Clifford Clinton was the unique product of a childhood spent in China when his parents, former restaurateurs themselves, moved the family to the Far East to do missionary work. He was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food there, he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.
When the family returned home to San Francisco, Clifford learned his family trade then later moved to Los Angeles. In 1931 he opened Clifton’s Cafeteria at Olive and 6th in downtown L.A.
This was, of course, the height of the great Depression–not exactly the best time to be opening a new business. But Clifford Clinton wasn’t in business solely to make money; he also hated to see people go hungry. So he instituted a “Pay What You Wish” policy. Clinton understood, especially during those times, that people needed to hang on to their dignity and humanity. So whatever you could afford, that’s what Clifton’s Cafeteria would accept as payment. And if you couldn’t even spare one red cent, well, that was okay too. No one was ever turned away hungry just because they couldn’t pay.
People came in droves–not because they could get a cheap meal, but because they could come to Clifton’s and know they hadn’t fallen so low that they had to beg for a handout. During one 90-day period, 10,000 people ate for free before Clifford could open an emergency “Penny Cafeteria” a few blocks away to feed, for pennies, the two million guests (at Clifton’s you weren’t a “customer”, you were a “guest”) who came during the next two years.
In 1939, Clifton’s remodeled the original restaurant to a more exotic setting and renamed it “Clifton’s Pacific Seas.” The exterior was decorated with waterfalls, geysers and tropical foliage. Brightly illuminated in the evening, it became a mecca for tourists and Angelenos alike for 29 years.
Clinton’s policy must have made good long-term business sense because in 1935 they opened a second restaurant at 648 South Broadway, also in downtown Los Angeles. They subsequently opened restaurants in Lakewood, West Covina, Century City, 7th Street downtown, Woodland Hills, Laguna Beach, and San Bernardino.
In 1939 Clinton chose to redecorate the facility on Broadway. Having spent time as a youth in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he decided to pattern it after his favorite lodge. He created a 20-foot waterfall which then became a stream meandering through the dining room past faux redwood trees (used to conceal the room’s steel columns.) A life size forest mural covered one wall and the interior decoration included a stuffed moose head, animated raccoons, and a fishing bear.
If you want a chance to experience 1930s dining, you can–Clifton’s Cafeteria remains open for business on Broadway welcoming up to 2000 guests a day. I believe there is some sort of cheering irony in that the place which opened, at the depth of the Depression, not only for profit but to ensure the poor didn’t go hungry is still around today.