We specialize in world-conquering restaurant trends in our town, but the first of them wasn't the barbecued chicken pizzeria, the theme restaurant or even the drive-in. It was the cafeteria.
Yes, the cafeteria. And the old-time L.A. cafeterias were far better than you might imagine. With live music, appealing food and decor that could make Dodd Mitchell's hyper-designed restaurants look modest, they were so important in the '20s that one writer dubbed L.A. "Sunny Cafeteria."
As late as the 1950s, many people still considered a cafeteria quite grand. My grandfather always put on a jacket and tie before going out, with grave dignity, to shove a tray along the rails.
For an L.A. full of uprooted newcomers in the 1920s, they were the quintessential modern, California way to dine, and at one time there were scores of them here. Only three remain.
The cafeteria craze started in May 1905, when a woman named Helen Mosher opened a humble downtown L.A. restaurant where people chose their food at a long counter and carried their own trays to their tables. Using the slogans "Food That Can Be Seen" and "No Tips," she called it the Cafeteria.
The idea of a self-service restaurant was in the air; restaurateurs had been moving toward it for more than a decade. There had been experiments in Eastern cities with smorgasbord service, where you filled one plate at a counter, paid and took it to your table. In 1898, the Childs restaurants in New York took the crucial step of letting you slide a tray along on rails so you could load it up with several plates at a time.
The word "cafeteria" wasn't first used in Los Angeles (in 1893 a man named John Kruger had opened a place in Chicago modeled on European smorgasbords and called it the Cafeteria), but it was tailor-made for L.A. In 1905, all things Latino seemed long ago and far away around here. They conjured up dreams of California's romantic past: the Mission Days, the fabled Days of the Dons! Hard though it may be to imagine now, Mosher might have chosen the name "cafeteria" because it sounded ... colorful. In any case, the cafeteria phenomenon that swept the country in the '20s was acknowledged to come from California, not New York or Chicago.
The key figures were four brothers named Boos, newcomers to town who hailed from Moscow, Ohio. They saw the appeal of the concept and had the experience to improve on Mosher's version, since they'd worked in restaurants in New York and St. Louis. They opened their own bigger, brighter, more professional cafeteria three blocks from hers in 1906, and within 10 years they were running four cafeterias downtown. By 1926 they had six in L.A. (all on Broadway or around Pershing Square), two in San Francisco and one on Catalina.
Dining at a cafeteria was a snap. You didn't have to catch some waiter's attention and then wait for your order -- you just grabbed a tray and loaded it up. Typically you started at a station of cold dishes, mostly salads. Then on to the hot stations, where attendants would hand you a chicken pot pie, carve some roast beef or serve you some of the scalloped green beans. As you approached the cash register, you'd pass an army of cakes, pies and puddings, with freshly baked bread, rolls and drinks nearby.
This was a brisk, breezy, modern way of dining that appealed to the go-ahead spirit of the '20s. And it was cheap. You chose your own side dishes, as many or as few as you wanted, and, of course, you didn't have to tip anybody. As the Boos brothers wrote in a 1926 history of their organization, "Many would like to get away from the growing tipping evil -- if such it may be called. The price of a tip could at least buy a piece of pie, or an order of shortcake."
The food stations were typically covered with gleaming tile, and the whole feeling of a cafeteria was clean and wholesome. Best of all, the dishes were right in front of you; you didn't have to guess what the menu description really meant. Before opening their first cafeteria, the Boos brothers wrote, they had noticed "an increasing tendency, particularly on the part of women, to 'shop' around, to see the things they wished to buy before paying for them." Cafeteria food was designed to look appealing, because it sold on its looks.
At the time, L.A. was dominated by recent immigrants from the Midwest, largely retirees. Right from the beginning, when Mosher used the slogan "All Women Cooks" to indicate that she offered home-style food, cafeterias catered to the Iowans and Michiganders by serving Midwestern food. It wasn't French cuisine, but it was honest home cooking: juicy roasts, braised short ribs, hearty soups, fresh vegetables and all those cakes and pies.
Cafeterias rarely, if ever, served alcohol -- before, during or even after Prohibition -- and this was another attraction for the Midwesterners, many of whom were teetotalers. My grandparents voted the Prohibition Party ticket all their lives, so they never took my sister and me to eat anywhere but the downtown cafeterias, unless it was the equally liquor-free Tick Tock Cafe.
The snowbirds were also keen on health food, and cafeterias gave them that too. The prominent diet writer Frank McCoy pointed out in 1926 that cafeterias served more whole wheat and rye bread than white bread, and four of five cafeteria diners had a salad with their meal, while in ordinary restaurants four of five didn't have salad.
But a fateful road had already opened in 1916, when the local YMCA and YWCA opened cafeterias. Quick and cheap, cafeteria service is a natural for institutional dining.
Eventually it became the usual way of providing food where people go because they have to, such as offices, schools and hospitals, as distinguished from restaurants, where people go by choice. This is how "cafeteria food" has become synonymous with bland, perfunctory food. Many a cafeteria has an effective monopoly and serves what you'd expect from one.
But the cafeterias of the '20s were stand-alone places that faced the competition of every other restaurant in the area, so their food was generally very good by the standards of the time.
The better ones, such as Boos Bros., Clifton's and Schaber's, were very grand, like the era's "movie palace" theaters. The Boos Bros. at 530 S. Hill, facing the Biltmore Hotel across Pershing Square, was designed in stately English Tudor style by one of L.A.'s leading architects, Charles Plummer. Others went for an Art Deco look.
You can still get a sense of the scale of some of them by studying Clifton's Brookdale in downtown L.A., a Boos Bros. building that the Clifton's chain bought in 1935. Subtract the flamboyant theme-restaurant decor -- Brookdale is a dreamy evocation of a forest -- and you find three floors of handsome dining rooms, with a grand staircase linking the first and second.
In 1939, Clifton's converted the Boos Bros. cafeteria at 618 S. Olive St. into the most spectacular cafeteria in L.A. Clifton's South Seas was a Polynesian paradise -- tiki before its time. Out front a waterfall cascaded down the facade. Inside was a glittering tropical fantasy.
Casual seating made cafeterias handy for club meetings -- particularly political meetings. For decades, the Iowa Club and other Midwestern immigrant clubs were influential in city politics, and any serious L.A. pol had to go to their cafeteria meetings. They were the "rubber chicken circuit" of the time.
In the '30s, with the onset of the Depression, cheapness became more important to cafeteria dining. Clinton ran Clifton's Cafeterias on an honor system for a while -- you paid what you could afford; if you couldn't pay, you ate free. That system couldn't last, of course, but during one bitter three-month period in the depth of the Depression, his restaurants served 10,000 free meals.
The Boos brothers had sold off most of their restaurants to the Childs chain before the Depression, but Henry Boos bought back two of them in the '30s and specialized in a 40-cent dinner.
But after 40 years at the heart of Los Angeles' restaurant life, the cafeterias started fading away after 1945. People wanted cars and homes in the suburbs, and the cafeteria didn't fit the new way of life. (L.A. responded with a boom in drive-in restaurants, another of our gifts to the world.)
Unfortunately, every cafeteria restaurant that closed meant the association between cafeterias and institutional dining was that much tighter and hastened the decline of the rest. These days the word "cafeteria" even seems to be turning into the name for any institutional restaurant. Some office building sandwich shops now call themselves cafeterias.
Meanwhile the institutional cafeteria has conquered the world. And the word has even gone home -- it's been borrowed back by Spanish as the name for a museum or factory snack shop.
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And then there were three
Ten years ago, there were still five Clifton's cafeterias, a Schaber Cafeteria in North Hollywood and the Pasadena Cafeteria in Pasadena. Today the ranks seem to have dwindled to three.
* Beadle's, opened in 1956 and relocated in 1991 to 825 E. Green St., is the only survivor of the cafeterias that were Pasadena's pride for a generation. When nouvelle cuisine had a hard time establishing itself in Pasadena in the early '80s, some said it was because Pasadenans just didn't see any reason to stop going to Beadle's. The large dining room is quietly decorated (except for a few American flags and a photograph of the New York skyline that pointedly shows the World Trade Center still standing). Beadle's is under new management, but the food doesn't seem to have changed much. Spareribs come on sauerkraut, corned beef comes with cabbage and egg foo yung is as exotic as it gets. As at the rest of these cafeterias, everything is made from scratch. Beadle's does particularly well with old-fashioned desserts such as plain custard -- not creme brulee, not creme caramel but custard. Angel food cake with thick buttercream frosting may be a revelation if you've had only the supermarket variety.
* Clifton's Brookdale at 648 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, is the oldest. It's still painted to suggest a forest and features a whimsical statue of a bear fishing with a pole. The place looks faintly weary after nearly 90 years of being a cafeteria, first under Boos Bros. and then Clifton's. Some of the food can look tired too. But it's still classic Midwestern stuff: breaded pork cutlets on au gratin potatoes, roast turkey with dressing, stewed oxtails. The average age of the diners seems to be up in the 60s, but it also attracts younger Latino diners from the neighborhood. Desserts are the specialty and include many old favorites scarcely seen anymore, such as raisin pie and Boston cream pie.
* The new kid on the block is the Greenery, opened by Clifton's in 1978 next to Sears in the Plaza at West Covina shopping center, 1207 Plaza Drive, West Covina. It has a pleasant, sunny dining room with suggestions of a garden and the usual Clifton's menu of stews and casseroles (for example, lamb breast in sweetish tomato sauce), salads, vegetable side dishes and old-fashioned pastries such as pineapple pie. Maybe it's just the brighter environment, but the food seems more appetizing than at Brookdale.
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Once upon a time, they were swank
1905: Helen Mosher opens the Cafeteria at 344 S. Hill St., Los Angeles, using the slogans "Food That Can Be Seen" and "No Tips."
1906: The Boos brothers expand on the concept at 211 W. Spring St. Within two years they open a second Boos Bros. Restaurant; soon they start referring to both places as cafeterias. A novelty at first, they attracted everyone from the well-heeled to the down-at-the-heels with their honest, home-style cooking.
1911: Within five years, there are 14 cafeterias in Los Angeles -- so many that the city directory lists them separately from restaurants.
1916: The Los Angeles chapters of the YMCA and YWCA open apparently the world's first institutional cafeterias.
1917: Webster's Dictionary admits the word "cafeteria."
1918: On the eve of Prohibition, Los Angeles has 30 cafeterias, including the world's first vegetarian cafeteria.
1920s: Cafeteria concept spreads throughout the country, even reaching France. A writer dubs Los Angeles "Sunny Cafeteria."
1931: Clifford Clinton opens the first Clifton's Cafeteria in L.A.; the chain specializes in culinary escapism for the Depression-era diner: extravagant decor and ultracheap food.
Late 1940s: L.A.'s vast suburbs start sprawling, and fast-food chains take over. Cafeterias suffer, many close.
1956: Bucking the trend, Beadle's Cafeteria opens in Pasadena; it features valet parking.
1978: Clifton's opens the Greenery, the last stand-alone cafeteria built.
1983: Gorky's Cafeteria opens in Hollywood, probably the last noninstitutional cafeteria. Despite Soviet-chic style and hip clientele, it does not lead to a cafeteria revival. It closes in the early '90s.
2003: Only three major cafeteria restaurants survive in Southern California. But cafeteria service is universal in schools, offices, hospitals and institutions -- and reliable for boring food, drearily presented.
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Gorky's Cafeteria: The restaurant's first location, in downtown Los Angeles, opened in 1983. Both it and the cafeteria's Hollywood location closed in the early '90s.
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