Heaping portions of nostalgia were served up Thursday as customers passed through the buffet line one last time at Clifton's Silver Spoon Cafeteria.
Instead of roast turkey and grilled red snapper, serving tables were lined with bargain-priced antiques and other furnishings that decorated the unusual downtown Los Angeles restaurant for more than 20 years before its closure two weeks ago.
Once described as a cafeteria for curators, the Silver Spoon operated in an opulently designed former jewelry store. Dining areas were lined with handmade mahogany display cases filled with historical items and bric-a-brac, all spanned by a high, elegantly carved ceiling.
The restaurant's antique decor complemented the 75-year-old building's design.
Cafeteria owner Don Clinton picked the motif after he discovered a handsome set of antique dresser combs and brushes beneath the old Brock Jewelers elevator when he took over the building in 1974.
But the elegance of the 7th Street of old was long gone Thursday as Clifton's two-day going-out-of business sale got underway. Grand department stores that once anchored the block have long been boarded up. Workers that used to inhabit nearby office buildings had long ago fled to new buildings a few blocks away.
"I don't understand why the yuppie crowd in the new high-rises didn't eat here and support this place," said longtime customer Bob Olsen, a Manhattan Beach artist who was cradling an old framed painting he was purchasing as a souvenir.
Olsen and his wife, Kathy, ate regularly at the Silver Spoon. In fact, they had come for breakfast on the restaurant's last day--March 28.
"We sat here clutching our hands, just looking around this place, trying to drink it all in so we can remember it," he said.
Brian Pulaski bought an old cafeteria sign Thursday for $10. It had reminded those in the food line that Clifton's cuisine "is worth waiting for. . . . For 62 years, Clifton has been serving quality meals to Angelenos."
"It's getting to where there's no history left in L.A.," said Pulaski, a real estate broker who plans to hang the sign in the den of his Studio City home. "I just wanted a bit of history, something with the Clifton name on it."
Many of the decorations went quickly. A marble-topped table was snapped up at $280. So was a $45 World War II gas mask and a $20 bugle that visitors found behind the dining room--inside a walk-in vault still bearing Brock Jewelers' name.
In the basement, a $35 set of aircraft drawings sat near several crank-operated, turn-of-the-century cash registers priced at $325.
But the life-size depiction of a praying Jesus Christ that is the centerpiece of the cafeteria's meditation room was not for sale. The carved-wood statue--commissioned by Clifton's late founder, Clifford E. Clinton, in 1945 and used in a Garden of Gethsemane diorama scene--will be moved to Clifton's remaining cafeteria on Broadway near 7th, said his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Clinton.
Clifford Clinton came to Los Angeles in 1931. He combined his first and last names when he opened his first cafeteria--a spectacular place on Olive Street decorated inside and out with a South Seas theme. That was demolished in 1960, but the Broadway cafeteria that he opened in 1935 and decorated with a forest theme remains.
"We'll all be at our mother store on Broadway," Don Clinton reminded a steady stream of well-wishers who stopped Thursday to say goodbye. He said he was pleased that the furnishings were going to customers.
"It's always fun to take home something from the past," he said as Gloria Le Beau of Alhambra and her mother, Antonia Macias, walked past carrying an angel that had hung over one of the dining tables and several kitschy trophies once on view in the old jewelry store display cases.
"We enjoyed coming here to eat. The vegetables were always fresh, the turkey was always good, the fish was always tasty," Le Beau said. "I'm happy to have these."
Whittier mechanic Sam Ursua smiled as he toted out a half-dozen orange-colored cafeteria chairs. Sold for $5 each, they will be used in his backyard, Ursua said.
"I came here as a kid," he explained. "I won't forget this place."