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What Should Clifton’s Cafeteria Look Like in 2015?

An examination of time, tradition, and capitalism.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Downtown
Clifton's Cafeteria, Downtown
Wonho Frank Lee
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

Just in time for Clifton's Cafeteria's debut this week, senior editor Farley Elliott tackles the issue of what a rehabilitated and revived icon should be, nearly 80 years since its founding in Downtown Los Angeles. Once a haven for the marginalized, homeless, and poor who could essentially "pay what you wish," Clifton's now must juggle a long history of generosity and community support with the financial demands of a bustling Los Angeles.

A few days ago writer Megan Koester took Clifton's Cafeteria to task for being, in no particular order: a shell of its former glory, an overblown faux-relic, unwelcoming to the neighborhood and those less fortunate, and a depraved den of pricey cocktails and bland food. It’s a pretty scathing takedown of a place that still hasn’t even opened to the public yet (Koester attended the media free-for-all from a couple of days ago), but it brings up a unique point. Namely, what should Clifton’s be in 2015?

In some sense, it can never be what it was, because that’s an inherently ethereal dartboard to try to bullseye. To some, Clifton’s represents the height of bygone homogeneity, a place where anyone and everyone was welcomed in equally to sit under the decorations and down cheap coffee. Birds chirped outside, women in hairnets happily chattered away while scooping mac salad onto a plate, and friends and neighbors waved hello from within the jungle of plants and multi-level seating arrangements.

Clifton’s was for years synonymous with hardcore drug use in the bathroom

Yet to even more people, Clifton’s was for years synonymous with hardcore drug use in the bathroom, rampant homelessness in the streets out front, and a sense of danger and declining food quality. The massive establishment also engendered religious morality through a "pay-what-you-could" model, affording warm meals to the down-and-out.  And the truth is, Clifton’s has been all of those things, in some way or another, and to a certain extent may well be again one day. But asking Clifton’s to remain as it was for so many years (and to so many different customers) is ultimately an impossible task — and one that's probably not ideal for staying in business in today's market.

Behold the Return of Clifton's in Downtown Wonho Frank Lee

The man at the center of the rebirth of Clifton’s is Andrew Meieran, who invested $14 million over more than three years to bring the multi-story Downtown spot back to life. He’s also the brain behind The Edison, which opened off Second Street in 2007 in a renovated power plant. That hugely successful bar and lounge helped in many ways to remove Downtown Los Angeles from its no-go, shuttered-after-dinner rep, making the neighborhood cool again years before outlets like the NY Times would catch on. Is it so hard to believe that Meieran is trying to help Downtown's overall development again like he did with The Edison?

But where one person might see revitalization and a return to glory, others decry the lack of access, the kitschification of an icon, and the displacement of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Koester focuses in particular on Downtown's staggering homeless population — it's still growing even now — which has been left with fewer and fewer options as big money puts the squeeze on places like the former Clifton's. The disadvantaged and homeless haven't disappeared, they've simply become more marginalized than ever, confined to just a handful of city blocks, many of which themselves are starting to change in significant ways.

For now the only way for anyone to know Meieran is 'giving back' comes in the form of a voluntary donation program

In that way, Vice writer Koester has a point. Clifton's was founded by an entrepreneurial spirit who believed that helping the least among us didn't mean foregoing the money that comes with servicing everyone else. Rumors of discounts, pay-what-you-can models, and other ways to keep Downtown's swelling homelessness involved in Clifton's have proven so far to be just that — whispers of possibility. The truth is, for now the only way for anyone to know Meieran is 'giving back' comes in the form of a voluntary donation program where customers can choose to give to the Midnight Mission or another outreach organization.

But handing out accusations isn't necessarily helping things, either. In the coming weeks and months, more doors and hallways and nightlife opportunities will pop up inside Clifton's Cafeteria, as the place begins to realize its final form. Perhaps somewhere in there Meieran is planning a welcome place for Downtown's homeless population, or its working poor. Perhaps there is a room that will remind one of childhood, or will enrage with its updated splendor by removing some ancient bit of whimsy once recalled. All of that is up to Meieran, and Meieran alone.

Bask in Clifton's Cafeteria (Nearly) Completed Glory in Downtown

Yes, Clifton's will serve upgraded food and fancy cocktails, and charge accordingly. Yes, the place will house moneyed Downtowners and Westside tourists looking to party all night before spilling out into the rapidly transforming streets. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for Downtown or the city at large, and it doesn't have to preclude giving back.

Here's to hoping that Meieran won't warp a Downtown icon into a gentrified playhouse for the rich. We can all hope that Clifton's retains its soul of providing for the poor and needy like it always has, whether through the financial largess of its diners, or the generosity of a delicious tray of food — without losing its own financial stability in the process.

Clifton's Republic

648 South Broadway, , CA 90014 (213) 627-1673 Visit Website