LOS ANGELES -- American cafeterias enjoyed their golden age in the 1920s and '30s, when many were built on the same epic scale and with the same architectural panache as the great downtown movie palaces.
They were especially opulent on the West Coast, and one of the most spectacular and best-remembered of the edifices was Clifton's Pacific Seas Cafeteria of Los Angeles, which Clifford Clinton, a restaurateur from San Francisco, opened in 1931 during the depths of the Great Depression. It was a success, and not only because meals were cheap and diners could dawdle without being rushed by waiters. Clifton's also provided cheap entertainment in the form of dazzling decor. Patrons dined amid waterfalls and tropical plants, artificial lava rocks and dramatic colored lights.
The original Pacific Seas cafeteria closed in 1960, but there are five other Clifton's still going strong in Los Angeles, including the Brookdale, which was built in 1935 and remains the largest open-to-the-public cafeteria in the world. Designed to remind visitors of California's redwood groves, the Brookdale is a multitiered stage set with granite cliffs, boulders, tree trunks, a babbling brook and waterfall, and forest-scene murals on the mezzanine walls. Three separate cafeteria lines disperse customers toward tables; at mealtime the place is a clamorous symphony of clanking plates and boisterous eaters from all walks of life plowing into trays full of good old-fashioned American food.
The cuisine of Clifton's is as down-home satisfying as you will find anywhere in Los Angeles: fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits, turkey with all the trimmings, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, Jell-O molds galore and wondrously corny desserts such as millionaire pie (whipped cream, pineapple chunks, sugar and nuts), ice cream with jamocha sauce and pumpkin-nut crumble cake. We especially appreciate the wide array of vegetables available in the cafeteria line. There are innumerable pans of roasted, whipped and fried potatoes, as well as various ** cheese-enriched casseroles and one gelatinized wonder known as "spinach souffle gelatin" whipped up from spinach, mayonnaise, lemon gelatin and cottage cheese.
The price of a meal is ridiculously low (about $3), and Clifton's stated policy is "No check too small; no service too great. Pay what you wish, and dine free unless delighted." If you like square meals and appreciate the flavor of American cookery at its most ingenuous, you will be delighted!
Clifton's is happy to provide customers with printed copies of some of its best-known and most requested recipes, including millionaire pie, spinach souffle gelatin, and the single most-requested recipe of all, Clifton's coleslaw. This simple, unimprovable formula goes back to the first cafeteria in the 1930s, and the Clinton family (which has been in the restaurant business for four generations, since 1888) estimates that more than 20 million servings of it have been sold since the beginning.
Serves four to five.
3/4 pound shredded cabbage
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Toss together cabbage, sugar and salt. Let stand 10 minutes, but do not drain. Mix mayonnaise and vinegar. Fold into cabbage. Refrigerate. Serve chilled.
Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria, 648 S. Broadway at Seventh Street, Los Angeles, Calif. 90014; (213) 627-1673. (There are four other locations in Los Angeles and vicinity.)