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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Clifford Clinton's legacy: Clifton's Cafeteria, Downtown Los Angeles (Part I)

Last November I was back in Los Angeles and had several hours to explore the city. After a visit to Echo Park Lake and a quick look at the new Broad Museum in Bunker Hill, I drove over the check out Clifton's Cafeteria in Downtown Los Angeles' Historic Core. Above is the corner of 6th and Spring Streets - just a couple of block from Clifton's. 

Above our a couple of new residents out of a Saturday afternoon bike ride. Since the adoption of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance in 1999, the Historic Core has undergone a radical transformation, welcoming thousands of new residents. The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance allowed older buildings (primarily outdated commercial) to be adapted to residential units. 

No, this is not the Westside (Santa Monica, Westwood, Beverly Hills). This is downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon. 

People, life, activity at Spring and 6th. I like the mural, too. 

This is walking down 6th Street towards Broadway. While Los Angeles does have a subway line (and small but growing light rail system) buses - including this large articulated Metro bus - are much more common. 

Corner of 6th and Broadway. Here's a link to a previous blogpost with some photos and thoughts on Broadway. 

Broadway, Downtown Los Angeles. 

In contrast to Bunker Hill, developed in the 1960's and generally devoid of people, the much more traditional streets of the Historic Core are alive with pedestrians. Along with Main Street and Spring Street, Broadway is undergoing a massive transformation. 

Before World War II, Broadway was the premier shopping district of Los Angeles, as well as home to a dozen massive movie palaces. After the war, as the city grew outward, Broadway and the rest of Downtown experienced significant economic decline. Businesses catering to Mexican and Central American immigrants picked up the slack, and by the 1980's Broadway was again filled with shoppers, this time speaking Spanish. Rents were comparable to Beverly Hills (no joke). 

Broadway is again in transition. Apparently, Apple just signed a lease to open a new Apple Store two blocks away at 8th and Broadway. The area is changing again, this time catering to the thousands of new residents moving in to the area - with more on the way. 

The 1960's had it wrong. Bunker Hill, despite it's walkways and impressive office towers, is not inviting to people. The much more traditional Historic Core (which feels more like New York or most other cities around the world) gets it right. 

One of the places that continues to "get it right" is Clifton's Cafeteria. 

Clifton's has been a part of Los Angeles since 1932, and at this Downtown spot since 1935. Unlike many businesses that pulled out of downtown when times and tastes changed, Clifton's stayed put, continuing to serve the community. It recently reopened under new ownership after a 4 year $10 million restoration. I had heard about this - and wanted to see if for myself. 

During the renovation, this neon sign, continually lit for over over 77 years, was found behind a wall. It's now part of the floor when you walk in adding to the old/new feel of the restaurant. 

Clifton's Cafeteria is ... a ... cafeteria. 

Apparently, it is actually the largest cafeteria in the world. 

So grab a tray, wait in line, and enjoy the experience. 

If Clifton's feels like something out of the 1930's - it's because it is. The new owners worked hard to keep that feel despite the multi-million dollar renovation. 

It was a Saturday afternoon about 3pm - and PACKED. 

In a city that can feel so segregated racially and economically - it was encouraging to see people from different backgrounds there. Apparently, at Clifton's that's always been the case

Since it opened in 1935, Clifton's has been known for it's special, kitschy decor. 

Clifford Clinton, the original owner, designed the cafeteria with large murals, a rock waterfall, and other decorations designed to mimic the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz, California where he spent time as a youth. The new owned have done an excellent job restoring the vibe and feel, as well as giving it a very appropriate 21st update. 

The kitschy interior is well known. What is less known is Clifford Clinton's deep religious faith. 

Tucked into the corner of the main dining all is a small chapel. What's that all about? Who was Clifford Clinton?

photo credit:
According to The Native Angeleno: Clifton's owner Clifford Clinton "was born in Berkley in 1900, the third of ten children. His parents, Edmond and Gertrude, were missionaries, captains in the Salvation Army. Edmond owned a chain of restaurants in San Francisco, which gave the Clintons the resources to travel around the world and spread the word of Christ. They all lived in China for two years, from 1910 to 1912, volunteering at a Christian orphanage for the blind." 

During the height of the Great Depression 10,000 people ate free over a 90 day period. Despite the fact that this incredible generosity almost bankrupted him, Clinton then opened an emergency "Penny Cafeteria" - feeding 2 million people for free over the next two years. 

Clinton's faith also motivated him to fight a very corrupt City Hall, Police Department, and the Los Angeles crime underworld, almost getting him killed when a pipe bomb explode in his basement. Incredibly, he did not back down, and personally worked to secure 120,000 signatures needed to hold a special election to recall Mayor Frank Shaw. 

Hofmann's Christ In Gethsemane
Between 1943 - 1960, an estimate 7 million people visited the elaborate "Garden of Meditation" display he created in the lower level of the restaurant, focusing on the life and impact of Jesus Christ. 

But wait, there's more. According the KCET website

"A month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Clinton, at the age of 41, enlisted in the army and said he would "do anything" to serve his nation. He served as a private and rose to first lieutenant as a mess officer.

After the war, he ran for Mayor of Los Angeles, coming in second in a field of fifteen candidates.

photo credit:
Clinton next set his sights on world hunger. He asked Caltech biochemist Dr. Henry Borsook, to develop a food supplement that would provide proper nutritional values while costing no more than five cents per meal. Clinton offered his own money to finance the research. This led to the development of Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), a high-protein food supplement that could be made for just three cents per meal. Clinton then created Meals for Millions, a not-for-profit organization, which would go on to provide millions of MPF meals to people in over 60 countries around the world."

Wow, I had no idea. 

Incredible man. Equally incredible legacy. 

Here's a final look at the main dining room - with the rock waterfall in the foreground.

More on Clifton's in the next post.  

© 2016


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