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Food by VICE

LA's Old 'Pay What You Wish' Cafeteria Is Reopening as a Restaurant for Yuppies

Clifton's Cafeteria opened at the peak of the Great Depression, and provided "pay what you wish" meals to those down on their luck. Now, it serves sliders and artisanal cocktails to a rapidly gentrifying Downtown LA.

by Megan Koester
Sep 22 2015, 6:57am

All photos by the author, unless otherwise stated

During one of the darkest periods in my life, Clifton's Cafeteria was there for me. I took refuge in its fake flora and fauna, designed to resemble a lush forest, its mediocre animatronics, $0.25 coffee, and dirt-cheap pie. I mean, sure, people shot up in the bathroom, but what did you expect? It was on Broadway, for Christ's sake, Downtown LA's home of cut-rate jewelry stores and screaming indigents. The jewelry stores and indigents are still there—but now, so is a Gap, and an Urban Outfitters, and an Ace Hotel.

Clifford Clinton opened the first Clifton's Cafeteria at the peak of the Great Depression. A Christian man, his mission was altruistic—using the slogan "Pay What You Wish," he provided hot meals to those who couldn't afford them, 90,000 of which were served within the first six months of operation. He went on to open eight of the restaurants and create Meals for Millions, an organization dedicated to ending hunger through "three-cent meals." Clifford Clinton is now dead.

The old Clifton's, circa 2008. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Meieran, however, is alive. Meieran—who opened The Edison, a renovated power plant-turned-speakeasy in downtown LA—now owns the last remaining Clifton's, which reopens this week after a four-year, $14 million dollar remodel. Rather than a safe refuge from the human misery outside its doors Clinton originally intended, Meieran sees the new Clifton's as an "urban fantasy night-life spot and restaurant." Which presumably means cocaine, not heroin, will be the restroom drug of choice. And, naturally, one can no longer pay what one wishes.

The new, renovated Clifton's. Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

I attended Clifton's ribbon cutting ceremony last week, and watched Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti present Meieran with one of those "the city officially appreciates and approves of your existence" plaques alongside Councilman José Huizar (who founded the Bringing Back Broadway initiative in 2008) and 90-year-old actress June Lockhart (who bonded with Meieran after he opened The Edison because Thomas Edison, the bar's namesake, played matchmaker for her parents. Did I mention she's 90?).

Revitalization was the buzzword of the afternoon. Garcetti used it multiple times in his speech—at one point, his words were overshadowed by the screams of someone standing on the non-roped off part of the street. "What was once a ghost town," he told the crowd, "is now a thriving community."

"I think this is one of the most beautiful corners of Los Angeles," Huizar remarked. I looked to the right of him to see what was actually on the corner—a Carl's Jr.

With that, novelty-sized scissors cut a novelty-sized ribbon, and the doors to Clifton's opened, the strains of a jazz band blaring within. I was immediately handed champagne and lobster upon entrance. The lobster roll was dry, flavorless. All the food I sampled—sliders, mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese artfully served in little pans—was flavorless. Perhaps the fault lies with me, though. Perhaps I was too maudlin to taste.

A speakeasy-style bar now inhabits Clifton's basement. We have no need for speakeasies, as we no longer have prohibition. To pretend otherwise seems childish, superfluous, but what the hell do I know? I am no longer the target demographic for Clifton's. The two floors above are also bars, specializing in craft beers and artisanal cocktails. Above them sit more bars, one of which is tiki themed (as a "throwback" to one of Clifton's now-defunct cafeterias), a steakhouse, and a banquet hall. (Or so I've heard. I cannot tell you with specificity all that is upstairs, as a velvet rope blocked the upper levels during the opening.)

The cafeteria remains on the first floor. It now sells sliders and portabella pizza slices, but Clifton's legendary Jell-O remains, albeit in artisanal form. How Meieran managed to make Jell-O artisanal is beyond me. The drinks, and the food, were dispensed cheerfully and swiftly by men and women with top buns and tattoos.

The bones of the old Clifton's endure, but the remodel has stripped them of their kitschy, homey charm. Yes, there is still tiered seating. Wooden walls. Paintings of the Santa Cruz redwoods. But overall, Clifton's now resembles every other Meirean property: There are hutches artlessly placed against walls, their appeal lying solely in how old they are; wood and brass are common components. The light bulbs are filament. Taxidermied animals have replaced animatronic ones. The chapel upstairs remains, but has been altered, stripped of all religious significance.

Homelessness in Los Angeles County has risen 12 percent over the past two years; one in four homeless people live in Councilman Huizar's district, the same district that houses Clifton's. In years past, Clifton's was one of the only places in Downtown LA where a homeless person could find relief—an oasis in a food desert where they could get off the street for a few hours, drink a $0.25 cent cup of coffee, and feel like a human being. Where will they go now? While Clifton's doesn't have their prices available "just yet," it's clear that they're going to be higher than what they once were. The new Clifton's will not feed the homeless, but they will allow customers to donate to the Midnight Mission or Homeboy Industries, from which they derived ten percent of their workforce.

"Happy is he... which giveth food to the hungry." Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

Years ago, before the remodel, I saw Diane Keaton at Clifton's. Before you ask: Yes, she was wearing kid gloves indoors. I timidly approached and gave her the ol' "I never do this, but I just wanna say you're really swell," to which she replied, "Aw, jeez. That's really nice. Isn't this place great?" She was sweet, and she was kind, and she loved Clifton's, and she didn't care that people were shooting up in the bathroom below us. Hell, she may have even thought it was "neat," in her "aw shucks" way.

A place where the twain could, and did, meet, Clifton's once acted as Downtown LA's great unifier. But now, as the divide between the haves and have-nots deepens, we unify less. A non-unified community, let the record show, can never truly "thrive."

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