Cafeterias

I miss cafeterias. There isn’t an honest-to-goodness old fashioned cafeteria within hundreds of miles of my house. We’ve got plenty of buffets, sure, and they offer choices, but all-you-can-eat isn’t the point. Automats are fun but they don’t come close to the cafeteria experience. Putting in your money and watching food come out of a slot is a novelty, but it can’t duplicate a cafeteria’s piping hot steam tables or the beds of crushed ice with tiny dishes set inside like jewels.

In the 1950’s, on visits from our home in the Deep South to our Glendale, California grandmother’s house, my brother and I begged to go to Clifton’s Cafeteria. At the Pacific Seas on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, with Gramma in the lead, we’d dash to find a seat near a waterfall.


Entrance to Clifton’s Pacific Seas, (sadly, now extinct) which also featured a giant waterfall built into the facade.



Clifton’s Pacific Seas interior featured Tiki huts and tropical sound effects. On the way out, we kids chose a toy from the Treasure Chest.

At a cafeteria you go down the line and put together your own version of the best meal you can imagine. One day you crave macaroni and cheese but you’d like a little something else on the side. Or you have a hankering for cornbread and everything else is selected in terms of how well it complements the bread. In a cafeteria, we didn’t need to explain our choices to anyone.

We learned how many kinds of puddings there are, and marveled at all the ways Jell-O can be served. In fact, the smaller than home-size dishes were part of the charm. You could go back for more, but most of the time we didn’t. A cafeteria reinforces the eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach urge. We filled our trays with an armada of tiny bowls and plates, lined them up in front of us and whatever we didn’t finish, someone else at the table always did.


Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, still in business on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. It’s called the largest public restaurant in Southern California, seating 600 at once. Still, it feels cozy inside – like the lodge in the redwoods it was created to emulate.

“Big” doesn’t begin to describe the inside of a Clifton’s. Inside the Brookdale, for instance, there are several levels for dining and a small chapel that’ll play you a recorded blessing before you leave.
Jell-O dominates the dessert table at Clifton's in downtown Los Angeles.
Jell-O at Clifton’s. Let me count the ways.

What this country needs is more cafeterias, but if that way of dining isn’t coming back, perhaps we can compromise on a tasty alternative. We could make a new rule that every town must have a small cafe or diner every few blocks. Affordable. Nothing deliberately retro-chic, just real food at real prices so it could serve a diverse clientele. And every one of these places should be required to offer a blue plate special every day, with a choice of Jell-O flavors and at least three kinds of pudding, with mandatory Tapioca. 

© By Anita Garner 2008

4 thoughts on “Cafeterias”

  1. That’s a wonderful tribute to another piece of Americana that is left to memory. Great pictures, too.

  2. Geez, I’d forgotten Clifton’s Cafeteria. Actually, I shouldn’t have because that place used to be one of the many sponsors on various Los Angeles kid’s TV programs back in the early days of southland television. Matter of fact, I think Sheriff John used to be spotted there along with “Chucko The Birthday Clown” and Skipper Frank during the Tuesday night specials.

    Meanwhile, with all this L.A. nostalgia in the air — does anyone know whatever happened to … Vic Tanny? If memory serves — he was Jack LaLaine before Jack LaLaine was … Jack.

    Morg

  3. Morg, you’ve got me going now. I’d forgotten that Clifton’s sponsored kids’ shows. Of course, that might have contributed to our wanting to go there during every California visit. Ah, yes, Vic Tanny. I wonder if Google can help?

  4. FYI update:

    For those of us who grew up in southern California during the early ’50s and beyond — I have a quick update on Vic Tanny.

    Tanny was the Jack LaLaine of southland physical fitness before fitness became … hip. He had a large chain of tricked out and friendly to the average citizen workout clubs and ran lots of television commercials during his reign as “muscle king”. Unfortunately, due to some bad business moves, ended up selling-off most of his units. A few of his gyms still operate today under the Vic Tanny name – but are owned and operated by some other outfit.

    Vic passed away in 1985 at the age of (I think) 73.

    Meanwhile, Tanny’s competitor in the fitness field, Jack LaLaine, is pushin’ near 100, and currently pitching an infomercial line of fruit and vegetable juicers.

    We should all live so long.

    Thanks for the vine, Nita.

    Morg

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