For four years, hipsters and history buffs were left wondering if the iconic Clifton's Cafeteria — a magical-forest-themed behemoth in downtown's Historic Core — would ever reopen. On Sept. 22Sometime this week, it finally will.

Much has been written about this week's big reveal, following a $14 million remodeling job by filmmaker/developer Andrew Meieran. There have been assurances that Clifton's fairy tale-like interior will still boast a running brook, waterfall, kitschy redwood forest, taxidermied animals and unusual ephemera. It also will house two restaurants and five bars in the 47,000-square-foot space. But little has been said of late about the original wizard behind the curtain, the fantasyland's first owner and creator, Clifford E. Clinton.

Clinton's grandson, Edmond J. Clinton lll, has written a soon-to-publish book, Clifton's and Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader, that offers an insider's perspective of a complex and interesting character: a successful restaurant owner obsessed with saving the city of Los Angeles from dirty politics and police corruption (while harboring a few dirty secrets of his own).

Born in 1900, Clinton was the son of a San Francisco restaurateur who owned one of the earliest West Coast cafeterias (the term “cafeteria” had originally been coined in Chicago in 1893). Clinton did missionary work in China, where he witnessed extreme poverty. Watching locals eating dirt to fill their stomachs left a deep impression on him as a young man. Decades later, at his own cafeterias in Los Angeles, his famous “pay what you can” policy helped keep the unemployed from starving during the Great Depression. His innovative Penny Cafe fed 2 million people one-cent meals before closing its doors in 1935.

An old Clifton's brochure, dug up by Los Angeles Magazine, stated: “We have been severely condemned for our operation of the Penny,” which people complained “would cause more drifters to remain in our city.”

“But why should the deserving go hungry because of this,” the brochure continued, “and the mingling with these good folks has taught us what we did on faith, was really the right thing.”

Credit: Clifton's and Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader by Edmond Clinton, published by Angel City Press

Credit: Clifton's and Clifford Clinton: A Cafeteria and a Crusader by Edmond Clinton, published by Angel City Press

Over the years Clinton owned as many as seven restaurants at a time. His third was Clifton's on Broadway, which opened in 1935, after Penny Cafe closed. It was later renamed Clifton's Brookdale, when it was remodeled to resemble Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains — which had a real brook stocked with trout flowing through its dining room. 

In 1936, L.A. County Supervisor John Anson Ford, impressed by Clinton's business acumen and his kind deeds, asked Clinton to run an investigation into the food budget at the city's General Hospital. Clinton took the task seriously. He stepped on toes, made political enemies and shaved $120,000 a year in kickbacks and waste from a taxpayer-funded budget.

As a result, a bomb was thrown into his family's Los Feliz kitchen, revenge-minded health department crackdowns occurred at the cafeterias he owned, and planted customers took choreographed “slip and falls,” after which Clinton's insurance policies went up 400 percent. But Clinton continued to pursue and fight corruption in city government, much of which was directly tied to mob activity. He began an obsessive crusade to expose and clean up the graft and was successful in removing a well-connected Los Angeles mayor from office.

Clifford Clinton died of a heart attack in 1969, and four decades later Clifton's had fallen into terrible disrepair. Meieran bought it in 2010 — and ultimately bankrolled a renovation with a budget that doubled and a timeline that took years instead of months.

Now Clinton and his cafeteria — and the ghosts within its walls — are getting a second life.

A 2013 L.A. Weekly article by Ray Richmond, the son of Clinton's long-time mistress, describes how excited he was to visit the resurrected restaurant — for a rather odd reason. Richmond wrote that he had taken it upon himself, during Clifton's renovation, to pour his mother's ashes into “an electrical closet whose wiring extended down throughout the building.” He wanted her to be nearer to the man she loved.

Says Richmond of Clifton's reopening: “I can hardly wait. It isn't just the memories the place holds. It's also the fact that it holds my mother, and I've been missing her lately.”

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