Stand very still in the turmoil of life and wait for the voice from within…
-Parable of the Redwood*
Only two hours into its stewardship under Andrew Meieran, the 75-year-old Clifton’s Brookdale cafeteria faced a near disaster. It was 2010, and the real estate developer was exploring the forlorn property when somebody smelled smoke. Sprinting up three flights of stairs, Meieran emerged on the roof to discover flames lapping up the side of the building. The image seemed surreal. As the sirens grew louder, he wondered whether his plans to transform the downtown space into a food hall and nightlife hub in the Historic Core would ever happen.
Meieran wasn’t new to renovating in downtown Los Angeles. A sometime writer-director (2013’s Highland Park), he bought the historic Higgins Building at 2nd and Main in 1998. The offices upstairs became lofts; down below, he installed the Edison, the nightclub where he preserved remnants of the building’s basement power plant to create a cinematic steampunk effect. He’d hoped to engineer a similar metamorphosis with Clifton’s Brookdale, the last of a chain of 12 cafeterias that held mythic status for generations of Angelenos. Founded by Clifford Clinton in 1931, the restaurants were intended to be refuges of Christian grace, offering free meals to anyone who couldn’t pay yet avoiding any soup kitchen connotations with their bountiful steam tables and whimsical interiors (Brookdale recalled a dense forest; another, the South Seas). In their chapels, between helpings of brisket and carrot cake, diners would be inspired by recorded parables about the resiliency of redwoods or the power of God’s will.
Though raised Jewish, Meieran is not a religious man. In the weeks following the purchase, however, it had become impossible to ignore what seemed like a divine interest in his latest business endeavor. Ed Rosenthal, the real estate broker behind the Clifton’s sale, had been missing for six days after going to Joshua Tree for a celebratory hike during one of the hottest weeks of the year. He was found, alive, just days before the fire and shared his epiphany during a press conference held at Clifton’s: “My conclusion is that God is real,” he said.
Then came the conflagration, which stemmed not from ancient wiring but a burning bush of sorts: To celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the building’s neighboring synagogue had erected a sukkah, a branch-covered structure, which caught fire. “You have Ed finding God in the desert, and then you have a burning sukkah next door,” says Meieran. “It punctuates things.”
That night in early September 2010, Meieran walked across a deserted Broadway and sat on the curb, watching as the fire department held back flames from the four-story building at 7th and Broadway. It would prove to be one among a string of battles to save Clifton’s Brookdale cafeteria from eight decades’ worth of atrophy wrought by economic downturns, shifting tastes, and the alternating fortunes of downtown. Nearly five more years and $10 million later, Meieran is finally able to open the doors on a lavish food and nightlife venue that—while not what the restaurant’s flamboyant founder envisioned in 1931—will mark perhaps the most significant opening amid a downtown restaurant scene that has witnessed plenty of them.
You’ll be led down the quiet ways of wisdom and peace in a mad world of chaos and din.
I first met Meieran two weeks after that 2010 fire. He led me through the cluttered upper floors of Clifton’s Brookdale. “Watch out for the rat traps,” he said, his narrow frame nimbly navigating the sea of artifacts. “I stepped on one yesterday.”
We scrambled through a maze of dingy hallways and small storage rooms that once served as the main offices of Clinton’s Restaurants Incorporated. “They used to have a huge staff here,” said Meieran, “but in the end it was just a few of them.” Mammoth pieces of old cooking equipment and other dusty relics from the more mundane side of the restaurant business were interspersed with grinning wood bears and portions of forgotten murals. Meieran extracted a small, yellowing index card (there were thousands of them) from an old file cabinet. “They’re the employee cards,” he said, holding one with the typed name of a woman, followed by the date of her hire: 1941. Below, in pencil, were handwritten notes about her attendance, duties, and reason for leaving. “Take care of mother,” it read.
Daily life was harsh in America after the 1929 stock market crash. What is today’s Historic Core was then L.A.’s business center, but the Great Depression had taken its toll on much of the workforce. The homeless who had gravitated to the area when the Midnight Mission opened east of Broadway in 1914 were being joined by legions of the unemployed. It was largely to serve this penniless clientele that Clifford Clinton opened his first Clifton’s, on Olive Street in 1931. The moniker was a hybrid of the restaurateur’s first and last names, and similarly the business model was a reflection of Clinton’s personal values. Raised by Salvation Army missionaries, a young Clinton witnessed the ravages of extreme hunger and poverty around the world. Among the many then-considered wild innovations at Clinton’s venture—including a racially integrated dining room and a sherbet-spewing mine—was a sign that spelled out the restaurant’s pricing strategy: Pay What You Wish. Dine Free Unless Delighted. In its first three months the cafeteria gave out close to 10,000 free meals. But respect for the proprietor’s so-called Golden Rule was also what prompted a well-off Clifton’s regular to offer Clinton the lease on another location situated on a desirable high-traffic stretch of Broadway.
Clifton’s Brookdale cafeteria opened in 1935, revealing a woodland utopia the likes of which the city had never seen—at least not one that served lemon Jell-O and Salisbury steak. Inspired by trips to the Santa Cruz Mountains, Clinton commissioned murals of forest scenes, transformed structural pillars into tree trunks, and created an artificial waterfall that cascaded from the mezzanine dining area. The elaborate decor wasn’t mere whimsy. Cafeterias were big business in the 1930s—downtown alone had more than a dozen—and Clinton hoped his over-the-top environment would give him a leg up. It did. In its prime the Brookdale served close to 10,000 people a day, and Clinton went on to open ten more cafeterias, among them the Polynesian-themed Pacific Seas, where a two-story waterfall greeted customers at the entrance and every 20 minutes rain fell over the mezzanine. Clinton’s wondrous environments are said to have inspired everyone from Walt Disney to writer Ray Bradbury, animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen, and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who gathered at the Brookdale for meetings of the newly formed Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society.
“This is a total playground,” Meieran told me, digging into a crumbling box of old metal nameplates he had just discovered in a corner. “When I get into a project, I love to tear it apart. The first night I get a screwdriver and a hammer and I start opening things.”
Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, consulted with Meieran on how to overhaul the building while being mindful of its history. “You want somebody who respects what it is—you don’t want somebody who is going to strip that away,” she says. “But then you don’t want somebody to go ‘Clifton’s crazy,’ either. Andrew did a fabulous job. He took spaces that had not been included in the restaurant and made them into a Clifton’s for this century.”
Former customers who visit the new Clifton’s will pass through the double glass doors to find a place both familiar and entirely different. There’s still a bakery—albeit with high-end coffee and house-baked breads—along with the cascading waterfall, the animatronic raccoon, and the original log pillars. Meieran also uncovered a series of small grottoes for kids that Don Clinton, Clifford’s 88-year-old son, vaguely remembers running through in the ’30s. The cafeteria is inspired by the trend of European-style food halls. The tray line has been divided into a series of “action stations,” not unlike the café portion at any Whole Foods, with a few fussed-up versions of Clifton’s classics thrown in. “I promise you’ll like our mac and cheese even more than the stuff they were serving before,” says Meieran. He’s added a retail shop that focuses on California goods—dates, Ghirardelli chocolate, craft beer, and wine—and kept the faux-stone chapel. As for the missing neon cross, rather than reading it as another sign of divine interest, Meieran insists that a painter broke it. “Everyone is going to think I took it down,” he says, bracing for the backlash.
More slight than small, Meieran is 48, and his square face can make him look 30 or 50, depending on the light and the owner’s mood. He’s prone to wearing the dark denim and rumpled plaid button-up ensemble that’s become the official uniform of grown-up Gen-Xers. His motions are deliberate, but when the subject turns to architectural history, Walt Disney, or science fiction, he exhibits the jittery enthusiasm of a fanboy—a top-level fanboy, that is, who happens to own the film rights to the life of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
Customers can wander upstairs to the restored front mezzanine or the light-filled brunch and event space called the Brookdale Ballroom, which is replete with taxidermy dioramas of California wildlife. A collaboration with the Natural History Museum, it’s a conflicted nod to Clinton, who was an avid hunter. Hold your phone over one of the plaques to learn about efforts to protect lions, coyotes, and bears. “It was very important that we weave conservation into this whole place,” says Meieran.
His signature design move might be the “aha moment.” At the Edison it’s the grand two-story descent into a turn-of-the-century power plant, with its artful rust and plasma globes. At Clifton’s it’s what visitors encounter up the stairs from the restored ground floor: a 40-foot-tall artificial redwood tree that alludes to the redwoods Clifford Clinton put into the original space. While the founder was inspired by the Santa Cruz Mountains, Meieran was moved by a part of the California wilderness farther north: Muir Woods, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. The faux tree is the centerpiece of an atrium overlooked by four levels of bar, restaurant, and event spaces. The mood-lit cavern is called Cathedral Grove, named for a real gathering of nearly 1,000-year-old trees. “The whole tree is structurally reinforced, and performers can climb in and around it,” says Meieran. (Cue the aerialists.) The large-scale format is another Meieran hallmark, despite the challenges it presents for his bottom line. When his former colleague, fellow downtown nightlife entrepreneur Cedd Moses, suggested scaling down his grand plans for the Edison, their professional relationship went no further. “I had originally thought about partnering with Cedd,” he says, “but he didn’t have the vision.” That project also caused a rift in his partnership with downtown developer Barry Shy, with whom Meieran initially purchased the Higgins Building. By the time Shy was facing lawsuits from tenants who felt misled when their lease-to-own units turned into condominiums, Meieran had bought him out. “We had different goals,” he told the Los Angeles Downtown News.
Near the base of the tree is a soda fountain that serves phosphates and floats alongside craft beers and classic cocktails. There’s what Meieran plans to call the Bradbury Bar—so named for the Fahrenheit 451 author, with whom Meieran discussed the project several times before the writer’s death in 2012. Here high-concept drinks are dispensed from a 19th-century gothic altar turned bar that Meieran purchased from a demolished church in Boston. “I wanted to evoke the idea that it’s a cathedral of nature,” he says.