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The Downtown Diner Experiences Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria

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Now a “career woman", Leilani Wertens searches for the perfect meal during her lunch hour in an oft neglected part of Los Angeles—the newly revitalized downtown district. Read about her weekly culinary adventures on LAist.

There are some Los Angeles restaurants that have been around for so long and revered by so many that they become institutions in of themselves, think The Pantry, Philippe’s the Original or Canter’s Deli. Some, like Pink’s, cater mainly to tourists while others remain open 24 hours to cater to Angelinos that are always ready to eat. After three years of living and dining in Los Angeles I’ve had my fair share of eating at these “classic” restaurants and usually come away unsatisfied. Tired of the soup and sandwich combos that abound at the food courts and cafes crammed between office buildings downtown, however, I decided to give one of these LA cultural institutions a try.

Opened during the Depression in 1935, Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria serves up standard American comfort food in a setting reminiscent of a summer camp. According to its Web site, Clifton’s original mission was to serve those who needed a hot meal at a low price—often for free. Nowadays it’s a novelty for its kitsch décor and I was curious to see if the food was also one of the reasons it’s been able to survive for so long.

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After picking my way past storefronts selling gaudy gold jewelry and slinky polyester dresses, I scan the crumbling buildings of the old Broadway Theatre District for Clifton’s Cafeteria. I don’t realize I’m there until I nearly stumble on a bit of inlaid floor that spells out the restaurant’s name in Art Deco glory. Slightly disconcerted by the “B” rating posted in the tinted windows, I pushed my way through the doors and past tree stumps and several plastic molded bears to the back of the restaurant. After grabbing a tray from a wobbly stack, I am greeted by glistening dishes of jello cubes and sticky slices of cake. Grabbing dessert is tempting but I resist and make my way around the U-bend of the dining hall.