IIn February 2021, Andrew Meieran drove the entirety of Route 66. His road trip took him through a series of cross-country vistas that resemble something out of Tolkien’s Americanized novel: navigating through several snowstorms, through the Painted Desert, and a stop at the Petrified Forest. But after 2,448 miles he was back on familiar territory, ending his journey in downtown Los Angeles on Seventh and Broadway – almost at the front door of his nightclub, Clifton’s Republic.
Of course, he had already seen people complete the trip. (He laughs as he remembers a woman jumping on the club’s valet and happily shouting “I did it!”) But making the trek helped Meieran understand how much Clifton’s legacy was tied to not just the city’s heritage, but the history of America as a whole.
“There was this moment when we felt this strong echo of history,” he says. “And the weight of all these people who come in search of this dream with expectation and wonder. You could kind of feel that presence, which was really neat.
Opened in 1931 as a chain of eight restaurants (then called Clifton’s Brookdale), Clifton’s Republic has actively participated in history in a way that puts Forrest Gump’s historic antics to shame.
Owner Clifford Clinton, inspired by Christian mission trips to China as a child, opened the restaurant’s food line to anyone who needed it. During the Depression, an estimated 2 million people adopted it for the motto “Dine for free unless you’re thrilled”, grabbing hearty a la carte dishes from the cafeteria line. (He went on to found Meals for Millions after feeding people for free became unsustainable.)
Among those to profit from the policy were Ray Bradbury and Charles Bukowski, the former who now has a corner stand named after him on the top floor, the latter who wrote about the joys of Clifton’s cheap meals in his 1982 book. rye ham. And anyone who enjoys Huell Howser’s awesome TV show will be happy to know there’s a California Gold episode where the hyperlocal travel celeb stops by and visits the nightclub.
But while Clifton aimed to be delicious (early menus offer a free personalized birthday cake, whimsical interiors looked like proto-tiki bars, and vintage photos show tables with full lobsters), he didn’t. never been exclusive. From the 1940s through the 1960s, every restaurant in Clifton was listed in The Negro Motorist’s Green Book, a guide who helped Black determine where they would be safe. (Clifton’s is now one of only 3% of listed establishments that still exist.) Did Clinton lose money because of his inclusive environment? Most likely. Did he care? Judging by his weekly newsletter where he brushed off complaints by writing, “If colored skin is a passport to death for our freedoms, then it’s a passport to Clifton”, probably not.
As someone who can easily discuss the intricacies of Charlie Chaplin’s legacy, the myths of Laurel Canyon, and the former location of the Brown Derby (now an unnamed mall), it’s that colorful legacy that has driven Meieran to purchase the building in 2010. Already the owner of The Edison, a historic bar in his own right, he wanted to invest more in the downtown Los Angeles community. Plus, with decades and decades of history caught on top of each other, he enjoyed the renovation process that forced him to decide which era in the building’s history to pay homage to. (Answer: lots of them.) The process of restoring the building to its former glory would take the better part of four years and $14 million.
Yes, it’s still a nightclub, yes it’s also a lounge, and soon it will be a cafeteria again. But Clifton’s real power comes from its combination of purpose and function, making it one of the city’s most unusual social spaces. Well, as long as you are willing to visit during their still limited post-pandemic hours.
To the relief of many, after reopening in 2015, Clifton’s still contained its quirky charm. Inspired by both Muir Woods and Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, a tree emerges from the center of the dance floor, towering 40 feet above the ground floor. (And to the disbelief of almost anyone who sees it for the first time, it’s a quirky design element, and capable of accommodating aerials for special evenings.) The 47,000-square-foot interior is divided in different areas with micro-themes. For a while, customers could once again get Jell-O, mac and cheese, and cut meats in the basement, all loosely based on original recipes. (A pre-COVID hiatus amenity that Meieran plans to bring back.) But now they can also sip classic drinks at one of five dark wood bars, including the Monarch Bar (with a focus on wines and beers Californians, and boozy soda fountain concoctions) and The Gothic Bar (located in the back room where L. Ron Hubbard, Forrest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury used to brainstorm), and Pacific Seas, a Polynesian-inspired Tiki-Bar accessible by climbing next to a real waterfall, and slipping behind a mirror on the second floor.
The outdoor marquee heralds a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a promise that Clifton’s fulfills with quirks and hidden bits in almost every corner. Want to see a stuffed buffalo (and murals curated by the Los Angeles Natural History Museum), a 250-pound meteorite, or a teacup that was stolen from the restaurant only to be returned decades later? The answer Clifton’s is betting on is: why not you?
It’s a strange patchwork of visual moods that made it easy for Mad Men, Parks and recreationand gangster squad using all different corners of the club as different filming locations. But as Meieran learned, when 190 million people walk through the doors of an establishment between 1932 and 2010, there are bound to be some magical happenings, including inspiring one of the world’s most influential creatives.
During a meeting with Diane Disney Miller while working to bring the Edison Bar concept to Disney Springs, Florida, he learned that the Disney family used to regularly visit Clifton twenty years before it opened. from Disneyland. And as Miller herself recalled, it was the ornate stone fireplace upstairs that made Disney realize its parks needed a strong focal point. Meieran chokes a little while recounting the exchange.
“I said to him, ‘People always say Clifton is very Disneyesque,'” he says. “And she said, ‘You can never let people tell you it’s Disneyesque. Disney is very Cliftonian.’”
Of course, if there is a Disney-type marvel, there must also be a supernatural element at work. Halfway through our conversation, my recorder has problems, prompting Meieran to joke “Ghosts!” It’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not. But as he discovered during the construction of the building, many unexplained forces are at work. Discovering a room filled to the brim with gallon-sized jars of tomato sauce was actually easy to explain. As one jaded delivery man noted, after the tragic murder of Clifton heiress Jean Clinton Roeschlaub in 2006 (which was never fully solved), his last food order was never changed, which led to comic excess. But the unexplained ashes he cleared from the ballroom one afternoon were harder to explain. As the very married man and father discovered when a friend called him at home, panicked by a headline saying “My mother was the mistress of the owner of the cafeteria in Clifton”, the former owner was also a beloved family man… with a female sister on his side. After her lover died in 2011, her children snuck into the construction zone and made the club her final resting place.
But nothing prepared him to one day discover a neon sign still lit during construction. Sealed behind a wall in the women’s restroom and wired into the building’s power supply without a traditional power switch, the panel is thought to have been glowing since 1939. They carefully exposed it without ever turning it off, and now the simple glass The curves serve as Clifton’s eternal flame, a flame that the club’s previous owners paid around $17,000 in electricity bills to keep going. But what is more interesting for Meieran is where he was discovered, against a wall that housed the nearby tailor’s shop where his grandfather once worked.
“There was something very spiritual about that moment,” he says. “That’s the best way I could even put it. My grandfather was this wonderful person. He brought his family from England on the Queen Mary, started a new life and was a tailor. So there was just something really poignant.
Seeing people return to relive memories seems to be one of the many hard joys of the establishment, something that is happening more and more as the club establishes a post-COVID calendar. In a city known for ignoring its own history, shattering the past in name or reimagining, Clifton’s is a space that has fought back by preserving that history within its surreal walls. As a result, the club attracts strong emotions – and quite often nostalgic visitors provide another piece of the puzzle that Meieran suspects he will spend his life putting together. With a sense of wonder, he remembers seeing an old woman rushing energetically one day shortly after opening. She was 103, it was her birthday, and for her final driving act, she wanted to drive her family to lunch. Meieran sat delighted as she described her visit to the cafeteria in the 1930s and 1940s and her pie with her grandmother after seeing Charlie Chaplin films. Like many of Clifton’s unexpected stories, the conversation was a gift he never expected to receive.
“Just talking to her was a wonderful thing,” he says. “There was a wonderful feeling of ‘It’s still there!’ And I’m like, ‘You’re still here!’ I never thought I would meet someone who was there when it opened. But that’s what’s interesting about Clifton. Clifton survived. It survived and thrived out of the depression and survived the world wars. He’s survived other wars, social unrest, he’s a survivor. And so many places are not. Even during the pandemic, institutions that have been wiped out across the country and the world. And I think what’s always been important is that it’s been such an integral part of the community. It’s such an important element, it’s such a central element. People may wonder if I made the right choices or wonder if it’s faithful to the original or not. But my commitment is to ensure that more generations can experience it.