With a recent visit to a Downtown Los Angeles icon, the baton has been officially passed to the next generation. Clifton's Cafeteria, a Southern California tradition for 80 years, lives on in our family.
Clifton's is a familiar name, if not destination, for longtime Angelenos. Opened at 648 S. Broadway in 1935, Clifton's was synonymous with destination dining. It grew to become a chain of eight themed restaurants around L.A. when cafeteria dining was en vogue.
My mom remembers seeing their TV ads when she was growing up in 1950s suburban San Fernando Valley and later eating there with her parents.
My first visit came when I was in elementary school. I was amazed - and intrigued - by the array of food choices. Plates of multi-colored Jello really stood out for some reason. The decor was cool too - like picnicking in the woods with a giant plastic tray.
Fast-forward a few decades. I'm now a parent. And cafeterias are synonymous with bland, boring food. But Clifton's was top of mind again when it closed for renovations after being purchased by nightlife entrepreneur Andrew Meieran.
The process took years instead of months - and $10 million - so when it finally reopened last fall, I was eager to check it out. And being nostalgic, I wanted my kids to experience it the way I had - with my parents and grandparents.
With Nana and Papa in town for a visit, we headed Downtown via the Metro Red Line. We stepped inside the glass doors and it was clear the renovation was worth the extra time. "The cafeteria entrance is through the cave," the hostess said, pointing to our left.
The weekday lunch crowd was in full force. Each of us grabbed a tray and we split up to visit the different stations and find our entrees of choice.
I took Drew and Brooke over to the pizza counter while Laurel braved the salad station line for a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Mom opted for the Carvery and its offering of barbecue ribs. I rejoined my dad at the deli counter and loaded a roast beef sandwich, with caramelized onions, spinach and horseradish spread on my tray.
Seating was scarce on the first two floors, so we made our way to the third floor and found a large, cushy booth that would accommodate everyone. Behind us, a mural of Yosemite Valley painted on the brick wall accented the giant replica redwood that stretched up three floors to form a multi-story centerpiece.
After lunch, we explored the restaurant. Looking around, I didn't see anything that resonated from childhood. But it's clear the restaurant has been lovingly restored to capture a snapshot of a bygone L.A. and again make Clifton's a dining destination.
The kids were impressed by the nooks and grottos and the life-size wildlife tableaus on display. There are few places you can sit next to a stuffed coyote chasing a preserved pronghorn while you dive into your own meal.
While nothing looked familiar to me, one thing remains the same. They still have the Jello, in all its shimmering orange glory. Everyone, including me, overlooked it in favor of the too-tempting pies, cakes and cookies. But that's OK. The baton has been passed. Three generations visited Clifton's together.
And as good as it looks after its renovation, it seems Clifton's will be around for another 80 years. Time enough for me to visit with the next generation. Maybe my grandkids will grab the Jello.
A Serving of Nostalgia
Clifton's Cafeteria www.cliftonsla.com