Clifton's cafeteria is an amazing place to eat. Built to represent the Golden State's redwood forests, its interior decor includes granite cliffs and boulders, babbling brooks, walls that resemble tree trunks, and stunning (if faded) murals of forest scenes. The food line is immense, with choices that include fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits, oxtail stew, turkey and dressing, side dishes ranging from whipped or fried potatoes to "cranberry jewel gelatin," and cheerfully corny desserts such as fruit cocktail torte and strawberry pie. For those with fond memories of school lunch, Clifton's also offers grilled cheese sandwiches cooked crisp and pressed flat as a pancake.
We like Clifton's plenty, but dining here is bittersweet. Charming as it is, its surroundings stink. When it opened in 1935, Broadway was a fashionable thoroughfare and California was the Golden State, full of promise. Today the street is a disaster and an intimidating place to walk, especially at night. Once you arrive at Clifton's, though, you can feel the magic that used to be, especially if you gaze down at the sidewalk below the restaurant's marquee. Here, a magnificent tile mosaic in a sunburst pattern shows the many scenic wonders that once made Southern California such an alluring place: the Rose Bowl, the Hollywood Bowl, the oil fields, the deserts, the missions, City Hall, the movie studios, and Catalina Island. To walk across this magic picture and enter the redwood forest dining room, then tuck into a tray of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy, with millionaire pie for dessert (mounded with whipped cream, crushed pineapple, and pecans), is to go back in time to an optimistic city where the world seemed honest and new at every meal.