November 11, 2015

Photo Essay: Clifton's Cafeteria of Curiosities (Updated for 2019)

[Last updated 1/20/20 10:55 PM PT—new photo added]

I love a themed restaurant or bar.

In my adult years, I can't remember a time when I didn't delight in places like Beauty Bar or Barmacy or Otto's Shrunken Head or that weird sci-fi restaurant at 50th and 7th in Manhattan.

I even adored Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe (and occasionally still do).

I've ventured to nautically-themed establishments like Chez Jay, The Galley, Clearman's Galley, and The Warehouse Restaurant; the aeronautically-themed Idlewild bar (closed), Now Boarding (closed), Proud Bird (renovated beyond recognition), and 94th Aero Squadron in Van Nuys and Miami; two of the three Clearman's North Woods Inns; and Starlite in San Diego, purely because it was modeled after the house at Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. 

I will go to any tiki bar anywhere at any time, from Trader Vic's to Trader Sam's and from Tiki No to Tiki Ti. (See my map for more places.)

Somehow I missed Clifton's Brookdale for the few months it was open after I moved to LA.

circa 2020

I remember the last night it was open, I walked by during its sold-out screening of Chinatown.

I tried peering in to see what the place was all about, but I didn't realize what I was missing out on.

It's been under renovation for the last four years, its staggeringly elaborate terrazzo tile (Ed: circa 1934, created by Arthur D. Pizzinat Sr., president of Venetian Terrazzo and Mosaic Company of Alhambra) just peeking out a little bit from behind the scaffolding and construction barriers.

circa 2018

In addition to the foresty "Brookdale" location, there used to be several locations of what was known as "Clifton's Cafeteria," including the nearby "Pacific Seas," with branches as far flung as the Valley and Orange County.

But this one—now rebranded Clifton's "Cabinet of Curiosities" (or "Clifton's Republic")—is the only one to survive.

I can't compare it to what it was like before—either in the 1930s when it first opened, or in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s era which most people seem to be nostalgic for. But I can admire what appear to be vestiges of the old place...

...and perhaps new, vintage-inspired additions to the reopened place.

For those of us who missed its prior incarnations...

circa 2017

...there are reminders everywhere.

circa 2017

Souvenirs, memorabilia, collectibles, and other ephemera are displayed in museum-grade glass cases.

Much of the floor on the first level (the cafeteria level) is mosaic tile that thankfully wasn't replaced.

During construction, workers even excavated the remains of a neon sign that was still lit, despite being sealed inside a wall. It probably has been burning since 1935. And it's still on—the glass tubes still glowing with neon light at Clifton's, now exposed for all to examine.

The theme of Clifton's now feels less over-the-top hunting lodge and more...well, Clifton's itself.

It's kind of what you would imagine a Vegas version of Clifton's would be like. (And that's not a bad thing.)

circa 2019

Some aspects of it are a treasure hunt, like recognizing the salvaged ceiling from Charlie Chaplin's former Beachwood Canyon estate.

Everything there is big and bold, from the (fake) giant redwood tree in the middle of the dining room...

circa 2019 the meteorite resting on the Gothic Bar... the taxidermy beasts.

There are already three floors open for dining and drinks...

circa 2017

...which is more than Clifton's originally provided.

circa 2017

But at its heart, Clifton's wasn't exactly fine dining...

circa 2017

...though the original bandstands from the musical acts that once played there (and a tiny stage) remain.

Still, it was a cafeteria that offered comfort fare and, perhaps most famously, Jell-O.

The Jell-O has stayed at this new Clifton's, but although the food offerings are modestly priced, it's still a little bit fancy. [Ed: The cafeteria portion is now closed, perhaps permanently, although a kitchen still prepares food to be ordered at the bars.]

But does anyone really go to Clifton's now for the food? I mean, do people really want carrot-and-raisin salad? Waldorf salad? Macaroni salad? These are the characters of my childhood mealtime nightmares.

For me, the draw was more about getting my cocktail in a commemorative "Yosemetiki" grizzly bear mug that I could keep. I shall be back for the owl mug.

Reportedly, Clifton's aims to become a 24-hour establishment and plans to open both a steakhouse and a tiki bar on its uppermost levels. I'm not sure whether that's what Clifford Clinton had in mind when he founded Clifton's, especially considering that he was offering meals on a "Pay What You Wish" basis.

But I think the new Clifton's theme park is really nice, and curious and kitschy in a Disneyland kind of way. Which is a very, very good thing.

[Ed Note: Although the Pacific Seas tiki bar has opened on the 4th floor, the steakhouse is yet to come and perhaps never will. As of April 2018, Clifton's is entirely closed Mondays and Tuesdays and has limited hours of operation for each of its various spaces throughout the rest of the week, primarily accessible only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.]

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