encircle an outdoor dining area, he said.

"They offered us a spot there, but that would be like trying to put a 747 into a garage," Riddell said. "It would be totally impractical."

Clifton's President Donald H. Clinton explained the company's decision to close down in a letter to patrons that is posted at the entrance to the restaurant. He said the company refused to participate in the new food complex because "we feel it does not permit us to serve our guests properly."

Other Locations

He said Clifton's is looking for other locations on the Westside. "So far, we have found nothing of the right size (10,000 to 12,000 square feet) that we could afford," he said. "Remember, our average meal check is only $3.74."

Strle said Clifton's lease expired this September and has been extended to next September. He said Clifton's decision to leave is not final. "The negotiations are still ongoing," he said.

But he said the shopping center management has an obligation to provide a fair investment return for the pension fund investment company that bought the mall for about $80 million in 1983. The company, the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Real Estate Equity Fund, has provided $20 million for renovation of the 22-year-old mall in the last few years, he said.

The food hall, five sit-down restaurants and a 14-theater movie complex are being built at the northwest corner of the shopping center, near Santa Monica Boulevard and Century Park West.

The space occupied by Clifton's, in another part of the shopping center near Gelson's supermarket, will be remodeled for retail stores when the cafeteria closes, Strle said.

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