The once busting Clifton’s Cafeteria has been sadly quiet, closed for renovations for three years. Saturday night, the restaurant showed a big sign of life. Stephen Russo, a member of Vintage Los Angeles, tipped us off by posting a photograph of workmen installing a new retro neon sign to the page. Hundreds of VLA fans reacted by sharing and commenting on the post. Me? I bolted downtown to see the sign in person.
Photo: Stephen Russo
I speculate Clifton’s owners moved now so that the beloved destination to be included as one of the top attractions during Saturday night’s Bringing Back Broadway event, which brought more than 30 thousand people to downtown’s theatre district. Seeing the iconic structure light up DTLA in the center of seven historic movie palaces couldn’t have been more powerful! The historic structure now consists of red neon lights that frame the five windows on the second floor. A sign above the entrance spells out “LIVING HISTORY – CLIFTON’S – ESTABLISHED IN 1932” in honor of its legacy. It is quite an achievement.
Developer Andrew Meieran has put $5 million into renovating the 83-year-old structure and his vision is one to admire. He’s peeled back Clifton’s 1960s kitschy façade that covered up the cafeteria’s original design and revealed what’s been hidden underneath for more than 50 years, including the Clifton’s ghost sign. The photo showing the marquee letters going up and was taken on January 31s. It’s finally restored back to its original glory!
While updating the 47,000-square-foot space, Meieran’s team made an amazing discovery! While restoring a woman’s restroom, they noticed a neon bulb burning brightly behind a wall. Behind layers of plywood was a light panel that had been covered by plaster for 77 years. Someone forgot to turn it off during the Great Depression and today the light is the oldest existing neon bulb still working in the entire world. Meieran has said the lit bulb cost $17,000 in electrical bills over the years. It will be on display when Clifton’s officially reopens (so long as it doesn’t burn out before that).
I was fortunate enough to produce a short segment on the work being done at Clifton’s for EYE ON LA back in the summer of 2013 and got a sneak peek inside. I was in heaven. The restaurant’s original forest motif, including the redwood trees, murals, and terraces, were completely intact and were undergoing restoration.
I also noticed the ‘60s blade sign—the one that went up and down—resting on the floor inside! Today the sign hangs in the alley attached to the structure.
There’s no official date for Clifton’s reopening, but I suspect we’ll be eating turkey dinners with sides of mashed potatoes and Jell–O very soon. If the owners achieve the vision they’ve described, the lower level cafeteria will be our familiar hang and continue to serve traditional cuisine. The underutilized second floor will consist of theme bars designed in an art deco, streamline style. The third floor will house a sit down restaurant and a museum called A House Of Treasures, while the fourth floor will pay homage to the Clifton’s that was once located on Olive Ave. with a retro Polynesian theme and a bar called The Seven Seas. The entire project sounds like a time machine! When Clifton’s reopens, there is sure to be a line down the block.
Clifton’s Cafeteria POSTCARD dated 1956
The following photos show the various stages of Clifton’s starting the the 30’s until present day.
Photo by Hunter Kerhart
This article originally appeared in Los Angeles Magazine
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