CLIFTON’S CAFETERIA – A MENAGERIE OF DELIGHTS

Clifton's Cafeteria

How would I describe Clifton’s Cabinet of Curiosities in Downtown LA?  It’s a cafeteria, vintage bar, and kitschy “natural history museum” all rolled into one amazing multi-level building. It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of golden-age Los Angeles charm. Now, I’m happy to report that it’s an amazing Swing dance venue as well!

History

Clifford Clinton opened Clifton’s Cafeteria on 648 S.Broadway in 1935. It’s the oldest surviving cafeteria-style restaurant in Los Angeles. Established during the height of the Great Depression, Clifford Clinton had his restaurant serve millions of meals for free to needy patrons, as well as to paying ones.

In 1938, Clinton re-decorated the facility, using the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains as inspiration.  He added waterfalls, murals, and trees to create the atmosphere.

Clifton’s reached the height of its popularity during the 1940’s when there were lines out the door to get in.

In 1946, Clinton sold his cafeteria to his children and retired.

In 2010, Andrew Meieran, owner of the amazing Edison nightclub, purchased Clifton’s with plans to restore it to its former glory. He removed the hideous aluminum facade that was added in 1963. Known for being a perfectionist when it came to design, he finally opened the restaurant in October 2015.

The Venue

Clifton’s has four publicly-accessible levels (basement plus three floors; the fourth is closed to the public), with the signature fireplace-tree as the centerpiece on the second floor, extending up through the third floor.
The Tree at Clifton's

The cafeteria is in the back of the first floor. They serve traditional cafeteria comfort food.
The Cafeteria at Clifton's
Last time I went for dinner, I had turkey, stuffing, gravy, and some outstanding home-made cranberry sauce. Everything else was good too, but it was still basically cafeteria food. It’s also rather pricey for what it is, especially if you get side dishes. Some of the other items like sandwiches are more reasonably-priced. Some items are huge – like the turkey dinner, while some items, like the fried chicken which only came with two pieces of chicken, left my friends still hungry. The desserts are supposed to be good, but I was too stuffed to try any. In any case, it’s all worth it for the atmosphere!!

The second floor features additional dining space, a small stream, the famous fireplace/tree centerpiece, and a vintage bar.
Clifton's Second Floor

The third floor features the “Gothic Bar” on one end, and a huge 1930’s-era dining room (the Brookdale Ballroom) where the live performances happen on the other. In between is a vintage lounge area.

Third Floor at Clifton's

Walking around, you’ll immediately notice that Clifton’s is populated by a menagerie of taxidermied animals – actual animals that were stuffed.
The Lion at Clifton's

What do stuffed animals have to do with a cafeteria? I have no idea but I love it.

Taxidermy at Clifton's

In short, Meiran has preserved both the classy and kitschy aspects of Clifton’s to create a charming forest oasis in the heart of the downtown L.A.’s Broadway district.

The Dancing

I got upstairs to the Brookdale Ballroom about half a song into the first set to see a sparse dance floor with only two or three couples dancing and more leaders than follows. It was looking like a “bring-your-own-partner” night at this point.  But, I was later proven wrong.
Swing Dancing at Clifton's

As the evening progressed, many more people showed up.  And, the lead/follow ratio flipped big time (so follows, get there early if you want to dance a lot).

By the second set, the dance floor was absolutely packed with dancers of all skill levels, from dance instructors down to flailing 20-somethings just having a good time. Many Swing regulars who go to Joe’s Bar showed up alone and had no problem finding people to dance with!
A Packed Dance Floor at Clifton's
At times, it reminded me of the Derby – and I mean that in a good way: a real nightclub with amazing ambiance packed with dancers and non-dancers both having a great time to fantastic live music.

I can’t guarantee that Clifton’s will always have this many dancers on every Swing night; the Feetwarmers are definitely one of the most popular bands.  But, I do say that Clifton’s is a legit Swing dance venue, among many other things!  So, if you haven’t been there yet, I highly recommend checking it out!

Logistics

Clifton’s does not charge cover, so please buy food or drinks when you go. Let’s not screw this up and have them kick out the Swing dancers (like so many other venues have) because we don’t buy anything! (Personally, I would prefer if they charged cover to get into the ballroom area so you didn’t have to buy drinks, but that probably won’t happen).

There are several parking garages and lots in the area. The closest one is a converted old office building across the street above the Burlington Coat Factory.  Cost is $16. There are cheaper options around.

The bands don’t usually start until 10PM, with most dancers arriving well after that. They set up a wooden dance floor, about 12 by 12 feet square, on nights with Swing bands.

If you want an awesome dance-filled evening, go to the Lindy Loft first for their monthly Friday night dance, then walk on over to Clifton’s! You’ll be a happy dancer.

CLIFTON’S CAFETERIA – A MENAGERIE OF DELIGHTS SUMMARY
When: Certain Fridays and Saturdays - check the SwingDance.LA calendar
Cost: No cover but please please please buy something!!!!
Crowd: Lots of non-dancers with a core group of Swing regulars from the likes of Joe's Bar. 21+ if you go at night.
Dress: Evening dance attire - no dress code, but dancers are always dressed well at this! Note, they won't let you in if you have a backpack or shoe bag!
Website: www.cliftonsla.com
Facebook: Clifton's Republic Facebook Page
648 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014
  • Ann Le Yonce

    Thank you for is thorough review and all the great insider tips. The California Feet Warmers will be performing her on Friday, Dec. 16th… And while it’s a bit of a drive from Orange County, made the decision to go check them out at Cliftons a no brainier. I’m new to the swing dancing scene and all the information you share on this sight is such a HUGE help to newbies like me… A big THANK YOU to you.

    • Hi Ann,

      Thank you for your comments. I’m so glad my site is helpful to you.

      AND, thank you for the head’s up about the Feetwarmers at Clifton’s. It’s so hard to get a band schedule from them. I’ll probably be there!

      Best,
      Brian

      • Ann Le Yonce

        Hey Brian,

        You’re welcome. The only reason I found out was because I private messaged The California Feet Warmers directly. They’re supposed to be on from 10pm-12:30ish am.

        Also, here’s another heads up… The Atomic ballroom in Irvine is having their normal Friday night swing dance on FRIDAY December 30th, AND a completely separate New Years Eve Party on SATURDAY Dec. 31st… (Both events are for all ages since there’s not alcohol served).

        I think you currently have it listed on your site that their New Years Eve Party is on Friday… Which it is NOT.

        Also, let’s make sure to meet up at Cliftons on Dec. 16th… I may be going solo that night if I can’t find anyone else who wants to make the drive with me from the OC.

        • Hi Ann,

          Again, thanks for the info about Atomic! I’ll add that event to my article.

          If you want to do a double-header, you might want to consider going to Lindy Loft first at 9PM, then walking over to Clifton’s later, just two blocks away. That’s what I’m going to do with some friends.

          Yes, see you at Clifton’s on the 16th in any case!

          Best,
          Brian

        • Ann Le Yonce

          Lindy Loft before Cliftons was EXACTLY what I was hoping to do. Only when I looked up Lindy Loft’s Event calendar, it didn’t look like they had swing dancing scheduled for Friday, Dec. 16th… So I’m SO glad you’re telling me this.

          I was really hoping to get more dancing in, and have been wanting to check out Lindy Loft… So this accomplishes both!

          By the way, do you happen to have any parking tips? I’m not super familiar with the area.

        • I’m going to park at the garage across from Clifton’s, then walk over to Lindy Loft.

        • Ann Le Yonce

          Hey Brian,

          I just contacted Lindy Loft and they won’t have another Swing Dancing Event until Jan. 13… Which means there will be no swing dancing there on Friday, Dec 16th…😔 I just thought you might want to know.

        • Hi Ann,

          Yes, Lindy Loft is only once a month. Or did you mean Clifton’s?

          Thanks!
          Brian

        • Ann Le Yonce

          I mentioned it to you only because you recommended heading to Lindy loft and dancing there from 9-10pm before heading to Cliftons from 10-12… (In our previous conversation).

        • Ah, sorry, I was thinking of this last Friday when I said that.

          Brian

  • Kay Hwangbo

    Great review, Brian! Thank you. Now I know what to expect when I go there. Kay

    • Hope you like it Kay!

      Brian

  • Joe DeAmicis

    Thanks for the review Brian! I haven’t been there yet but have been wondering what all the excitement was about around its re-opening. A big THANKS for doing what you do. You are a gift to our community and the absolute Go-To for info. Joe D

    • Thanks so much for your kind words Joe! I’m glad my site is useful to you!

      Brian