Prior to its closing in 2011, walking into Clifton's Cafeteria at Seventh and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles was like walking into a kitschy mountain lodge in a national park, with Redwood trees serving as columns, rocks and foliage bursting from the walls, stuffed and mounted animals, and a stream running through the dining room. September 21, 2015, Clifton's Cafeteria re-opened after four years of renovation. The city awaited with anticipation to see the changes made by new owner Andrew Meieran.
The re-opening of Clifton's Cafeteria offers Angelenos an opportunity to reflect on the importance of its founder and namesake: Clifford Clinton. This cafeteria owner left his mark on food, politics, and life in Los Angeles like few others. Names like Henry Huntington, Harrison Grey Otis, and William Mulholland come to mind when thinking of the traditional power brokers responsible for shaping L.A. But Clinton was different, because he was not seeking power, glory, or money. Rather, he was guided by resolute moral principles and an ardent desire to make L.A. a better place for everyone to live.
Clinton is most famous for his cafeterias. He opened his first in 1931. Later named Clifton's Pacific Seas, it featured jungle murals, artificial palm trees, a waterfall and a controlled rainfall every twenty minutes. The name "Clifton's" was made up of parts of his first and last name. Contrary to what they are now, cafeterias were extremely trendy in the 1930s. So much so, that Clifton opened a second cafeteria in 1935 called the Brookdale Cafeteria, which boasted a redwood forest-inspired interior, and was the largest cafeteria in the world.
But for Clinton, running a cafeteria was not just about profit margins. As the Depression deepened and Angelenos suffered, Clinton refused to turn away customers who could not afford a meal. He printed his business policy on the check received by each of his patrons:
"Regardless of the amount of this check, our cashier will cheerfully accept whatever you wish to pay - or you may dine free."
And this was during a time when more than fifty percent of American restaurants failed in their first year. This son of Salvation Army parents would not let Angelenos go hungry.
Clinton told his employees to make Clifton's guests, their guests. Clifton's policy of courtesy and service to customers of all races generated some customer complaints, as it was a time when most restaurants discouraged patronage by Blacks, Latinos and Asians. One such complaint, as well as Clinton's response, was published in a leaflet called "The Guests Voice," which was available at Clinton's restaurants.
The guest wrote:
"I have always liked Clifton's ... but yesterday, while having lunch two Negroes came and sat at my table ... After that, the food tasted like sawdust ... I like the Negro people ... but I refuse to eat or sleep with them ... I will hereafter go elsewhere where they do not have Negroes ..."
Clinton's response filled the rest of the page:
"Democracy brings many people together who may not enjoy close social contacts. It is for us to weigh the benefits of democracy against its alternative in which a majority class or "master" race could outlaw minorities. So far a few nations have chosen the undemocratic way of life. We are at war with those nations, and there is no discrimination as to the races among those who are offering their lives for our American rights and freedom. To promote peace, justice order and harmony, our laws and Constitution make it unlawful to discriminate. We are left with two choices. We can obey the letter and spirit of the law, which we believe also expresses the Christian solution of our problems, or we can violate the law and the Christian conscience of our Republic... Frankly we know of only one line of conduct consistent with our conscience and obligation as a citizen. It is our duty to serve all who enter our doors and conduct themselves within their legal rights. If the 'ruin' so often predicted is around the corner, then we prefer to be ruined doing business in accordance with our obligations as a citizen. This is our policy. We survive or perish according to which point of view has greatest appeal to the people. Somehow we have faith in the people."
Clinton's moral compass was not limited to the cafeteria business. In 1935, a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor asked him to inspect food operations at the L.A. County General Hospital. Clinton accepted the task and discovered significant waste and corruption and made recommendations to trim the hospital budget.
Publicly pointing out corruption had its drawbacks, especially in 1930s Los Angeles. During that time, corruption was the norm in the city. Gambling and prostitution establishments operated with impunity and often under the protection of the police. Bribery was a way of life. And the corruption extended all the way into the offices of the mayor, district attorney, and police chief.
After his inspection of the hospital, Clinton's own establishments suddenly started being visited by city health officials and cited for multiple violations. Being confronted with this type of pressure from a corrupt city hall, many restaurant owners would likely have backed down. But not Clinton, he doubled down and got himself appointed to the county grand jury. And once appointed, Clinton pushed the grand jury to investigate vice conditions in L.A. When he met resistance from other grand jury members who had ties to the mayor or the underworld, he started his own Citizen Independent Vice Investigating Committee, or CIVIC. CIVIC's investigation revealed hundreds of brothels and gambling houses, over a thousand bookie joints, and thousands of slot machines. When the Grand Jury refused to publish, or even accept the report, Clinton produced his own Minority Grand Jury Report. And it was scathing. The report alleged that the District Attorney, Sheriff and Chief of Police "work in complete harmony and never interfere with the activities of the important figures in the underworld."
Retaliation was swift. Clinton's real estate taxes were mysteriously increased. He was denied a permit for a new cafeteria. And "slip and fall" and "food poisoning" lawsuits started pouring in at Clinton's establishments. And then things started getting violent.
In October 1937, a bomb exploded in the basement of Clinton's home in Los Feliz. Luckily, no one was hurt. After the bombing, Clinton received a phone call saying that this little "puff puff" was just a warning of worse to come if he didn't "lay off."
A few months later, a bomb exploded in the car of an ex-cop named Harry Raymond who was doing his own investigation into corruption while also feeding information to Clinton. Amazingly, Raymond survived even though he suffered over a hundred shrapnel wounds. An LAPD Captain was implicated and later put on trial for the bombing. During the trial, it was revealed that, in addition to planting a bomb, the LAPD Captain was also running a secret spy squad that used wiretaps to gather information on the mayor's opponents and other prominent Angelenos. The LAPD Captain was convicted of the bombing and sentenced to 10 years in prison. But more importantly, the corruption and spying done by the LAPD was exposed to the public. After the mayor refused to fire the police chief, Clinton and his allies launched a successful recall effort and sacked the mayor. The new mayor, Fetcher Bowran, then pressured the chief of police as well as the entire police commission to resign. It had been three years since Clinton was asked to investigate corruption in the city's hospital. In that time, Clinton not only helped topple the mayor and police chief, but he also dealt a major blow to corruption and organized crime in L.A.
A World Citizen
But of course, Clinton's commitment to his conscience did not stop there. A month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Clinton, at the age of 41, enlisted in the army and said he would "do anything" to serve his nation. He served as a private and rose to first lieutenant as a mess officer. After the war, Clinton ran for Mayor of Los Angeles, coming in second in a field of fifteen candidates.
Clinton next set his sights on world hunger. He asked Caltech biochemist Dr. Henry Borsook, to develop a food supplement that would provide proper nutritional values while costing no more than five cents per meal. Clinton offered his own money to finance the research. This led to the development of Multi-Purpose Food (MPF), a high-protein food supplement that could be made for just three cents per meal. Clinton then created Meals for Millions, a not-for-profit organization, which would go on to provide millions of MPF meals to people in over 60 countries around the world.
Clinton died in 1969 at the age of 69. Clinton served the City of Los Angeles in so many ways -- as a colorful restaurateur, a political reformer, mayoral candidate, and the founder of Meals for Millions. But Clinton considered this service part of his debt to the city. He said: "Los Angeles has given me all that I have and I am obligated to give Los Angeles everything that is in me."
As we enjoy the re-opening of one of Clinton's gifts to the city, let us take a moment to remember the man whose commitment to his conscience made Los Angeles a better city for us all.
The Clifford E. Clinton Papers, 1934-1969, UCLA: Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.
Los Angeles County Grand Jury Summary Minority Reports - Also - CIVIC Committee's Purpose, Plans, Organization, 1937.
John Buntin. L.A. Noir (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), 70-78.
John Anson Ford. Honest Politics My Theme - The Story of a Veteran Public Official's Troubles and Triumphs (New York: Vantage Press, 1978), 86-90.
James Hugh Richardson. For the Life of Me - Memoirs of a City Editor (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1954), 219-223.
Tom Sitton. Los Angeles Transformed - Fletcher Bowron's Urban Reform Revival, 1938-1953 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 15-24.
Kevin Starr. The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 165-170.
Matt Weinstock. My L.A. (New York: Current Books, Inc., 1947), 56-58.