Landmark dining hall Clifton’s Cafeteria has a new chef at the helm. Andrew Pastore is now in charge of the daunting task of feeding thousands of daily tray-wielding diners. He will continue to serve the same “Clifton’s Classics,” such as meatloaf, mac and cheese and, of course, Jell-O, while also bringing in new additions like vegan meatloaf and cauliflower quinoa cakes with roasted beet puree.
In addition to the updated menu, Pastore will be launching a takeout coffee shop called the Old Mill, named after an actual mill that once stood on the same site. The new coffee shop will serve Stumptown cold-brewed coffee, doughnuts, desserts, sandwiches and pastries.
But menu updates aside, the mammoth, renovated, multistory dining hall is worth visiting whether you have an appetite for square Jell-O or not. Despite the surrounding hype when the Clifton's building reopened last fall, the nostalgia-based cafeteria offerings have not been met with praise.
Brant Cox wrote in The Infatuation last November, “What Clifton’s is currently serving is not just bad, it’s borderline offensive. For $12, their ‘Thanksgiving Dinner … Daily!’ gets you a piece of turkey that tastes like it’s been held out of a moving car window for an hour.” Though memorably phrased, it might be that we are all missing the point. Clifton's shouldn't be judged for its food, nor is that the reason to go there.
The cafeteria, which originally opened its South Broadway location in 1935, was founded by Clifford Clinton on the pay-what-you-wish principle that no one should go hungry. Those who couldn't afford it would eat for free. The food was filling and hearty but never gourmet. Anyone who says the food was better before current owner Andrew Meieran took over has rose-colored tastebuds.
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We can’t blame the restaurant for attempting to improve the cafeteria offerings. (Though it might need to think about those raised prices.) But based on the loyal following that continues to dine at Clifton's, it doesn’t appear that it needs to. It is endearing to see that many of the lunchtime customers probably dined there when they were kids, 50 or 60 years ago. And there’s no question that for a child, being taken to lunch at Clifton’s would be thrilling. There are the myriad cakes and cookies, the rainbow of Jell-O colors, the old-fashioned milk machine and ice cream sundae station that give the cafeteria a Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory vibe.
Adults can appreciate all those whimsical elements, too. Ignore the fact that the food isn't excellent. It never was. You go to Clifton's to experience living Los Angeles history, in the gorgeously renovated building with its many nooks and crannies. (Don't miss the chapel on the second floor.) The cafeteria is only a small part of the multilevel building's offerings. So head upstairs to one of several bars and lounges for a more elegant night on the town with craft cocktails and reservation seating. Soon the tiki bar Pacific Seas will be open, too. We're thinking Clifton's is really now a drinking hall.
648 S. Broadway, downtown; (213) 627-1673, cliftonsla.com.