Ten things you need to know about the new Clifton’s cafeteria

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Clifton cafeteria

As you know if you’ve been anywhere near Broadway and 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles today, or been on Instagram any time in the last few weeks, Clifton’s cafeteria finally opened this morning. This is not your normal restaurant opening, just as Clifton’s is not your normal cafeteria.

At 5 minutes past 11 a.m., a line of about 50 people stretched down Broadway as visitors waited to get a look inside the new Clifton’s and fill a tray.

At its peak, the cafeteria, which was opened in 1935 by Clifford Clinton, served 15,000 diners a day. Developer Andrew Meieran bought the cafeteria in 2010 and spent the next five years — and $10 million — renovating it. He hired chef Jason Fullilove, who will oversee the 10,000-square-foot, fifth-floor kitchen, which has a cooking staff of 50.

Here are 10 things to consider before you head downtown to grab that cafeteria tray.

Clifton cafeteria

1. The lines, of course, were insane  this morning, but that’s to be expected on opening day. For the last few years, the space has been hidden behind black wooden barricades, workers going in and out, while Meieran brought in, among many other things, a giant faux redwood — assembled in pieces in San Diego, it took over a year to build — and a whole taxidermied army of forest animals.

Clifton cafeteria
Cherry Jell-O with cheesecake on the bottom is available for 35 cents for the first 35 days of Clifton’s cafeteria reopening on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

2. There is Jell-O, in many colors– in little jam cups, on top of cheesecake, plain on plates. (All Jell-O is 35 cents for the next 35 days.) For when you want a truly throwback dessert.

Clifton cafeteria
A fake giant redwood tree is on display inside the monarch bar at Clifton’s cafeteria, (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

3. There are trees, both painted on the walls and actual foliage, in addition to the giant faux redwood that fills the center of the restaurant and rises through all five floors of it. If you’ve been stuck in DTLA and missing the high Sierras or the north woods, you can take your tray of pie and coffee and sit down near the stuffed grizzly on the second floor. That enormous fake redwood not only has a fireplace in the bottom, but has various secret passageways through which performers and aerialists will be able to climb during the evening performances.

4. It’s not as cheap as you’d probably want, especially from a cafeteria. Dishes are priced from 35 cents to $14. The place was known for its Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings; in the “new” Clifton’s, you can get a turkey or chicken dinner, a plate of roast beef or a nicely old-school meal of corned beef and cabbage.

5. There’s a full bar with a limited drinks list and plenty of beer on tap. One of the drinks is called Field of Gold, and involves blended whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg whites and absinthe. There’s a $6 tiki bear mug. And on the third floor there’s another bar, which will be open in the evenings. And yes, you can bring your tray of macaroni and cheese and freshly carved turkey to the bar and eat while you sip a martini.

Clifton cafeteria

6. Big Mike is there. Once you finally get inside, you will likely hear the marvelous baritone of a 65-year-old, beautifully dressed man who is  wearing a hat and is seated near the front entrance, singing. This is Big Mike, and he used to work security, he told us this morning. Back in the day, Big Mike would work the night shift, and then come to Clifton’s for breakfast. He sings at car shows, and now that Clifton’s has reopened, he’ll be there most days.

7. Water — remember that? That sound you hear, through the noise of the crowds and the music in the background, is water. There’s an actual waterfall adjacent to the stairs to the second floor.

Clifton cafeteria 4

8. A 250-pound meteorite is perched on a Gothic-style bar that is fashioned out of a century-old church altar from Boston. It fell to Earth in Venezuela and is part of the owner’s vast collection of stuff, which is I guess is reason enough to install it near your bartender.

Clifton cafeteria 8

9. Explore your surroundings after you eat, not before. When you walk in, you’ll be tempted to walk straight upstairs and investigate. What’s in that room in the back? How big is that buffalo? Is that a bear above my head? While tempting, it can wait until after you’ve filled your tray with pizza, roast beef and a Waldorf salad. The view from the third floor can wait, but that last piece of lemon meringue pie won’t wait for anyone.

Clifton cafeteria

10. The ghost of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury spent decades at Clifton’s, when he was broke and when he was not, holding court in a booth on the third floor. His corner booth has been lovingly restored, and his family is donating various Bradbury paraphernalia to the restaurant, so that it can fill the wooden shelves above his table.