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Nostalgia is served up at reopened Clifton's cafeteria

Nostalgia is served up at reopened Clifton's cafeteria
Clifton's, which opened on Broadway in 1935, reopened Thursday after a $10-million renovation. Already, more than 14,000 customers have checked out the five-story temple of comfort food, alcoholic beverages and kitsch. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn't yet dinnertime, but the line outside Clifton's cafeteria Sunday stretched half a block. The wait for a meal was running about an hour.

The bottleneck turned out to be the meat station. But Alma Sevilla, angling for a $12 plate of turkey, wasn't bothered.

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"When you grew up [going] here, the wait is nothing," said Sevilla, 33, who remembered having meals at the restaurant on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1990s.

Clifton's was the only reason she and her siblings didn't mind going to their doctor, whose office was nearby.

She'd returned Sunday with her husband, baby and mother — who was disappointed she couldn't find the strawberry layer cake she remembered eating there as a girl in the '70s.

Since the doors to the historic restaurant reopened Thursday, general manager Jason Vonk said, more than 14,000 customers had dropped by to check out the five-year, $10-million renovation.

The original Clifton's debuted in the same location in 1935 with a California redwoods theme. It's been transformed into a five-story temple of comfort food, alcoholic beverages and kitsch — including wall murals, a waterfall, fossilized dinosaur eggs and lots of wild animals that have been to the taxidermist.

Once the entire space has reopened, there will be two restaurants and five bars available to serve customers.

In the 10,000-square-foot kitchen Sunday, dozens of workers mixed, measured and chopped, preparing the cafeteria fare for the four-story ride down a dumb-waiter. Steam poured out of the massive dishwasher.

"I worked 19 hours yesterday," Vonk said. His Fitbit indicated that he had climbed 74 flights of stairs on Saturday.

A 101-year-old woman was among the customers who have shown Vonk photographs of themselves eating at Clifton's as children. One 76-year-old carried pictures of his bar mitzvah at the restaurant.

Peggy McWilliams, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, said at least some things remained the same since she had last eaten there in the early 1950s.

She said she and her three siblings would pile into the family station wagon when school was out to spend the day at their father's architecture office just down the street.

"We would get roast beef and chicken — and always Jell-O for dessert," recalled McWilliams, 76. "It was always very crowded."

Having closely followed the news of Clifton's reopening, she returned Sunday with her husband, Chris Flessas.

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After a lunch of pizza and minestrone, they headed up to the second-floor bar to sip Manhattans and take in the scene. Behind them was the base of a fake redwood tree that climbed through the next few ceilings. Big-band music filled the air.

"I don't know where else you can eat in such a beautiful environment for $9 or $10," said Flessas, 70, who owns a restaurant in Woodland Hills.

A few seats down, Henry Melendez, 29, and his boyfriend, Matt Richardson, 26, offered a more tempered review.

They had never heard of Clifton's until they saw the line Sunday afternoon and figured it had to be worth the wait.

"It's like walking into a museum," Melendez said. "But the cafeteria experience was not very pleasant."

"Chaotic," Richardson said, describing the lines. He wasn't crazy about his salad: "It was like high school food."

Across the room, 6-year-old Charlie Miller took a glance into a giant display case.

"Look at the buffalo," his father said as Charlie darted toward the fake redwood.

"I've been following the renovation since they started it years ago," said Danny Miller, 56.

"I just love old L.A. history."

Twitter: @AlanZarembo

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