Clifton's Cafeteria, Serving Kitsch Since 1935 Clifton's Cafeteria, one of Los Angeles' oldest and largest restaurants, is a legacy of a very different era -- a place where Jell-O desserts are still king, and lunch specials come with a big dollop of kitsch.
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Clifton's Cafeteria, Serving Kitsch Since 1935

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Clifton's Cafeteria, Serving Kitsch Since 1935

Clifton's Cafeteria, Serving Kitsch Since 1935

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5690041/5690042" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed a small item in the newspaper. Eighty-three-year-old Jean Clinton Roeschlaub was found murdered in her apartment. That story caught our eye because Jean was an owner of Clifton's Cafeteria, one of the last Depression era restaurants left in Los Angeles still family run. No one has been arrested in Jean's murder. Her family has no idea why anyone would have wanted to kill her. Clifton's carries on as it has for some 70 years. Wedged in between discount jewelry stores, it's mainly a lunch spot for shoppers, workers, and everyone else downtown. To find out why it hasn't been torn down or turned into a Panini Espresso joint, I met Charles Phoenix outside Clifton's. Charles is an L.A. historian. He gives tours of landmarks most people have forgotten.

Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Los Angeles Historian): Clifton's Cafeteria is authentic Los Angeles. It is at the corner of Seventh and Broadway. Clifton's has been here since 1935 and it's still going strong today.

BRAND: Why do people keep coming back here?

Mr. PHOENIX: I think what they really are coming back for is the unbelievable display of food because it is the grandest cafeteria. It is not only the grandest cafeteria, it is the largest restaurant in all of Los Angeles. Six hundred people can be seated at once. No other restaurant even comes close.

BRAND: Let's go see this food.

Mr. PHOENIX: Okay come on. We're going to see some Jell-O.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, footfalls, ringing sound)

BRAND: Okay, before we get to the Jell-O we have to pause to describe the inside of Clifton's. Charles and I have entered a redwood forest. The first thing you see is an animatronic raccoon bobbing up and down behind a fake log. There are murals of redwoods on the walls, a waterfall, and a stream. Some of the tables are made from giant slabs of trees. Okay, now back to the Jell-O.

Mr. PHOENIX: Have you ever seen more beautiful Jell-O in your entire life? And then have you ever seen this delicious type of Jell-O which is like...

BRAND: What is that?

Mr. PHOENIX: It's like white opaque kind of with cheddar cheese and pineapple in it.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: No.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Just around the corner there's a rainbow in the sky. So let's have another cup of coffee and let's have another piece of pie.

Mr. PHOENIX: And they even have - they have raisin pie. They have blueberry pie. They have pineapple pie. They got pecan pie. They got cherry pie. They got apple pie. And they've got every meringue and cream pie that you can possibly imagine. And then there are the cakes. Like Robert Clinton the owner was telling me one day - he was pointing to this chocolate banana layer cake and he was saying that's my grandma's recipe like from 1929 or whatever. We love that.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Mr. Herbert Hoover says that now's the time to buy. So let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie.

Mr. ROBERT CLINTON (Owner, Clifton's Cafeteria): I'm Robert Clinton. I'm the grandson of Clifford Clinton, the founder of Clifton's Cafeteria. And I have worked here at Clifton's since 1971.

BRAND: How would you describe the experience?

Mr. CLINTON: It's a theme restaurant, and it was redecorated in 1935 when we opened this location and we haven't changed it too much. We've tried to freshen it up. We used to have singing canaries in the dining room hanging on the trees, but the health department didn't like singing canaries so we got rid of them and installed Muzak so you can hear some classical music. And you have to keep in mind that during the 1930s when my grandfather opened here, the Depression was in full swing and there were a lot of people out of work. There were a lot of people who had very little money, and so that's why he came up with this redwood forest type concept. Because what is more restorative than sitting in the redwoods next to a stream in the mountains? That's the feeling he wanted to recreate.

BRAND: And is that why there's a chapel over there in the corner?

Mr. CLINTON: Well, that little chapel's part of the package here. If you go in that little chapel, you can push a button and listen to a recording of an inspirational message. Its purpose is to give people hope when they leave here that perhaps things can be a little better than when they came in.

(Soundbite of recorded message)

Unidentified Man: (In recorded message) The hope, the courage, the strength for your task.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHARLES O'CONNOR (Clifton's Regular): Charles O'Connor. O-C-O-double N-O-R.

BRAND: Are you a regular?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Yes.

BRAND: How long have you been coming here?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Fifty years.

BRAND: Fifty years?

Mr. O'CONNOR: That was when I came to Los Angeles.

BRAND: And you've been coming ever since? How often do you come?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, now every day. You know, I eat lunch here every day. When it was downtown, I came in - used to come here sometimes in the morning and at night. But I live out in west side now.

BRAND: And you get in your car and you drive here every day?

Mr. O'CONNOR: No, I just bus around.

BRAND: You take the bus?

Mr. O'CONNOR: Well, you come down here with a car it will cost you more to park than it does to eat.

BRAND: Right. So what are you, what do you love about it? You've been coming here for 50 years, some odd years.

Mr. O'CONNOR: You get what you want and the prices are reasonable.

BRAND: What did you have today?

Mr. O'CONNOR: A stuffed pepper I have the left over right there.

BRAND: There's not much left of it.

Mr. O'CONNOR: No.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Women: (Singing) Let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie.

BRAND: Charles, how many times a month do you come here?

Mr. PHOENIX: Well, okay. I have to tell you the truth. What happens is sometimes I get in the car to go out to dinner or whatever, and it's like I try to go somewhere else and the car automatically goes - steers on its way to Clifton's. It's cool. Clifton's is hip and a lot of really cool people are hanging out here. And so I try to come down and be part of the hip set and have a good time.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Women: (Singing) ...Hoover says it's now a good time to buy. So let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of apple pie.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To see people having a good time and other pictures of Clifton's, go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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