2008-08-16 23:29:48 ET|
For years I've been hearing that I needed to go check out Clifton's Cafeteria, over in the Jewelry District in Downtown LA. It's bizarre, they said. It's corny with the sort of deadpan earnestness that died out at least thirty years ago, they said. If the theory of continental drift is true, then it was once part of the Snow White ride at Disneyland, they said (and I cribbed that one from L.A. Bizarro, a formative book from my youth, now sadly out of print and date). So I decided it's time to see for myself. Lunch and a freak show? I'm up for it!
I ended up parking on the second floor of the St. Vincent Jewelry exchange across the street. I'd never been to a diamond outlet before, even just passing through, and it's kind of a disturbing experience. There's diamonds everywhere, to the point that you just don't feel safe. Haven't movies taught us anything? This is a heist flick setpiece shootout waiting to happen. Anyhoo, I got through without incident, passed the Spanish newpaper stands, the armless guy, and the corner preacher, and found my way to Clifton's.
Apparently Clifton's is a throwback to better times for downtown LA. It was built sometime in the 30's when it was a fashionable area, and there were live organists and singing waiters. Well, those are gone, but what remains is . . . fascinating. I guess they were trying to emulate the experience of a cafeteria food picnic. The place is full of fake trees, plants, and animals, murals of the forest, logging tools, and a waterfall. Supposedly this is supposed to invoke the woods up in the California mountains, but there's also a creepy stone castle that brings to mind something out of the Black Forest by way of the Brothers Grimm. (Apparently you can go inside and see some sort of religious diorama. Sadly I missed this detail and will have to make a return trip.) I don't think I can quite convey the enthusiasm and the pervasiveness with which they embraced their motif. The first table I tried to grab was already occupied by a stuffed beaver with fishing tackle.
The food itself was actually not that bad. There's a cafeteria lunch line you go through before you end up in the woods, so the easily weirded-out have already paid. I had some chicken cacciatore and a slice of strawberry pie, but there were some other options that also looked promising. It was fairly cheap too, so it's actually not a bad bet if you're genuinely hungry and a little short on funds. You know, from diamond shopping all day.
I heard a rumor that they won't turn anybody away for not being able to pay for a meal. I don't know if this is actually true, and I kinda don't have the heart to try it.