Clifton's Brookdale cafeteria, downtown L.A. landmark, is sold

Clifton's Brookdale cafeteria, a downtown Los Angeles landmark dating to the Great Depression, will be sold this week to a local developer who vows to preserve its comfort-food menu and kitschy charms.

The sale of a 40-year lease to the building at Broadway and 7th Street marks the end of family operations of Clifton's cafeterias in Los Angeles dating to 1931.

Developer and nightclub operator Andrew Meieran is expected to take over Wednesday. Terms of the lease were not disclosed, but Meieran will have full control of the four-story building and the cafeteria that has fed generations of Angelenos.

"We are excited that Clifton's will be in Andrew's hands and have a more secure future," said seller Robert Clinton, the grandson of founder Clifford Clinton.

"Andrew respects the Clifford Clinton legacy that is very much a part of this business and he wants to respect our principles."

Meieran, who co-founded the hip Edison lounge downtown, might seem an odd choice to keep the traditions at a comfort-food haven, but the new owner said that Clifton's — which will undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation — will retain its naturally retro vibe.

"It will fully be Clifton's as people know it," Meieran said. "What it's historically been will continue."

The woodsy dining room — with multiple mezzanine decks, a 20-foot waterfall and fake redwood trees to conceal support columns — was built in a onetime furniture store completed in 1916. Upstairs on what is technically the second floor is little-used banquet space that Meieran plans to convert to a separate cocktail lounge and restaurant.

But the cafeteria, where diners select from familiar foods such as pot roast, turkey, enchiladas and Jell-O, will remain, albeit with some additions to the menu, Meieran said.

"Clifton's is designed around comfort food. That's where its strengths lie," he said. "I have no intention of changing that."

Meieran also plans to remove the metal facade attached to the front of the building in the 1960s and restore the former concrete-and-stucco exterior.

Clifton's Brookdale cafeteria is historically significant as a fancifully designed themed restaurant, said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

"It's an amazing step back in time in the decor and the food," Dishman said. "Where else can you get Jell-O in four colors?"

Clifton's is the lone survivor of eight cafeterias around Los Angeles that the Clinton family has owned since 1931. In 1935 founder Clifford Clinton purchased the lease of the former Boos Brothers cafeteria on Broadway and set out to create a space that would evoke the coastal redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he spent summers growing up. The Brookdale Lodge there (now the Brookdale Inn & Spa), which had a stream running through its main dining room, served as inspiration.

After being tenants for decades, the Clintons bought the downtown building in 2006 because the owners were anxious to sell it. But business has been challenging. In its heyday in the 1940s, lines would form on Broadway as up to 10,000 customers came to eat on a busy day. Now the restaurant serves 1,000 to 2,000 a day on a street that has changed significantly from the postwar era.

"We used to have Bullock's, May Co. and Broadway department stores and all of these movie theaters," Clinton said. Now the neighborhood is part of downtown's jewelry district.

"Not so many people are coming to buy jewelry right now," Clinton said. "Gold is at an all-time high and people's incomes are at an all-time low."

By taking on a 40-year lease, Meieran will be able to use money that he would have otherwise spent to buy the property to improve it, said his real estate broker, Ed Rosenthal of New Downtown Brokerage.

"I think there will be more of these leases downtown as a vehicle to improve property without changing ownership," Rosenthal said.

After a lifetime at Clifton's, 56-year-old Robert Clinton and his father, Donald, are ready to hand over the keys to Meieran and won't meddle as landlords, Robert said.

"The Clinton family is available but we don't want to be in the way," he said. "We are a resource at Andrew's disposal."

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