The house specialty at Clifton's Cafeteria on Wednesday was filet de grille, with the promise of a beaux-arts surprise for dessert.
As part of a long-awaited restoration of the Los Angeles landmark, new owner Andrew Meieran peeled away the grate-like aluminum covering that for nearly half a century concealed the South Broadway building's original 1904 facade.
But there were a few murmurs from a crowd of roughly 200 spectators as work crews lifted a huge tarp and revealed that many of the building's original windows were filled in with ugly concrete blocks.
Not to worry, said Meieran, who acquired the downtown cafeteria in 2010 from the Clinton family for $3.6 million.
As soon as seismic upgrades are completed, the concrete blocks — installed for earthquake safety in 1988 — will be removed. Glass panes will replace the blocks and natural light will again flood into the cafeteria's famous redwood forest-themed dining room, he said.
Meieran, a Hollywood filmmaker and developer of the downtown subterranean night club, The Edison, plans to retain the cafeteria's signature redwood tree columns, its kitschy fireplace, mountain cabin accessories and the rock-hewn chapel with its diorama and 4-minute narration that suggests "redwoods were God's first temple."
But Meieran, who lives in the Hollywood Hills and celebrated his 45th birthday Wednesday, said he was spending another $3.5 million or so to modernize the cafeteria's kitchen, install a new serving line and create mezzanine lounge areas and a fourth-floor "treetops" tiki bar. A bakery and offices will occupy the top floor.
Repairs will also be made to the colorful terrazzo sidewalk outside the cafeteria. The walkway is decorated with various Southern California scenes from the mid-1930s.
The cafeteria will reopen to the public when renovations are completed in about 18 months, Meieran said. It will employ about 100 people and feature an updated menu along with classic cafeteria fare. He said he was also eyeing serving food around the clock.
Meieran told an audience of conservationists, city officials and downtown residents that Clifford Clinton had hoped to lift the spirits of Angelenos when he opened his fanciful restaurant in the middle of downtown in the midst of the Great Depression.
The name "Clifton's" was a combination of Clifford Clinton's first and last names, according to his son, Don Clinton, who began working at the cafeteria at age 19 and spent 65 years there. He said he was pleased that Meieran was keeping the redwood forest motif since the restaurant was sold with no strings attached.
Clinton, now 85 and a Los Feliz resident, said his father chose the forest theme because of his love for the Santa Cruz Mountains.
He originally named the place Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria and hired the architecture firm of Plummer, Wurdeman and Becket to add some rustic flourishes to the building's original Beaux-Arts look — an architectural style that uses elaborate ornamentation and symmetry.
Before Clifford Clinton took over the building's lease from the Boos Brothers Cafeteria, the structure had been occupied by a furniture and carpet store and a music shop.
According to conservationists, aluminum facades were considered sleek and modern-looking in 1963 when Clifton's was remodeled to help it compete with newer restaurants popping up in the city and suburbs.
Don Clinton said that the faded name "Food Service Training School," visible at the top of the uncovered building, refers to a restaurant vocational program operated by Clifton's in the 1950s.
City Councilman Jose Huizar applauded the Clintons' role in downtown L.A. during the thriving mid-20th century and Meieran's involvement in Bringing Back Broadway, a 10-year initiative to revitalize the street and the city's historic core.
Clifton's Cafeteria has served 170 million meals over the years, Huizar said. Now it's ready to serve up a second helping.