Island Destination: 5th Floor, Clifton’s Cafeteria. Downtown Los Angeles, 7th and Broadway.
What 100 year old 5-story historic building doesn’t have secret passageways? We were led up, up & away through a corridor to a mysterious mirrored wall. Where was the entrance we wondered? Pushing open the mirrored wall led us to another climb up a dimly lit stairwell, and finally, there it emerged: the new owner Andrew Meirian’s love letter to the lost Clifton’s Pacific Seas.
The entire top floor is an extravaganza of meticulously crafted artifacts (some gathered from the legendary Bahooka bar in Rosemead, CA), hand painted South Pacific island themed murals, one of a kind crafted bamboo seating areas and performance stage, scents of coconut, and a soundtrack of rain playing softly in the background were just some of the sights and sounds of the evening.
Was I still smack dab in the center of L.A.? No, not in that moment, for it felt as if we sailed away into another land distant from the hubbub of the city, and for those few hours we dined and drank and took in all the island delights.
Now that you know about the “new” tiki bar version of the Pacific Seas, I feel compelled to take you way back in time to its fanciful origins. After all, this is where my mother Vilma spent her youth working and playing beneath the palm trees, waterfalls and gardens that were once here in old vintage Los Angeles.
In the 1930’s, the visionary Mr. Clifford Clinton originally started out with TWO founding cafeterias in downtown Los Angeles.
- Clifton’s Brookdale, a Redwood Lodge theme on 7th and Broadway. So named after the real Brookdale Lodge nestled in the redwood forests of Northern California.
- Clifton’s Pacific Seas, a South Pacific island theme on 6th and Olive. (torn down around 1960 for a parking lot)
Who was Clifford Clinton?
To understand the ‘why’ of Clifton’s Cafeteria, we have to understand the ‘who’ of Clifford Clinton. You see, Mr. Clinton was a Christian missionary who had traveled extensively throughout the world in service to the poor. Out of all of his travels, two remarkable places transfixed his thoughts: The redwood forests in Northern California and the islands of the South Pacific.
The majestic splendor of these areas of the world were not only physical, but spiritual too. Being God’s creation, he regarded them as natural Cathedrals built by the Master’s hand. Yet for all of its beauty, they are mere glimpses of heaven on earth.
In the midst of the Depression Era Clinton envisioned creating an atmosphere that could bring this glimpse of heaven to the masses. It would be a place which could be a respite for everyone, and he was determined by a will not of his own to incorporate his missionary spirit of charity. Indeed, everyone was welcome too! Rich, poor, homeless and the hopeless. There was signage “Pay What You Wish” emblazoned on the front entrance. If you could not afford to pay, well that was A-OK.
From its inception, Clifton’s Cafeteria’s became one of the most hotly visited tourist destinations in the world, at the height of its popularity it was serving up to 15,000 meals per day. It was said that if you came to Los Angeles and didn’t pay a visit to Clifton’s, it was on par with visiting Egypt and not seeing the Great Pyramids! It was THAT popular.
Sail away to the Pacific Seas as she stood so many moons ago:
Let's begin with the outside façade: Mr. Clinton took over an existing cafeteria on 6th and Olive and transformed the outside into an over the top paradise wonderland. The entire front wall was lavishly draped in tropical foliage, and the centerpiece? A REAL giant sized running waterfall right down the middle, for the time there was nothing like it in the world! As a Christian, perhaps it was his attempt at capturing the essence of the Garden of Eden.
And the neon, oh yes, the glorious neon! During the earliest decades neon was used practically everywhere. Neon signage beckoned you into movie palaces that graced downtown's Broadway district, to Hollywood's elegant supper clubs, to your local classic diner's and drive-in car hops. Clifton’s was no different, their name was immortalized in neon out front, and on the inside the neon did not disappoint. There were swaying neon palm trees and tropical flowers at every turn, along with rain huts, hourly thunderstorms and bamboo as far as the eye can see! Mist shrouded flower grottos and rock waterfalls created balmy air for a full sensory experience.
Photos from one of Clifton's souvenir photo books in my collection feature the Main Dining Room, Polynesian Dining Hut and the Aloha Entertainment Platform. As we can see, no wall was left uncovered! Talented artisans painted South Pacific themed murals on every square inch, (plain white walls be banished!) and no detail was spared when it came to creating an atmosphere to wrap you in paradise.
And Clifton's would not be complete without the spiritual aspect of Christ in the Meditation Garden. Entering into the basement level was another world unto its own, a transcendent retreat tucked away from the hustle & bustle of the burgeoning city just outside its enclave. Clifton's Pacific Seas featured an entire walk-about into the Garden of Gethsemane to contemplate your life in peaceful solitude, as a recorded poem called "The Influence of One Life" softly played in the background.
The spirit of Clifton's exuded a sense of community too. From it's complimentary group meeting rooms, courtesy sightseeing tours of the city, to its free birthday cakes for the kiddos and exchange boards (a place for folks to offer services, wants and needs). And let's not forget the wise personal advice from "Mrs. Von"! Located in her very own personalized Tiki hut, she dispensed advice like a pre-curser to a "Dear Abbey" character. Judging by the photo, you may think this is slightly reminiscent of a preist's "confessional" room, a blinged out bamboo/rattan-laden version no less!
Naturally, there were camera girls dolled up in island attire to take your photograph in beautiful surroundings while you dine!
Well, not in Vilma's world! "Would you like a picture with a pretty girl"? Vilma, with that single tagline, made herself the "star" of your souvenir photo and thus began her savvy business woman career as a camera girl. A fiercely independent girl at only 20 years old, she was able to earn a living, buy her own car and move into her own apartment. A major feat for any girl in 1954! And here are the photos to show how she worked her charm!
The "uniform's" consisted of various island themed dresses and full length skirts, proving that modesty is attractive and classy. These gals didn't have to show less skin in order to feel beautiful, how refreshing! Flowers in the hair and the obligatory Hawaiian lei were part of the island theme. The wide "corset style" belt was multifunctional too! Not only did it cinch the waist (ooh la la!) but it doubled as a place to hold their carry bag which contained their supplies (extra film, mailing envelopes, pencil & paper) while working the floor. Genius!
The original Clifton’s succeeded in providing food for the body and food for the soul. The true soul of Clifton’s was family, community and charity perfectly combined. (With free birthday cakes too!) One can only dream that Mrs. Von could still be around to give her wise tiki advice, or that we could watch performers hula their hearts out on the Aloha Entertainment Platform, or ascend down to the Garden for Meditation for renewal. And who wouldn’t want a picture with the alluring movie star-like camera girl named Vilma?
And sorry Mr. Clinton, I know you were a strict teetotaler…but I think we should all have a drink to that!