Opened in 1935, it's said that the over-the-top decor at Clifton's Cafeteria inspired Walt Disney to create his theme park. These days, however, the proud-but-sagging local legend has become the Strangest Place on Earth -- or at least in Southern California -- to fill your stomach. Word on the street is it might not be around much longer -- yet another trendy downtown bar may be replacing it -- so I had to check it out while I still could!

Established in the depths of America's Great Depression, Clifton's do-gooder founders took a big gamble by instituting a "pay what you wish" policy (which still stands), making their cafeteria a refuge for millions of penniless and hungry customers over the years. It's also quite literally designed to be a refuge from the urban bustle right outside its doors: its elaborate redwood forest theme, complete with foliage, indoor waterfalls, taxidermied forest animals and countless other strange touches make it simultaneously calming and unsettling; imagine the Rainforest Cafe with decor and a menu that haven't changed in 70 years, populated mainly by homeless people slowly nursing cups of thin coffee. (If that sounds like a bizarre juxtaposition, it certainly is. And that's why I love it!)

Jack Kerouac probably ate at Clifton's, if this passage from On the Road is any indicator:

"Terry and I ate in a cafeteria downtown which was decorated to look like a grotto, with metal tits spurting everywhere and great impersonal stone buttockses belonging to deities and soapy Neptune. People ate lugubrious meals around the waterfalls, their faces green with marine sorrow."

This may also refer to a long-gone sister branch of Clifton's called the South Seas, which sadly became a parking lot in 1960.

Here's what Clifton's looked like in its heyday (long before the Beats deigned to eat here), when instead of Muzak over loudspeakers, the owners had trained singing canaries in the trees. (The health department eventually but the kibosh on that.)

A wooden stag keeps watch over the first-floor dining room, the furniture in which, you'll notice, is still identical to that in the photo above.

In the 1950s, Clifton's played host to meetings of the influential LA Science Fiction Society, frequently attended by luminaries like writer Ray Bradbury and movie monster-maker Ray Harryhausen.

Diners try to ignore the looming, pink moose-head:

It's also worth noting the strangeness of the surrounding neighborhood: Clifton's is smack in the middle of downtown LA's "historic core," at 7th and Broadway, which is a dingily grand collection of beautiful old buildings and silent-era movie palaces long ago converted to flophouses, discount electronics shops and Spanish-language churches. Hawkers of every sort sell the randomest things on the street outside (a woman twice approached me selling miniature guitars), and it's worth noting that it was in front of Clifton's that I had my strangest-ever encounter with a homeless man: while two police officers looked on bemusedly, a filthy guy in a sombrero cackled madly and danced, pointing to a bowl on the street full of coins. He wore matching dirty grey track pants and a gray sweatshirt that read, in bold college-style letters, "DARK SIDE."

Detail of the moose:

The place is absolutely enormous; in fact, with 600 seats, it's the largest restaurant in Los Angeles. Back-lit scenes from nature are everywhere:

My friend Brooke contemplates the waterfall:

Oh yeah -- the food. (Almost forgot.) There's so much of it, it's nearly as overwhelming as the restaurant itself -- but aside from a huge selection of pies and Jell-os, it reminds one of the taste and consistency of elementary school cafeteria food -- except you never had this much choice in your life.


Apologies for the blur, but this motorized raccoon moves quick, bouncing in and out of his hole with a fish skeleton in hand:

chapel2.jpgThe strangest touch of all, however, is a little grotto on the second floor, with a neon cross on top. Inside is a cramped viewing booth, where you sit peering into a little diorama-style forest scene. At the push of a button, you hear a 50s-era narrator read "The Parable of the Redwood." An uncannier dining experience, I cannot imagine.

For more, check out this NPR feature on Clifton's from a couple of years ago.