Clifton’s Cafeteria where you “Pay As You Wish”

In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:

Clifton’s Cafeteria

Okay, this entry is a bit of a cheat. There is no longer a scene in my novel set at Clifton’s, but there used to be. I had to cut it because I shifted what happened in the scene to another location in another part of the narrative. But Clifton’s was/is such an unusual restaurant, that I wanted to include it in my series of Hollywood places.

Clifford Clinton was the unique product of a childhood spent in China when his parents, former restaurateurs themselves, moved the family to the Far East to do missionary work. He was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food there, he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.

When the family returned home to San Francisco, Clifford learned his family trade then later moved to Los Angeles. In 1931 he opened Clifton’s Cafeteria at Olive and 6th in downtown L.A.

Cliftons Cafeteria

Cliftons Cafeteria

This was, of course, the height of the great Depression–not exactly the best time to be opening a new business. But Clifford Clinton wasn’t in business solely to make money; he also hated to see people go hungry. So he instituted a “Pay What You Wish” policy. Clinton understood, especially during those times, that people needed to hang on to their dignity and humanity. So whatever you could afford, that’s what Clifton’s Cafeteria would accept as payment. And if you couldn’t even spare one red cent, well, that was okay too. No one was ever turned away hungry just because they couldn’t pay.

Cliftons Cafeteria

Cliftons Cafeteria

People came in  droves–not because they could get a cheap meal, but because they could come to Clifton’s and know they hadn’t fallen so low that they had to beg for a handout. During one 90-day period, 10,000 people ate for free before Clifford could open an emergency “Penny Cafeteria” a few blocks away to feed, for pennies, the two million guests (at Clifton’s you weren’t a “customer”, you were a “guest”) who came during the next two years.

Cliftons Cafeteria

Cliftons Cafeteria

In 1939, Clifton’s remodeled the original restaurant to a more exotic setting and renamed it “Clifton’s Pacific Seas.” The exterior was decorated with waterfalls, geysers and tropical foliage. Brightly illuminated in the evening, it became a mecca for tourists and Angelenos alike for 29 years.

Clinton’s policy must have made good long-term business sense because in 1935 they opened a second restaurant at 648 South Broadway, also in downtown Los Angeles. They subsequently opened restaurants in Lakewood, West Covina, Century City, 7th Street downtown, Woodland Hills, Laguna Beach, and San Bernardino.

Cliftons Cafeteria

Cliftons Cafeteria

In 1939 Clinton chose to redecorate the facility on Broadway. Having spent time as a youth in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he decided to pattern it after his favorite lodge. He created a 20-foot waterfall which then became a stream meandering through the dining room past faux redwood trees (used to conceal the room’s steel columns.) A life size forest mural covered one wall and the interior decoration included a stuffed moose head, animated raccoons, and a fishing bear.

If you want a chance to experience 1930s dining, you can–Clifton’s Cafeteria remains open for business on Broadway welcoming up to 2000 guests a day. I believe there is some sort of cheering irony in that the place which opened, at the depth of the Depression, not only for profit but to ensure the poor didn’t go hungry is still around today.

Cliftons Cafeteria

Cliftons Cafeteria

About martinturnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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6 Responses to Clifton’s Cafeteria where you “Pay As You Wish”

  1. Jaye says:

    This would make a nifty novel all by itself, Martin. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. In 1948 I was broke and on the street in L.A. I don’t doubt the history you present here but by 1948 things were much different. I went into Clifton’s, desperately hungry, and told the cashier I had no money. She sent me up some stairs to an office and told me to “wait for Mrs. xxxxx”. In the office were religious magazines and on the wall, religious paintings. I picked up a brochure about Clifton’s feed-the-hungry program and learned that I would not go through the food line downstairs, but instead would be given a can of protein powder. It seemed clear I would only get this after having to endure a religious lecture. I had no way to mix protein powder anyway – I didn’t even own a cup or a spoon. I fled.

    I fictionalized this incident in my novel “Sing Soft, Sing Loud”.

    • Thanks for your comment and sharing your story. Wow, of all the research I did on Clifton’s, that’s the first I’d heard of something like that. No wonder you fled!

      • This was one of the downtown L.A. restaurants and I no longer remember which one. It had a fountain in the window – does that tell you which one, or did they both have fountains? I am thinking that perhaps the reason you never came across this is that the only people who would know about it would be the people who asked for food, and they are not likely to have been in a position to write reviews of the place😎. I was only 16 and scared out of my wits, so this experience was pretty nightmarish for me. I was only beginning to find out how hard the world can be.

  3. Barbara says:

    I so wish these establishments would return. It just felt right in those days when they existed.

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