The renovated L.A. landmark Clifton’s Cafeteria only just reopened this month and it’s already going through a couple of major upheavals: Opening chef Jason Fullilove is officially out and director of spirits Damian Windsor is leaving in two weeks! What this means for the food and the three other bars in the building which have yet to open—as well as the currently opened bars—is not clear. But here’s what we do know about the bars themselves.
The five bars were conceptualized by owner Andrew Meieran and consultant Michael Neff (formerly of Three Clubs) while Windsor (Power House) served as the creative source between all bars. “We didn’t want to make a space that just had a lot of bars in it,” says Neff. “We wanted each space to have its own identity. We have different designs, different intentions, different names, different educational programs.”
Each bar has its own lead bartender who is in charge of creating the specialty cocktail menu for their particular bar. For the mezzanine Monarch Bar it’s Chris Amirault (Harlowe), for the Gothic Bar it’s Dustin Newsome (Seven Grand), and Aaron Polsky (Greenwich Project in NYC) is doing the basement Shadowbox. No word yet on who will be in charge of the upstairs Tiki bar or the Treetops restaurant bar.
Even though each bar will have its own distinctive cocktail program, all—with the exception of Shadowbox—will also share a classic cocktail menu. “The purpose of that is for people who are going from space to space or they’re checking out the new space. We just wanted to have a little bit of through line,” explains Neff.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can order a vodka tonic at every bar, or even a Tiki bar cocktail down at the Gothic bar, since each bar has limited space and its own program. “We want to be able to specialize, to not offer everything in all places,” says Neff. So, he adds, if you want a Budweiser and a shot, there are three spaces where you can get that. There just won’t be a huge selection of vodka at, say, the Tiki bar. “I only have so much room, I need to focus on rum or Japanese whiskey or something else. If you want a lot of vodkas, you can go downstairs. As big as the place is there isn’t a lot of space for our stuff. We don’t have massive backbars so we have to be able to make choices.”
So here’s the lowdown on each bar.
Monarch Bar: This beer-focused California-themed neighborhood bar, which is also the dining room for the cafeteria, is open at 11 a.m. to close. Guests can drop-in with their tray of cafeteria food and enjoy beverage table service. Choose from 20 draft beers, a Golden State wine list, eight specialty cocktails as well as soda fountain creations. The 1930 soda fountain, when the bar is fully operational, will offer four different floats and four boozy options. There will also be four cocktails that are loosely based on an ingredient found in the featured floats. Currently there is a Big Sur Bacon Bomb float and a bacon bourbon Old Fashioned garnished with the same candied bacon found in the float. Since the bar is technically a restaurant, this means that not only can children sit at the bar, too, but as soon as the cafeteria is open 24 hours the bar will be open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. “So we’re looking for ways to get some bartender breakfast style specials going,” says Amirault.
Gothic Bar: Since this was where modern science fiction was born, the back bar is done up like a Gothic church altar complete with soaring arches. Guys like L Ron Hubbard, Forrest Ackerman, and Ray Bradbury met up on Thursday nights and sat on a bench on the second floor of Clifton’s when that back room was known as the Brown Room. Now it’s a high-volume, high-energy bar with some elements of sci-fi homage like a meteorite at the bar and cocktails named “Forrest J.” and “The Two Rays” on the menu. And that sacred bench where the Los Angeles Science Fiction League once congregated is now a booth. The cocktails, by Newsome, are meant to be easy to execute for the high-volume bar while still being delicious and approachable. And since the bar has the most space it will also showcase the most kinds of spirits, making it conducive to hosting tastings as well as guest bartenders. Still in the works: tableside cocktails delivered via bar carts as a large format option.
Treetops Bar: This space is slated to be a fine-dining restaurant with a small bar whose focus is on rare and unusual spirits. This is where you’d go to sip on something special. However, because the space has proven so popular for throwing awesome private events, and there currently isn’t a chef, the restaurant itself won’t be ready till some time next year.
Pacific Seas Tiki Bar: Even though this bar on the fourth floor was still in disarray when I got to see it earlier this month, the space holds such promise. There’s actually a vintage Chris-Craft motorboat jutting out of the middle of the bar where bartenders will serve drinks from. And not to mention the fact that Tiki fans can visit the old decorations of the beloved and now closed Bahooka Tiki restaurant here. Because of the holidays it most likely won’t open til the first of the year.
Shadowbox: Located in the basement, Shadowbox will be different from the other Clifton bars in every way. It won’t offer the house classic cocktail menu at all as it is meant to be akin to the Aviary in Chicago—a high concept, fully immersive experience. It will be the only bar in the building that you will need a reservation for. The cocktail program by Polsky promises to bring back a sense of magic and wonder to even off-duty bartenders and cynical cocktail drinkers. “They’re going to play with every kind of trick that we have to make things cool and fun,” says Neff. For instance, as soon as a guest is seated, they will be approached by one of two cocktail carts. One cart will offer an Old Fashioned while the other is tableside spherification of French 75s with a vodka, gin, or cognac option. “It’s basically a champagne cart and we’ll spherify the actual cocktail. So we still get to do the cool stuff but we’ll get to say, ‘Hey, you want a drink while you’re deciding?'” explains Neff. Other cool finds in the basement are an ice cave with a window where guests can see how Clifton’s grows and farms icicles as well as an “excavation site” covered with plexiglass by the bar so you can stand over where fossilized dinosaur eggs have been “dug up.” Shadowbox is projected to open in six to eight weeks. Be excited, be very excited.
Once all five bars are open Clifton’s will no doubt resemble an Escher painting with cocktail enthusiasts tromping up and down the stairs in a seemingly neverending circuit, going from bar to bar.
UPDATE: Justin Oliver, former manager of the famed tiki bar Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, will be running the Tiki bar, Pacific Seas.
Clifton’s Cafeteria, 648 S Broadway, Downtown, 213-627-1673