Andrew Meieran returns home today from a rather unique 11-day dual research trip in Argentina. The filmmaker (Highland Park, his yet-to-be-released directorial debut, stars Parker Posey and Danny Glover) was location scouting around Buenos Aires for both his next movie, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which he is producing, as well as materials scavenging for his next hospitality project, the already-underway renovation of the iconic 81-year-old Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown L.A.’s gentrifying Historic Core neighborhood. “Both of these projects right now are about the same thing: creating environments,” he says.
Deep Blue Sea centers on an architect (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) grieving over his wife’s death, who befriends a young girl played by Chloe Grace Moretz. “The production costs down here are like 40 percent less,” says Meieran of Argentina. “And this city, like Los Angeles, sort of passes as every city on Earth. So I’m looking around to see what might work [for a shoot].”
As for Clifton’s, Meieran spent his South American sojourn meeting with salvage contacts as he hunted for the sort of vintage restaurant equipment — from meat grinders to counter tops — that can hardly be found in the U.S. anymore. “The things I’m finding are amazing,” he says. “It’s the background pieces that really make the texture of the space. There are cashier stations with filigreed glass and brass work! Some of the stuff here is just disgustingly cool.”
Meieran took over Clifton’s, the last surviving branch of a historic local chain, this past fall. The cafeteria opened in 1935 on Broadway — when the corridor was a fully activated commercial hub, dotted with grand movie palaces — and earned a reputation for both its fantastical woodland décor (it was known within the chain as the Brookdale location) and its humanitarian commitment to the poor (owner Clifford Clinton never turned away a hungry patron who couldn’t pay).
In more recent years, Clifton’s had, along with the rest of the corridor, become a dated, underutilized relic. “It was a basket case in terms of infrastructure when I took it over,” says Meieran, who also owns the popular subterranean night spot The Edison a few blocks away. “It had been cobbled together for a very long time. It needed some serious TLC and some serious thought.”
Meieran wants to keep the cafeteria food affordable, to retain the spirit of the Clifton’s brand, as well as its longstanding community responsibility to those in the area with little money in their pockets. But there will be certain culinary modernizations, such as a salad bar concept focused on organic products and sustainable farming. “We’re going to be taking what we do multiple steps — generational steps — forward,” he says.
Other steps include an already-announced mixology-oriented tiki bar on the third floor of the building, which will be aesthetically inspired by another, long-demolished downtown Clifton’s outpost, known as the Pacific Seas. “It was over-the-top tiki, as never seen before in the history of mankind,” he says. “It was the inspiration of Disney’s stuff. So we are using that [as a guide].”
Meieran expects to complete the roughly 3,000-square-foot tiki space in about a year, if all goes as planned. “The concept is not to be kitschy,” he adds. “It’s the real Twenties and Thirties version of tiki, the beautiful golden era of travel, going back to the Cocoanut Grove. It’s taking it to the next level, where it’s this romanticized vision.”
Regardless of intent, a high-priced, high-concept alkie hall might not sit well with traditionalist regulars who have long valued Clifton’s in large part precisely because it doesn’t do hip — or, for that matter, hooch. Meieran acknowledges this, but remains firm on his need to diversify his offerings within the underused property. “It’s got an almost militant audience — ‘You can’t change my Clifton’s!’ — but you’re not going to please everyone,” he says. “This is a business and it’s got to function. There is going to be some ‘frou-frou’ here and there, but there will still be a Clifton’s for everyone.
On Wednesday, Feb. 8, the building’s long-hidden historic façade will be revealed for the first time in many years. An unsightly metal grating has obscured the fantasy-style architecture, which is concrete made to look like wood, in keeping with the forest-themed décor inside (originally, ferns and other plants were hung all around — along with multicolored neon). “The façade looks like a prizefighter that’s got the right side of his face bashed in,” says Meieran. “It needs a lot of work, and we’re about to see exactly what that is.”