Downtown dwellers and amateur historians alike started lining up as early as 7:30 a.m. for a chance to be among the first to set foot inside Andrew Meieran's beautifully restored space, which had hosted only two sneak peeks prior — a media luncheon and a pricey dinner benefiting L.A. Conservancy. Today there was no guest list and no fancy VIPs, but there was a constant flurry of flashing cameras, some documenting the place for posterity, others for social media bragging rights.
Those who’ve been dying to eat at the new Clifton’s waited in line until its doors opened at 11 a.m., and the first 25 were rewarded with a postcard voucher that was good for a free lunch. The first customer in line, L.A. native Betty Martinez, got a vintage Clifton’s food tray signed by Meieran as well.
Once inside, patrons walked to food stations in the back of the restaurant where offerings included salads, burgers, fries, greens, mac and cheese, pizza, sandwiches, a carving station, desserts (including Clifton’s famous Jell-O), cake slices and cupcakes. As expected, it was pure chaos trying to get food choices from the various service areas. The lines all sort of blended into one another, and some hungry patrons were not too happy about the lack of crowd control. Trying to avoid bumping trays, we had a major lemonade spill not long into our visit. Since Clifton's had just started serving a few minutes prior, we might have earned the distinction of having the first big spill in the reopened food emporium.
Most diners understood that opening day would have some hiccups. Clifton's ran out of a few things, some staff didn’t know the prices for certain items they were serving, and checkout was slow thanks to a new computer system. Still, considering all the elements and people who came out, things went pretty smoothly. Once we paid for our food (lunch for two came to a little over $50, but we got a lot for it, including carved turkey and mashed potatoes, a chicken sandwich, French fries, mac and cheese, three desserts and two drinks) the fun part began: deciding where to sit within Clifton’s eye-catching tree- and animal-adorned bars and dining areas.
We chose a cozy nook near the giant redwood in the center of the second level, where a stuffed buffalo overlooked seating. The lower level was packed. And around noon, Clifton’s opened its previously unseen third level: a bright, taxidermy-filled dining area featuring deco details and '20s- and '30s-style music, as well the “Gothic Bar,” a dark drinking environment with peacocks and a sexy ambiance that seems worlds away from the novelty of downstairs.
We can’t wait to see what the final level and the new tiki bar — which is scheduled to open around Halloween — will be like. Despite what some critics have been saying online about the restoration, we found the new Clifton's anything but cheesy. Kitschy, yes, but in a cool way that respects the locale's history. We think original owner Clifford Clinton would definitely approve.
648 S. Broadway, downtown, (213) 627-1673; cliftonscafeteria.com