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An Hommage to the Absurd at Clifton's Kitschy Cafeteria

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We've always been intrigued by the mythic allure of Downtown LA's Clifton's Cafeteria. "Cafeteria?" our friends ask, incredulous at the suggestion. "But it's kitschy!" we insist. "It's done up like a forest, with running streams, and woodland creatures!" But that never seems to get them to want to come along. So finally we did what any self-respecting fan of tiny cups of jello served with a drop of whipped cream would do: We took ourselves to Clifton's Cafeteria.

The downtown location, known as Clifton's Brookdale, is the first of the themed Clifton's that brightened up the food-service landscape, but also the only one that remains open. The over-the-top tropical-themed "Pacific Seas" location closed down in the 1960s, leaving the little woodland creatures on South Broadway to fend for themselves. But it's not just history or artificial grass that makes Clifton's unique--the food is actually quite good. Yes, we know that the word "cafeteria" conjures up painful memories of adolescence. Our own junior high cafeteria served something called "Meat Pie" that was neither meat nor pie. Clifton's must have something right, though, since they've been heaping helpings onto eager trays since 1935.

Clifton's prides themselves on making just about all their food from scratch. Everything is priced a la carte, so you can load your tray up with individually priced side items, like salads, fruit, or breads, and you can also enjoy as many entree servings as your stomach and your wallet can buy you. We tried the hand carved turkey dinner, complete with dressing, cranberries, and gravy. And, while no restaurant turkey can compare to Mom's, we have to admit, this was pretty darn good. But the rule of thumb here is to save room for dessert. The Key Lime pie is a perfect example of the notion of form meets function; the rich chocolate cookie crust, neon green creamy filling, cool molded crowns of whipped cream studded with jellied lime candies just seems like a microcosm of Americana in the kitchen.

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We put our fork down, unable to finish those last bites, surveyed the woodsy decor of the room packed with tables full of families and friends, and caught a bit of Judy Garland on the sound system, singing an old familiar standard. Even in it's heyday, Judy Garland wouldn't have been caught dead at Clifton's. But we're glad we checked it out, stepped back into a little bit of LA history, and saved room for dessert.

Clifton's Cafeteria 648 South Broadway in Downtown LA. Open everyday, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (213) 627-1673