After several long years of renovations, Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown LA is finally open again and it’s easy to see why Walt Disney was once a regular patron; the entire place feels like it’s been sprinkled with a handful of Tinkerbell’s pixie dust. Kids love eating lunch inside what feels like a magical museum. Bring your appetites for exploration alongside the mac n’ cheese and be sure to check out the “Cabinet of Curiosities” (among many, many other amazing things).
Lions and Bears and Buffalo, Oh My!
For the uninitiated, Clifton’s is a cafeteria-style restaurant, but really it’s so much more. In addition to the cafeteria, the four-story building also features a bakery, two bars and a soon-to-open sit down restaurant. The real attraction is the place itself, which is decked out from floor to ceiling in a woodlands forest theme.
Your little explorers will feel very much like they’ve stepped into line for a Disneyland ride as you discover all the nooks and crannies, filled with everything from taxidermy buffaloes to dioramas hidden inside princess castles. Towering at the center of it all is a giant replica of a redwood tree that stretches to the top floor ceiling. Make a game of it as you explore, trying to see just how many different animals and hidden things you can find on each level. (Hint: When you’re waiting in line for the cafeteria, send your tots crawling into the tiny cave.)
Before you head up to the top floors, stop at the bottom of the stone waterfall and let your kiddos toss in a penny to make a wish. Speaking of pennies, don’t forget to look down when you step into the third floor restroom and check out the hundreds of copper pennies and Indian head nickels glued to the floor. Last, but certainly not least, no visit would be complete without a selfie next to the lion that watches over the dining room. Keep your eyes peeled, there are so many treasures to be discovered everywhere you look.
Between the hot dogs and mac n’ cheese, the cafeteria menu couldn’t possibly be more kid-friendly, but there’s plenty of delicious grown-up options too, from soups and salads to artisanal pizzas. The carvery station, serving up a daily Thanksgiving dinner of turkey with all the trimmings, is sure to please just about anyone, young and old. With your tray crammed don’t forget to save a spot for dessert. Your kids (and the kid in you) will giggle over the wiggly bowls of colorful jello, but the real winner is the rainbow sprinkled slices of birthday cake.
Carry your stacked trays up to the third floor dining area where there’s much more light and room to breathe for wiggly little ones. Plus you get to eat your meal next to a lion, that definitely doesn’t happen every day. Your little ones will be so busy pointing out new discoveries it may take them a while to finish their meals. Make the most of a lengthy lunch and order yourself a round of grown-up drinks at the Gothic bar across the hall. With a full top shelf bar, the talented mixologists will whip you up the tastiest midday cocktail you’ve ever had at a cafeteria.
The Low Down
We suggest visiting mid-week or waiting a week or two to pay a visit when the opening crowds die down. The current lunch-time line down the block moves pretty fast, but it can be a bit much for antsy little ones. Avoid bringing your stroller, as the place is filled with steep staircases and the elevator is hard to access.
There are two bathrooms, one in the basement that feels a little like a haunted mansion, complete with flickering lights. If your tots scare easily, avoid that one and head to the one on the third floor.
The closest parking lot is the St. Vincent Jewelry Center parking structure across the street at 639 S. Broadway. Prices vary, but weekends it’s a flat rate of $8 per day.
As long as you’re already downtown, make a day of it and visit another amazing newbie in the neighborhood: The Broad Museum.
648 S. Broadway
Were you one of the first visitors at the new Clifton’s? Share your favorite thing about this enchanting place in the comments!
—written and photos by Shahrzad Warkentin