It was hot in downtown LA last Saturday. People moved languidly between the funky buildings along Broadway, squinting in the piercing sunlight. After a three-hour historical tour, my boyfriend, German, and I were definitely ready for a relaxing sit-down lunch. We crossed the street and popped into Clifton’s Cafeteria, a Los Angeles institution for over 74 years and the biggest cafeteria in the entire country.
From the glass doors in front, you walk straight back along the wall to a labyrinthine stainless steel counter at the very back, sliding your tray past dishes of coleslaw and potato salad over to the hot trays filled with chicken swimming in barbecue sauce, towers of mashed potatoes and a puddle of macaroni and cheese.
Snag a slice of coconut cream pie and you emerge from the sterile food service area into someone’s version of a forest wonderland.
A waterfall trickles down the middle of the cavernous two-story space and the walls are covered with life-size murals of the redwoods. Fake redwoods stick out from the walls, there are small statues of bears and a mechanical raccoon poking out of a tree stump.
I didn’t see it coming. People had told me the place was like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp, but strangely, no one mentioned that it also endeavored to transport you to the coast of northern California (or Frontier Land in Disneyland). After eating, we wound our way up the stairs and off the second level, you could squeeze into a tiny chapel. Sitting on the narrow bench, you looked into a forest diorama. I pressed the button and a man’s voice intoned a poem about God and nature. Surreal, but strangely soothing to be squeezed into a little space in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria. Very zen.
I suppose it was everything the founders dreamed. We rustled up a detailed brochure that explained a lot. The Clifton family opened their first cafeteria in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Depression. They weren’t newcomers to the business, having run restaurants in San Francisco, and they drew on another fount of experience – serving in the mission fields of China. “Clifford, one of the five children with them in China, was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food that he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.”
You could say so. The cafeteria had a policy of never turning away anyone who was hungry and, during one 90-day period, it fed 10,000 people for free. As if that weren’t enough, Clifford went on to found a nonprofit that distributed “Multi-Purpose Food” to people around the globe (I picture something along the lines of a graham cracker block).
All of this is pretty extraordinary, but what I find so remarkable is that the cafeteria still exists, essentially unchanged for at least 50 years. And not just the one I went to downtown, but five locations across the L.A. area that serve 15,000 people a day. Cheesy, surreal, but strangely comforting.