Imagine Disneyland as a cafeteria.For 30 years,...

Imagine Disneyland as a cafeteria.

For 30 years, there was no need for Los Angeles residents to imagine such an odd sight because they had Clifton’s Pacific Seas--known as the Golden Rule Cafeteria.

This profitable eatery, at 618 S. Olive St., was a feast for the eyes: There were limeade springs flowing under artificial palms, a sherbet volcano with a red neon light, a rock-candy mountain, aquariums, thatched huts, a $50,000 garden of meditation and a wishing well with ringing sleigh bells, flashing neon lights and a thank-you message.

In the main dining room, caged canaries would sing, accompanied by organ music (until outlawed by the health department); gigantic calla lilies were outlined in pink neon lights; there were singing waiters and waitresses, and napkins were made of cloth, not paper. Each table had stacks of Clifton’s weekly publication “Food 4 Thot,” a collection of poems, sermons, mottoes and pep talks.


Near benches that were provided for tired patrons was a Guests’ Exchange Board, with rows of cards advertising cheap rentals, shoestring promotion schemes and employment opportunities. There were others, too, smeared with grimy thumbprints: “Ladies’ astrologer, advising on love, marriage and divorce,” “Friendship club for the lonely everywhere” and “Man, 68, with pension, wants to meet lady.”

Four customers each night were rewarded with leis of gardenias. Customers’ birthdays were made special with beautifully decorated cakes and patrons were offered free advice on diet and nutrition. And then there was Clifton’s famous “pay what you can” policy.

Clifford E. Clinton, third-generation restaurateur, came to town in July, 1931, combined his first and last names and, with $2,000, opened the first of a chain of seven cafeterias. The Depression and his own sense of decency almost drove him out of business. Clinton advertised: “Dine free unless delighted” and “No guest need go hungry for lack of funds.”

Those practices cost him 10,000 free meals during a three-month stretch of hard times.


Clinton’s solution was to open a second cafeteria, in a basement at 3rd and Hill streets, where he served the destitute for a penny. For more than a year, more than 1 million meals were served at what became known as the penny restaurant.

Before World War II, Clinton advertised: “All you can eat for 45 cents.” After the war, the price climbed to 50 cents. A company historian reported that one February day in 1948, a middle-age man served himself from noon to 9 p.m.--consuming $30 worth of food before staggering out the door.

Before Clinton’s death in 1969, tens of thousands of free meals were served throughout the chain. He also established the Meals for Millions Foundation (now called the Freedom From Hunger Foundation).

Eight years after Clifton’s opened for business, the Welton Becket Assn. began crafting the lush tropical isle of the Pacific Seas facade. One of Los Angeles’ great muralists, Danish-born Einar Petersen Day, painted two designs in the restaurant--the Garden of Gethsemane in one room and a jungle motif in another. The garden mural was re-created in the late 1970s at Clifton’s Silver Spoon cafeteria, still open on 7th Street.


Clinton also was known as a crusader for local government reform. His reform activities resulted in a recall of Mayor Frank Shaw. A bomb was once tossed into Clinton’s home and a second was planted in a car of one of his investigators.

On June 17, 1960, the popular eatery on Olive was demolished to make way for a parking structure on the east side of the street, just south of 6th Street. But Clifton’s cafeterias are still in business at five locations throughout the Southland, run by his son, Don, and daughter, Jean.