Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clifton's Cafeteria - Reborn!

I've been waiting impatiently for Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria to reopen.  I loved the old cafeteria - it was such a unique slice of classic Los Angeles. It brought me back to childhood memories of eating in cafeterias in St Louis with my grandmother. And its kitschy woodlands theme made me think of Disneyland - especially when we ate there on Charles Phoenix's Downtown LA as Disneyland tour. No, the food wasn't anything special, but the desserts were good - and where else in LA could you get jello? It was fun to explore the multiple levels and look at the historical photos of that location and the other locations that had different themes.  

Andrew Meieran bought Clifton's in 2010, and he closed it for renovations in 2011. I was sad, yet excited to hear it was in the hands of the owners of the Edison. Then the waiting began. In 2011, I went to a Twin Peaks art show at Clifton's and in 2012,  I went to a Chinatown screening in Clifton's. These were soft openings but who knew that the real opening would still be 2 years away?? I was an event planner. I really wanted to host the company holiday party there, and I inquired every year. Of course, the year I leave my job, is the year that it finally reopens. Now that I've visited, I have to say I'm very impressed and it was worth the wait - however, it's not quite ready to host a company holiday party.  

I waited until Clifton's had been open for a month before I visited last night. We went on a Tuesday night @ 8pm.  I was pleased to see the first floor still maintains most of the original look, and the design throughout the place pays homage to the original Brookdale woodlands theme.  However, the new Clifton's has more of a Yosemite lodge meets Natural History Museum aesthetic than a Disneyland Country Bear Jamboree. It's kitschy yet taking itself a bit too seriously, like a hipster declaring, "I like Clifton's - and not just for ironic reasons!"

The first floor houses the cafeteria. There's a pastry/bakery counter right when you walk in, and some retro candies that you can pick up as you wait on line to get your tray. It was not crowded when we went, so we breezed right up to the trays and an attendant explained the cafeteria layout. There are food stations, rather than a continuous cafeteria line, and you can skip around and get what you like. We opted for fried chicken dinners. I was enchanted by the jello parfait and my boyfriend Dave got a chocolate mint cake.  We both got sodas from the Coca Cola Freestyle machine - a nice modern touch. Our meals totaled $37, which is certainly quite a bit higher than old Clifton's prices. I have to say the food was not up to that price point and, in fact, was worse than Hometown Buffet. The chicken was kind of dry although the breading was good. Stuffing and mashed potatoes were cold. The piece of bread was so stale I could have chipped a tooth on it.  The highlight was the jello (hard to mess that up) and the giant slab of mint chocolate cake, which was moist and delicious.  I was not expecting the food to be great, but was really disappointed that it was barely edible.  Clifton's definitely needs to step up its game here. After all, it was known as a cafeteria and it opens at 11am - people are going to come for food - not just fancy cocktails.  

We took our food upstairs to the second floor, and there were many tables that were littered with discarded trays and food. We found a clean table toward the back. Soon after we sat, someone came and cleared all the trays, but it seemed like things weren't running totally smoothly.  I imagine it's hard to figure out staffing for such a large venue, considering much of the space wasn't being used on a weeknight. Also on the second floor is the base of a giant tree that anchors an atrium that lets you look up to the third and fourth floors. This open design is really striking and cool.  The bar on the second floor has a creative drink list and three different souvenir mugs ($28 each, including the cocktail). I got the owl mug and it's really cool.  There are glass cases with a stuffed buffalo and a deer on this floor, and more dead animals on the third floor. I'm not real fond of this, but I think it works with the theme.  The presentation looks just like the Natural History Museum dioramas.  There's some comfy seating as well as tables.  There's a slide show behind the bar that shows vintage Clifton's photos. They also kept the tiny little chapel-type room. There are interesting things in all the nooks and crannies, and the place is worth exploring.

On the third floor, they have kept some original murals and there's a small stage. One side of the floor is just a seating area without much adornment. The other side of the floor houses the Gothic Bar which has a very striking altar to alcohol and a list of drinks with names liked Electric Sheep, Forrest J and the Two Rays. My boyfriend asked the waitress if the Two Rays were Bradbury and Harryhausen and she didn't know. She admitted the drink names had changed several times since the bar opened, so she knows the drinks but not the meanings of the names.  There's a meteorite on the bar. Bartenders were very friendly.  I had the Forrest J, a scotch cocktail that was really good. Dave had the Electric Sheep, a vodka drink featuring "vintage apple." 40s music played throughout the bars to set the mood.

We could see a bar on the fourth floor and were told that floor would be a tiki bar opening in a few weeks, and there will be a fourth bar in the basement that will have a speakeasy vibe.  

Clifton's is immense. It could well become a very successful multi-level nightlife space. I would certainly go back for dessert and drinks anytime, but I don't think I'll eat a meal there again until they address some of the problems with the food. I think in all the ambition around the design of the place, the basic ingredient - cafeteria food - got overlooked.  But if the place is going to be open at 11am everyday, then there's a significant lunch crowd that won't be coming back if the food isn't decent. I can appreciate that with a space so huge and plans so ambitious, it will take a little while to get all the kinks ironed out. I've been waiting for years and will gladly give them a little more time.  It's nice to see a piece of classic Los Angeles revered, revived and reinvented. And they kept the jello! 

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