Vanishing America

February 1, 2011

Just had breakfast at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.  With its timbered walls, waterfalls and stuffed fauna, Brookdale was a magical little bit of forest in the middle of the city when it was built in the thirties.  Its founder, Clifford Clinton, was a man who believed in the golden rule, fed people decent homemade food at fair prices, and whose motto was “Pay what you wish.  Pay nothing if not delighted.”  He went on to become, briefly, the mayor of the city.

Today this wonderful old place looks weirdly, kitchily old-fashioned. It is filled with mostly older people who come because the food is still hand-made and decent and the prices are still fair.  Early in the morning wizened old women slide their trays through the cafeteria line, helping themselves to enormous dishes of chicken livers (I suspect this is the most protein for the least money), and big bowls of cream of wheat with raisins and brown sugar. 

The women behind the counter are all kind, and they cook the eggs and pancakes with care.  “You want bacon with that?  No toast?”  And even this early in the day there is a lively business in lunch to go, as enormous men walk off with bulging sacks of food.

As I sat eating my eggs and drinking my coffee (“you want cream in that?”) I listened to three old men arguing politics at the next table. It was an erudite conversation – I had the feeling it has been going on for years – that ranged through the Middle East, to Asia and then settled back at home.  At points it veered into German, at others it settled back into disgruntled English.

It felt comfortable in that room, despite the sign that warned that tables could be occupied for only 45 minutes, and it made me sad to think of all the people who were grabbing something to go at a drive-up window and gobbling it down in their cars. Even in the middle of downtown Los Angeles – which is a fairly sad place early in the morning – this was a restaurant that has true nourishment on offer. Looking around I wondered how long it will last?  It seems like a quickly vanishing part of the American landscape.

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  • Julia says:

    I love Clifton’s and also hope it stays around. I’ve introduced many people to it and hope they have done the same. Thanks for writing about it!

  • jai says:

    I have fond childhood memories of family dinners at Clifton’s. Best part, then, was not good food but choosing from the treasure chest at the end of the meal. Reading this post brought a smile to my face. Thanks.

  • Kirbyfreeman says:

    Ruth, always a pleasure to read about your meals. Love how you can evoke a place. Tell us more. 🙂

  • Lyra_k says:

    Nice piece. Don’t know if you saw that Clifton’s was purchased this fall by the owner of the hip Edison restaurant. A refurb is expected, but it will maintain the kitsch. Likely, thought, the clientele will drop in age.

  • Mattatouille says:

    lovely piece Ruth. I really must go to Clifton’s before it closes. one of these mornings.

  • OMG I miss L.A. As it used to be. Thanks for this wonderful moment.

  • Martibk says:

    I don’t know….I have to ask if it’s just disappeared off the radar of big city folk. The kind of place you are describing seems familiar to me. Although I live in Spain, until recently I called Birmingham, Alabama home, and of this type of place is common. I grant that it’s falling out of mode with younger so-called foodies…but at least in the South we’re holding down the mom and pop meat and three category.

  • Cindy says:

    Yes, they were purchased from the Edison group, so they are not technically closing, but I imagine it will be a lot different. Even if they do retain a lot of its kitsch, I think it will alter its overall appearance and vibe. I grew up going here and have fond, fond memories of comig here with my sisters and mom after church on Sundays and eating ham, mashed potatoes and then finishing up with green jell-o topped with whip cream. An amazing place that I hope I can take my kids too one day!

  • I have been meaning to visit this place for years – thanks for the reminder I need to go ASAP!

  • I worked downtown near Clifton’s in the ’80’s. If I needed a food-hug, I would head over for what I called “grandmother oatmeal”. It sat bubbling in the pot, becoming creamier and more comforting as the morning went on. It felt like someone made it just for me.
    As for the chicken livers, I would develop a craving for them “once a month” when I felt a little low energy. I was sure that the iron in the liver was perfect thing to recharge me. It always worked, but maybe it was just getting taken care of by the kindly aproned servers.

  • Susan says:

    As always, love your writing, love your style of writing. You have a wonderful way of describing in just the right way, the people, places and things. Just now reading “Garlic and Sapphires” and made your Last Minute Chocolate Cake…amazing!

  • marieFavre says:

    You describe so perfectly yours sensations!what a pleasure for me to read you…and tadste your recipts
    Marie Favre

  • Hayleypyne says:

    You’re writing style is superb. Like some others, i too, read ‘Garlic and Saphhires’, which is my favourite book of all time. The piece above brought back memories of our time at Westaway diner in NYC, I’m a native to Australia but NYC is a special place. – well worth a visit

  • Dear Ruth,
    I’ve left plenty of comments on your blog, because I am a LOYAL fan, but I’ve never left a link before.
    Today, on my blog, I wrote a little review of one of your books that I just finished reading.
    I’d be honored if you’d drop by my blog, and read it.
    Here’s a link:

  • Susan LeVine says:

    Dear Ruth,
    About 7 years ago you were so kind to my daughter Kelly and me. We were visiting New York for her doctor’s appointment and you invited us to visit you at Gourmet Magazine and tour the test kitchen.
    It was a most memorable experience for me and especially for Kelly who has read every book that you have written at least twice! We now live in Santa Barbara and have tickets to your talk in March.
    I am married to Tom Shepherd, an organic farmer since 1973! I was destined to be surrounded by foodies! We would love to have a dinner for you at Tom’s farm. Are you available? It would be such an honor to connect with you again and share Tom’s amazing produce.
    I don’t know how else I should contact you but I thought that I would start with this post.
    Forever grateful!
    All my best,
    Susan LeVine

  • John Atchue says:

    Hi Ruth,
    From a long time fan and avid reader of your books, blog and the Gourmet column, let me say congratulations on being added to Top Chef Masters. I’m a huge fan of the Top Chef shows, and have long thought that you’d be a fantastic addition to the judging panel. Can’t wait to watch!!
    Best of luck,