Charting the 127-Year History of Clifton’s, Downtown’s Most Glorious Resurrected Building

As the famed cafeteria readies to reopen on September 17, we explore how the woodsy-themed Jell-O slinger became the buzziest spot on Broadway
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Clifton’s is back! After years of painstaking restoration work, the rock grottoes, redwood trees, and woodland creatures will once again greet cafeteria customers who have always been as attracted to the lush forest atmosphere as much as to the colorful Jell-O. Founder Clifford Clinton might not recognize the new salvaged cathedral décor—certainly not the multiple bars—but he would definitely appreciate Andrew Meieran’s over-the-top expansion of Los Angeles’s favorite historic restaurant. Here’s how it all started.

-1888

David Harrison Clinton, a 45-year-old Confederate veteran from Missouri, travels to Los Angeles with his teenage son. He purchases the Southern Hotel on Main Street and opens a restaurant and dining room.

-1896

David’s son, Edmond, registers to vote in Ontario, California, listing “minister” as his occupation. He marries Gertrude Hall, and the couple relocate to San Francisco. They become co-owners of a cafeteria-style restaurant chain called Dennets.

-1900

Edmond and Gertrude Clinton welcome a son, Clifford, in Berkeley, California. Nine other children follow.

-1910

The Clinton family travels to China, where Edmond and Gertrude spend two years as Salvation Army captains feeding the hungry.

-1915

Edmond opens his first cafeteria in San Francisco during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Gertrude dies, and their son Clifford is enlisted to help run the restaurant.

-1920

Clifford, who is now managing his father’s cafeterias, marries Nelda Mae Patterson. cliftons

-1927

Clifford purchases his father’s business and becomes president and general manager of the Clinton’s restaurants.

-1929

At the end of October the stock market suffers the greatest crash in American history, plunging the country into economic turmoil and the Great Depression.

-1931

Clifford writes a manual outlining a new “cafeteria of the golden rule.” He sells the San Francisco restaurants and moves to Los Angeles with $2,000 and a lease on the former Boos Bros. Cafeteria at 618 S. Olive St. He opens a restaurant in July and gives away 10,000 free meals by October. The next year he opens a “Penny Cafeteria” at 250 S. Hill St. Stew, coleslaw, Jell-O, and coffee are priced at one cent; philanthropists purchase coupons to distribute to the poor.

-1934

Impressed with the operation, a wealthy patron offers the Clintons a lease on another former Boos Bros. location, the 40,000-square-foot store at 648 S. Broadway. “For years in the center of town we served the five-cent meal, and bums came, nice people came, pensioners came, human beings came,” says Nelda Clinton in an interview. “And if they didn’t have the nickel, we would feed them anyway, but most always for their dignity and ours it was better if they paid.”

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-1935

Los Angeles County supervisor John Anson Ford taps Clifford, now an expert in feeding large numbers of people, to consult on the food operations at County hospital. Clifford uncovers waste, fraud, and abuse and becomes a civic crusader.

-1937

Mayor Frank Shaw withdraws his support of the city-sanctioned Citizens’ Independent Vice Investigating Committee that Clifford chairs after police raid a gambling ring operating in a secret room behind a phony library at Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Avenue. Clifford claims to have discovered 600 brothels, 1,800 bookies, and 300 gambling houses in the city. His home and the car of his chief investigator are later bombed. In 1938, Frank Shaw becomes the first big-city mayor to be recalled from office.

-1939

After five years of tinkering and remodeling, Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria is unveiled, complete with redwood trees, a fireplace, and an indoor waterfall and stream. The Pacific Seas cafeteria on Olive Street soon gets a major makeover, including bamboo, fishing floats, and massive neon flowers.
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-1943

Esther York Burkholder debuts Food for Thot, a free inspirational newsletter with a weekly circulation of 32,000. The poems and philosophy are distributed until the Clintons sell the cafeteria in 2010.

-1944

Life magazine devotes several pages to Clifton’s Brookdale and Pacific Seas and takes readers to the founder’s Los Feliz home, where employees visit, swim, and sometimes receive medical care in a hospital suite set up in a spare bedroom. According to Nelda Clinton, Clifton’s was the first employer in the city to offer health and dental insurance to employees.

-1945

Clinton recruits CalTech biochemist Dr. Henry R. Borsook to develop a soy product called Multi-Purpose Food. A three-cent serving offers “the same nutrients found in a meal of a quarter-pound of beef, a glass of milk, a dish of green peas, and a potato.” The product served as the foundation of Clifford’s “Meals for Millions” program, which continues today as the nonprofit foundation Freedom from Hunger.

-1948

The restaurants offer an all-you-can-eat meal for 50 cents. In February a middle-aged man stays at Clifton’s Brookdale from noon to 9 p.m., consuming $30 worth of food before “staggering out the door.” Throughout the 1940s, Clifton’s becomes home to more than 800 groups, providing a meeting place for state societies, religious cults, and America’s first science fiction fan club (members include Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, and L. Ron Hubbard).
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-1956

The first suburban Clifton’s opens in the new community of Lakewood. Historian D.J. Waldie calls it “a place built all at once and settled all at once.”

-1958

A fourth Clifton’s is erected at the Eastland shopping center in West Covina. It relocates to the West Covina Fashion Plaza, is renamed the Greenery, and gains a Charles Dickens-themed dining room during the 1970s.

-1960

Citing “decentralization to the suburbs,” Clifton’s Pacific Seas closes on June 17. Three months later the structure is demolished to make way for a parking lot.

-1966

Two new locations open: one at Hoover and Wilshire, and another at the Century City shopping center. Century City’s Clifton’s is decorated in “gracious Spanish decor and warm Mediterranean colors” and features contemporary amenities such as automatic dishwashers and a closed-circuit-camera ordering system.

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-1969

Clifford Clinton dies at age 69 in his Los Feliz home. That property is now City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #997.

-1974

Clifton’s opens in San Bernardino.

-1975

Don and Jean Clinton restore the 1922 Brock Jewelers building at 515 W. 7th St. as the Silver Spoon restaurant.

-1977

A “Garden of Gethsemane” diorama salvaged from Pacific Seas is reinstalled inside the Silver Spoon cafeteria. When that restaurant closes, the statuary is relocated once again—to the Holy Land Exhibition in Silver Lake.

-1981

Clifton’s opens at the Whittier Quad shopping center, offering more than 100 à la carte menu items.

-1987

Clifton’s opens in Laguna Hills, opposite the Leisure World retirement community.

-1990

Roadfood authors Jane and Michael Stern describe the enduring scene at Clifton’s Brookdale this way: “At mealtime the place is a clamorous symphony of clanking plates and boisterous eaters from all walks of life plowing into trays full of good old-fashioned American food.”
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-1999

Los Angeles passes the “Adaptive Reuse Ordinance” allowing developers to convert vacant office buildings into housing, kicking off a building boom that will transform downtown.

-2006

The same year that the Clinton family purchases their landmark property on Broadway, the chain’s 83-year-old co-owner, Jean Clinton Roeschlaub, is found dead in her 16th-floor condominium in Glendale. Los Angeles County supervisors eventually offer a $20,000 reward in the cold case.

-2008

Bringing Back Broadway, a public-private partnership, kicks off a ten-year plan to revitalize downtown’s historic Broadway corridor.

-2010

Don and Robert Clinton sell the family business to Andrew Meieran on September 21.

-2011

Clifton’s Brookdale closes for extensive restoration work on September 25.

-2015

Meieran’s vastly expanded Clifton’s reopens with four floors of restaurants, bars, and curiosities. cliftons

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