648 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Not to give anything away, but I'm going to preface this review by stating that I'm not nostalgic about this restaurant. It's very rare for me to be able to say that, "I'm a little too young to have experienced something", but that is the case with Clifton's Cafeteria. Ask any one that is over 50 years old though, and grew up in Southern California about this place, and their eyes glaze over, like you just found their long lost baseball cards in your attic.
Clifton's has a very storied history in Los Angeles. Clifford Clinton opened his first cafeteria in 1931, and in its heyday, they had eight locations going, with one even being located in OC, right across from the gates of Leisure World in Laguna Hills. That spot closed in 1999, much to the chagrin of the the nearby residents. The only remaining location is this one, located in Downtown LA's Jewelry District.
This restaurant has been here since 1935, when it was called Clifton's Brookdale. Now under new ownership, and a remodel that took way longer than expected, they finally opened up to the public in late September of 2015. Back in the 40's they served more than 10,000 meals a day, but that trailed off to only 2,000 in 2009. The new owners hope that this remodel, along with a resurgence in the downtown area will bring people back to Clifton's.
It just so happened that we were going to be coming down this way for my very talented brother in law's art exhibit at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Arts. To be honest, there were about ten other places that I had wanted to try while we were down here, but my in-laws were very excited to relive a part of their youth that they thought might be gone forever. So, who am I to ruin the day of these fantastic people?
Entering Clifton's from the busy downtown street, you are transported to another world that takes a few minutes to adjust to. I got a mixed feeling from this space. Part Knott's Berry Farm's Log Ride, part Sequoia National Park, and throw in an antique mall vibe, and that's what this place felt like to me. Three stories are available right now for customers enjoyment, The fourth floor is going to be open in the future, as a tiki inspired bar. There's plenty of stuffed wildlife throughout the three levels, along with a large fake tree that rises through the center of each. Adding to the antique feel of the restaurant is some vintage furniture. Also, be on the lookout for some hidden pathways that are hidden around the space.
The cafeteria is located on the ground floor, with the entrance to the cafeteria just to the left of the front door. True to cafeteria style, you grab a tray, and visit each station. There was a salad spot, a place for grilled burgers and pastas, a pizza station, a carvery in the middle, and desserts. Some items are grab and go, and some you have to wait for them to be prepared. After you've made your selections, you head to the cashier, pay, and then find a spot on any of the three floors to eat your meal. It was a little awkward walking with your tray up the stairs, but we managed. Workers were a little slow clearing tables, so it was kind of a challenge finding a place to sit. We settled on a second floor table, right next to the bar. Let's take a look at the food.
Let's start things off with my meal. All six of us got our meals from the carvery in the middle of the cafeteria. I guess we should have gotten some variety, but I had heard that this was what Clifton's was famous for. I had the Sliced Roast Beef ($12), which came with two sides. and a roll. I should have aborted this meal when I saw the guy slicing this using too much effort getting his knife through this giant hunk of meat. One of the worst pieces of roast beef I have had in awhile. Dry, flavorless, and not made much better with the provided horseradish or when I tried to get it down with the mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes and gravy was pretty pedestrian. The stuffing was pretty average as well, and did not elevate this meal too much. The lone bright spot food wise here was the Chocolate Chip Cookie ($2). It was baked nicely, with a crunchy outer edge, a softer middle, and plenty of chocolate chips. Delicious, and it helped ease the pain of this lackluster meal.
I should have known something was up when Katie's dad was basically begging people to try some of the Roasted Turkey ($12) off of his plate. He gave me such a big piece, and after trying it, I know what he was up to. This turkey was like sand paper going down. I made it through one bite, and that was it. My aunt was never such a whiz with her dry turkeys on Thanksgiving, but hers was way better than this. Absolutely awful. I heard the mac and cheese was good, but Katie's dad did not part with that. He probably needed all the moisture he could get after trying that turkey.
The overwhelming favorite entree that we had on this evening was the Fried Chicken ($12) This was not great fried chicken by any means, but when compared to the other sliced meats, this was at least edible. I liked the dark meat piece that Katie gave me. It was moist, and had a decent breading around it. The piece of breast that I had was just like the turkey, dry as the Sahara. If you must get something from the carvery in the middle of the cafeteria, this is your best bet.
When I told people of my experience at Clifton's, they all said the same thing, "what did you expect from a cafeteria?" To be honest, I expected it to be way better. A cafeteria is basically just like a buffet, and the buffets in Vegas are way better than this. I also understand that people love this place because it reminds them of their younger years, and that usually makes people happier. The harshness of this review is due to the fact that this was my first visit here, and I had no nostalgic bias when dining here. I did like the uniqueness of this restaurant, and would be open to coming back here to experience their cocktails and nightlife scene, but I'd skip the carving station in the cafeteria for sure.
Out of five bowls of Jello, (because this is probably the most iconic of all the food served at Clifton's), five being best to zero being worst, Clifton's Cafeteria gets 1.5 bowls of Jello.
If you'd like more information about Clifton's Cafeteria, go to their limited website here: http://www.cliftonsla.com/