Last year, science fiction author Ray Bradbury celebrated his 89th birthday at Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria on 7th and Broadway, a place where he, along with sci-fi writer/memorabilia collector Forrest Ackerman, founded the Science Fiction Society, which met weekly on the restaurant's second floor during the Great Depression. Bradbury has said that he wanted to not only rebuild Broadway but to revive the cafeteria as well.
Cut to a year later and he got his wish. Andrew Meieran, owner of the downtown bar, the Edison, took out a 50-year lease (10 years with four 10-year options, with an option to buy) on the restaurant and, before the end of this year, will throw a "Welcome Back, Broadway" celebration which will include an appearance by Bradbury himself.
Meieran will not only restart Clifton's commercial bakery business and retain the cafeteria, as mentioned in his press conference last month , but he'll build bars into the space. No specifics had been released about his plans.
Until now, when Meieran granted us a tour of the five-level space, from basement to the fourth-floor bakery, and shared details for the new and improved Clifton's.
Family owned and run since 1935, the last remaining Clifton's of the restaurant chain is a treasured relic of Los Angeles history, hearkening back to a time when this family of missionaries employed a golden rule of "pay what you can," a life-saver to those hard hit by the Depression.
When asked how he convinced the family to trust him with their legacy, Meieran said, "Initially [the Clintons weren't] going to give it to anybody outside of the family. They were in the cafeteria business since 1888. A 120-year legacy being handed to someone outside the family. So we talked about what the plans were and how I was going to respect the place."
A fan of L.A. history as evidenced in his transformation of the Higgins building space that houses the Edison and even his own Hollywood home, which originally belonged to Charlie Chaplin, Meieran threw himself into researching the restaurant, poring over old pictures and stories, even interviewing longtime patrons.
"To me it's recycling history," Meieran said. "You're taking the parts and putting them in this new context and then you're refurbishing the parts that are worn out and you're adding things in the spirit of what was here. With that you can do some amazing things and I can't understand why people take something historic that has its own apparent beauty or interest and they gut that."
How did the Clintons take his plans to incorporate bars into their restaurant which has been dry since it first opened in the 1930s? "They were accepting and they said it's a clever way to use the space and it needs to be utilized. But it's more a sense they know and they want it to live. And economically they're very wise. This is the way to make it so that it's a viable business, and they recognize that."
Meieran will build in not just one speakeasy bar but two: a small, tiki-themed one in the basement and another on the third floor which can be accessed via a hidden entrance located on the main floor. He said, "This place has to have some mystery to it. You can't find all the spaces in one trip. 'Wait a minute there was a what? I didn't see that!'"
There will also be a bar on the mezzanine level which will service the cafeteria. The main bar, which will be take over the Red Room on the second floor, will be the dining area for the cafeteria by day and serving drinks at night starting at 5pm. Table service will be available.
Decorated partly Victorian, Art Deco and Edwardian, the main bar will be "old school world-class almost like how you'd have some of the original old clubs."
And despite Clifton's founder Clifford Clinton's penchant for over-the-top fantasy with neon palm trees, waterfalls and "magical" limeade springs, Meieran has decided to take a comparatively subtle approach to the decor. "The bars themselves won't be theme-y. They won't be done up to be the Redwood Forest or stuff. They'll have elements that reincorporate the fantasy from downstairs but it won't be 'Rainforest Cafe meets Clifton's.' It'll tell a story but it will be more like the Edison was; it takes cues from the historic design. It's more of an interesting design and be based on this cool space."
There will, however, be a giant replica of a Redwood tree "growing out" the backside of the space, starting on the first floor and continuing up two levels.
Even though Meieran was open about his plans for the restaurant and its bars, when pressed for specifics about the cocktail program, he was mum. He only disclosed that the menu for each bar will be different and that the designer of the drinks is "known in L.A. but they're not from L.A. It's someone we may work with that has done some really exciting stuff in two other cities. And they're really, really cool."
For the regular patrons concerned about more expensive cafeteria food, the serving portions will be slightly smaller and the ingredients of better quality, helping retain the affordable price range. Meieran also intends to resurrect recipes from Clifton's long history but hire a creative chef to provide a "modern take on the cafeteria... comfort food with a really cool twist." He's not looking for the next Top Chef but an up-and-comer who "wants to prove themselves."
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The backrooms of the third floor will be taken down as will the Red Room's Overlook Hotel-esque wallpaper but fans of the historical artifacts and photos currently scattered throughout the restaurant will still be able to check them out, but in a different, dedicated space. And don't worry about the pop-up raccoon that greets everyone at the entrance. He will probably survive the renovations. The exterior facade of the restaurant, on the other hand, will be removed. "What's going to be here has never been seen. It's the next level of renovation, design and experience," Meieran promises.
The cafeteria will be open for business during the renovations. In six months' time its doors will be open 24 hours a day but will start off with pushing the closing time back from 7:30pm to 10pm within a month, then to midnight by the end of the year. The bars are projected to open within 12 months.