After four long years of rebuilding, restoration, and reimagining, Clifton’s Cafeteria reopens to the public on Tuesday, September 22. A few early birds got a peek today at a special preview and dedication presided over by Mayor Garcetti, Councilman Jose Huizar, owner Andrew Meieran, and actress June Lockhart. The 90-year-old star of Lassie and Lost in Space was an unusual but perfect choice as master of ceremonies. “I saw an article in the paper when Andrew’s Edison bar opened,” Lockhart told the audience. “I called Andrew and said Thomas Edison introduced my parents. They were both actors and appeared in one of his films.” That direct connection to history must have really appealed to Meieran who has filled the sprawling restaurant he calls a “cabinet of curiosities” with historical artifacts dating back literally millions of years, but with food that is distinctly 2015.
“Andrew is a true visionary. This building is entering a new era,” Lockhart said. “You can hear the whispers of the dreamers that came before us and the laughter and love of celebrations to come. Today is the beginning of a new era of glamour in Downtown Los Angeles full of hope and excitement.”
Wow. By the time the ribbon was cut, an anxious crowd surged to get inside where they were wowed by the sounds of the jazzy Pete Jacobs Swingtet and an army of servers passing mini lobster rolls and oxtail on toast. The restaurant hired more than 250 positions, many from job programs at Chrysalis and the Midnight Mission, for what is expected to soon be a 24-hour operation with a capacity of 1900 guests. “Go to Clifton’s. Bring a date, fall in love, stay out late,” Mayor Garcetti told the crowd. “It’s OK. The Mayor gave you permission.”
What a wonderful feeling to see old Clifton’s regulars like Charles Phoenix, Gary Leonard, and Amy Inouye carrying their fiberglass trays along the cafeteria line and back to their tables. It was just like I remember. There were a few old-timers in the crowd, including a singing waitress who started working there in the 1930s. “I sang all operatic numbers,” she told fans crowding around her on Broadway. “I was a real ham.” I wish Ray Bradbury had lived to see this new version of his old favorite.
The original dining room looks much like you remember it – all rock formations, waterfalls, and redwood trees – just much cleaner. The most noticeable difference on the first floor is in the kitchen. The portions are a tiny bit smaller and few of the original dishes remain. The familiar but more intense macaroni and cheese is a standout. It is served in a tiny skillet. I was surprised to enjoy the vegan curried cauliflower as much as I did – perhaps because it was perfectly executed right in front of me by chef Jason Fullilove. Slider hamburgers were the same you’ve seen at a hundred other places, and the salad dishes seemed to harken back to 1930s recipes. Desserts ranged from a period-perfect ambrosia salad stuffed into a tiny jelly jar to a caramel budino served in a Wonka-esque edible teacup with a silvered chocolate spoon.
Just before he let the firsts guests inside, Meieran mentioned that he read all of Clifford Clinton’s personal diaries and hopes to honor his spirit of creativity and innovation. Meieran told the crowd. “170 million guests have come through that door in 80 years and I’m looking forward to another 80 years and another 170 million starting now.”