It has the distinction of having been the world’s largest restaurant. A crown jewel in the cafeteria culture. A place at the centre of a community; a place where everybody could meet, a place that fueled artistic passions. Where everyone from Jack Kerouac to Ray Bradbury ate. A place steeped in revolution, built on the goodness of people. This is the story of Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, Los Angeles.
Clifford and Nelda Clinton opened their first restaurant in 1931, on the site of a run-down Boos Brothers cafeteria at 618 Olive Street, naming it Clifton’s by combining Clifford’s two names. “It was during the height of the Great Depression when we came to Los Angeles from Berkeley,” explains Don Clinton, Clifford Clinton’s son.
“My dad had grown up in San Francisco, working with his father in the Clinton Cafeteria. He sold his interest to his brother-in-law and cousin, and moved south because his ideas were a little more liberal, exotic — progressive even. Dad wanted to feed people even though they couldn’t afford it. If they were hungry, they’d be welcome just the same.” In the thick of the Depression, Clifford Clinton built his restaurant as a place of refuge for those unable to afford a hot meal (one of the neon signs out front read “PAY WHAT YOU WISH”). Soon after the first Clifton’s opened, customers began referring to it as the “Cafeteria of the Golden Rule.”
Having grown up in a family of strong Christian faith, Clinton was taken on family missionary trips to China, and was profoundly affected by the poverty he witnessed. “As a boy, my dad spent time in China on two different trips with his parents,” Don says. “The last trip was when he was 10 or 11 years old, and he saw so much starvation — mothers trying to feed their children by giving them roots or mud to fill them up. Dad was so impressed that he vowed if he were able, he would feed people who were hungry. That was his motivation, the feeling that we were put on Earth to do something good for others, and he carried that theme pretty much throughout his life.”
A recent view of the Brookdale interior, including a neon cross on the roof of its small chapel. Photo courtesy Jesse Monsour.
In an era when profit-oriented businesses often attempt to cast themselves as philanthropic ventures (see the conceit of certain internet entrepreneurs, or delusional luxury retailers like Restoration Hardware), Clifton’s original mission comes as a breath of fresh air. At the Clintons’ second restaurant, the Penny Caveteria — named for its basement-level locale — meals cost only one cent. They were free if you used one of Clifton’s redeemable tickets, which were frequently given out to the homeless.
Long before the Civil Rights movement allowed black Americans to freely patronize white-run establishments, Clifton’s restaurants were integrated. In response to a complaint about his progressive policy, Clinton wrote in his weekly newsletter, “If colored skin is a passport to death for our liberties, then it is a passport to Clifton’s.” Regardless of income or skin color, Clinton wanted everyone who ate at his restaurants to be completely satisfied, so the phrase “Dine free unless delighted” was printed on every check. Though many patrons ate for free, enough customers gave significantly more than they were asked to keep the business afloat.
A brochure from the Clifton’s chain in 1959 highlights the company’s signature ethos.
“The Clintons were true missionaries, in that they wanted to show by deed and example, and did a fantastic job with it,” says Meieran. “They offered self-improvement classes; they provided a barber and ways to clean up if you couldn’t afford them yourself. It was all about the community and providing help, as opposed to just making money. That was never the goal.” Working with local doctors and pharmacists, the company created a fully paid medical plan for its staff. After surgery or a hospital stay, recuperation was provided in the sprawling Clinton family home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of L.A.
Eventually, one of the Caveteria’s regular patrons offered Clinton the chance to open a location in his building at 648 South Broadway. In 1935, this spot would become the Brookdale, the largest cafeteria in the world. Only a few years after opening the Brookdale, the Clintons redesigned the space as a lavish distraction from the country’s financial hardships, with an over-the-top themed environment that made it one of L.A.’s new hotspots.
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