Friday, March 10, 2017

Clifton's in Los Angeles -- an eccentric wonder world of food, art, kitsch, tradition

The entrance to Clifton's, a Los Angeles tradition, is a preview to the lights, glitz, old-fashioned fare and displays inside.
While you enjoy old-fashioned cafeteria food, you may
be entertained by a juggler, gymnast or musicians.



YOU WILL feel as if you're an extra in "Alice in Wonderland" at Clifton's where you'll happily travel down the rabbit hole to discovery -- critters in full taxidermy glory, gymnasts, partiers, gourmands, history buffs and families gathering in what feels like a real forest.
Our Los Angeles friends suggested we stop by Clifton's Cafeteria for a beverage and snack after a recent play at the Ahmanson Theater.

Deer, bears and here a handsome lion await. 
"It's unlike anything you might imagine," said our friend Sue, a native Angelina. She grew up as a Clifton's patron, coming to the cafeteria with her family and still enjoying the occasional Clifton's foray today. She was right. Nothing like it.

The vintage nature of Clifton's includes
lovely appointments, even in the men's room.
Clifton's Cafeteria is a Los Angeles landmark.
No, you are not seeing things.  It's a massive fake tree,
 cut into the floors above you. All part of Clifton's decor.  

CALIFORNIA'S lone survivor from the Golden Age of cafeterias gives new meaning to "dining experience" with stuffed animals, a giant faux tree "growing" artfully through several of the restaurant's five stories and more. It's crammed with artifacts, antiques and kitsch, a “Cabinet of Curiosities” and a variety of other eccentric attractions to celebrate California’s diverse natural and cultural legacy. The cafeteria is known for its forest themed environment, the star of which is the fake tree installed in a cut-away ceiling.
The charming but wacky place has no doubt survived because of both its fine food and word-of-mouth reputation, as well as five generations of family support and innovation. It is named after Clifford Clinton, who combined his names for the "Clifton" handle. 
It began as a modest eatery in 1888 when his ancestor, David Harrison Clinton, a 45-year-old Confederate veteran from Missouri, traveled to Los Angeles with a teenage son.
HE BOUGHT the Southern Hotel on Main Street and opened a restaurant and dining room. Its reputation grew and it was proudly passed on through the generations, evolving in 1931 into Clifton's which grew to a chain of eight.  The Brookdale eatery is the lone survivor.
Many believe its restored and historic dining hall and fantasy environment, "Forest Glen," helped inspire Walt Disney to create Disneyland nearly two decades later.   Makes sense because a trip to Clifton's is a trip to fantasyland, from its "Crystal Caverns" filled with rare minerals to artful terraces, a stone chapel, impressive murals and vintage artwork.
IN A CITY known for excess, the cafeteria provides a stunning albeit over-the-top experience dedicated to both tasty food, and to the celebration of California's colorful past.  Entrepreneur Clinton held value, quality, innovation and contemporary twists as his goals. 
A plaque about the state's beloved redwoods pays tribute.
Old fashioned home cooking is the byword
at Clifton's, from jello to beef and potatoes. 

WE TRIED several items -- from thick sandwiches to soups and snacks.  We settled at a table on the second floor and were soon entertained by a limber gymnast performing on ropes hung from the ceiling. Sue headed downstairs to order small plates and sandwiches while I queued up for beverages.  One may go through the cafeteria line or buffet and make it a quick meal or a leisurely one with old-fashioned cafeteria entrees or tasty small plates. Be sure to wander through the exhibits. "We're about good food and visual entertainment," the bartender told me. "We're into pleasing people."
NorthCoast Repertory Theatre's "The Illusion" is a beautifully rendered
 play for play lovers -- by Tony Kushner, of "Angels in America" fame. Pictured
are actors John Herzog as the father, and Kandi Chappell as the sorceress.
BEST BETS: San Diego is experiencing a happy glut of theatrical riches. Not to miss is "The Illusion," a fantastical tale with elements of magic, about a father-son estrangement, the bonds of love and the power of regret. The Rep's gifted artistic director David Ellenstein is at the helm, so expect precision, artful staging and top acting. It runs through March 19: Go to
Also up through March 19, at the Lyceum in downtown San Diego, "Sex With Strangers" is a smart, acerbic two-person comedy about high-powered seduction, technology's effect on relationships, the competitive publishing world and physical attraction. Terrific acting, a gorgeous set, clever writing and fast-paced direction draw the audience in for a clever-twist ending. Go to  Check out Cygnet Theatre and San Diego Musical Theatre for fun musicals.

Bruce Keller takes aim as the day dawns at Anza Borrego's wildflower frenzy.
NEXT UP:  Up for a road trip to some of the most spectacular wildflowers you'll see this lifetime? The Anza Borrego Desert near San Diego is experiencing record blooms through mid-April, due to recent rains and just the right temperature and sunshine to make the seeds happy. We're on the trail of the blooming wonder and will share on the next posting, coming soon. Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each weekend for a lively approach to travel, nature and the lively arts.  


  1. Grew up with Clifton's...Still love it. Great memories, delightful travelogue.

  2. We traveled from Arizona to Julian, Calif., to visit friends, heading eventually towards L.A. Saw this fun piece and made a stop. Absolutely from another time. So glad not to miss.

  3. We love how these two fun-seekers find novel ways to report and photograph the world. Have traveled vicariously with you from Sao Paulo to Singapore, Rome to Rio. Always enjoy the enthusiasm and humor. Keep up the good work. A lifeline for us "armchair" adventurers.