Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Clifton's Cafeteria: Look But Don't Eat

by Suzy Gruyere and Hilary Havarti

As we sat on Mac & Cheeza’s black vinyl bench, picking at our disappointing customized macaroni and cheese variations, Suzy had a thought: “Hey, isn’t Clifton’s Cafeteria right around the corner? I’ve heard that they serve a tasty mac!” Hilary’s eyes recaptured their usual twinkle as we packed up our leftovers and headed out into The City of Angels.

Our brisk walk was buoyed by enthusiasm and hope. Sadly, both were soon dashed.

Clifford Clinton (CLIFford clinTON, get it?) opened the downtown branch of Clifton’s Cafeteria in 1935. As a child he witnessed abject poverty in the Chinese villages where his parents were missionaries, and his childhood vow to feed the hungry was supported by his service in both The Salvation Army and his family’s San Francisco cafeterias. Clifford’s humanitarian principles guided his business plan, and no guest was ever turned away for lack of money. Despite the crushing economic situation of the 1930s, Clifton’s Brookdale survived and even thrived.

…Wait, what’s the “Brookdale” about? Ohhhh, we are so glad you asked! Clifford Clinton loved the redwood forests of northern California. We mean, he really, really loved them. And he somehow found the means to transform the interior of his humble cafeteria into a wooded wonderland complete with a roaring waterfall, lush plants, fake rockwork and panoramic murals.

Today, plastic foliage has supplanted the genuine article, but the décor is still just as wonderfully hokey as ever.

Our only regret is that we did not experience Clifton’s before the balcony’s organist was replaced by a stuffed moose. (No, the moose does not play the organ. The organ is gone too. More’s the pity.)

At this point you’ll note that we’re not talking about the food...always a bad sign in a restaurant review, eh?

Okay, here goes. We are macaroni and cheese aficionados, but we are not macaroni and cheese snobs. We’ve often enjoyed very good steam-table macaroni and cheese, but Clifton’s isn’t one. Not even close.

This mac is very simple. It smells good. And it’s ridiculously inexpensive: Our side order rang up at $1.82 including tax!

Clearly it hails from the southern, custard-like side of the macaroni and cheese family, which is not our preference, but its gently browned topping of cheese rekindled our appetites. Two forks clashed eagerly in an attempt to claim the first mouthful.

Unfortunately, our first mouthfuls were also very nearly our last. The flavor was nothing to write home about, neither good nor bad. But the texture was just...weird. It felt fluffy in our mouths, similar to that other cafeteria standard – those fabulous concoctions of gelatin and whipped topping.

Fluffy is delightful in a dessert but off-putting in a mac that is supposed to be creamy, gooey, velvety or some combination thereof.

It’s almost as if the eggs in this custard were separated and the whites whisked to stiff peaks before being incorporated with the noodles and cheese.

On the tongue, Clifton’s macaroni and cheese feels a bit like the meringue atop a lemon pie. Which is precisely what we’re likely to order on our next visit to Clifton’s. And we will return, if only for the photo opportunities, and to visit this handsome fellow:

But although we applaud on principle the inclusion of macaroni and cheese among the “vegetable” options, we’re done with Clifton’s mac. Yuck.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two swings and two misses for Team Weheartmac. Ever the optimists, though, we had one more downtown mac in mind...

[cue the organ-playing moose in the balcony]

Will Suzy Gruyere and Hilary Havarti finally find a macaroni and cheese that hits one out of the ballpark?

Or will Downtown Los Angeles serve up a third cruel strike?

It’s the bottom of the ninth and this is still anyone’s ballgame. Stay tuned.

Clifton’s Brookdale
648 South Broadway
Los Angeles



Charles Rosenberg said...

Oh, but there are so many good things to eat at Clifton's: like raisin pie!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE Clifton's macaroni and cheese :)

Anonymous said...

To each their own...Clifton's Mac & cheese has stood the test of time for a good reason...it tastes GREAT. I dislike any mac & cheese made with Velveeta with a passion, I prefer old fashioned recipes. I think this blog post was rather unfair. It doesn't taste as awful as it was made out to be on this page, it is just different.