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!
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.
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 cafeteria is in the back of the first floor. They serve traditional cafeteria comfort food.
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.
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.
Walking around, you’ll immediately notice that Clifton’s is populated by a menagerie of taxidermied animals – actual animals that were stuffed.
What do stuffed animals have to do with a cafeteria? I have no idea but I love it.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Clifton’s has started charging $10 cover on Friday and Saturday nights after 9PM. Or, you can get on the guest list with the bandleader 24 hours in advance for free entry (see the Clifton’s Irregular Regulars FB Page). Even with the cover, I think it’s a bargain to experience this amazing venue!
If you get in for free, please guy food and drinks! 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 (but hopefully with the cover more will come early). 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.