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Clifton's renovation: Secret diaries, hidden treasure and the oldest piece of neon in the world

By Hayley Fox
Published: Friday, May 18, 2012, at 10:55AM
Hayley Fox

The original face and sign of Clifton's Cafeteria on Broadway.



Clifton's Cafeteria is undergoing a major renovation, updating the forest-themed restaurant to a multi-level, seven-stop shop with bars, restaurants, coffee shops and even a bakery.

The re-opening will happen in phases, says Clifton's owner Andrew Meieran, and the first phase will debut in about six months. In the meantime, crews have been uncovering layers of the restaurant's history, peeling back walls until they reach the original 1930s facade.

"We've uncovered just amazing things," said Meieran.

While many of these things he wants to keep as "surprises" for future patrons, Meieran did say that behind one wall they found a neon light -- it was on, and had been quietly glowing behind the wall for about 70 years. He's dubbed it the "Eternal Neon," adding that the light has no switch and must be hard-wired into a panel deep in the brick.

Neon experts told Meieran it must be the "oldest existing, continually operating neon in the world."

The spirit of the space encompasses an "all ages, pre-Disney, Disney," Meieran said. Waterfalls, secret grottoes and towering bears will all be restored and incorporated into the new vision for the building.

The 47,000-square-foot space will include seven bars, a full-service restaurant, a cafeteria and a full-service commercial bakery.

For an added touch of authenticity, Meieran is using Clifford Clinton's diary (he was the original owner) as a guide for construction.

When the cafeteria was being constructed during The Depression, Clinton's ideas for the space far exceeded his money supply -- so many of his dreams went unrealized. Now, Meieran said he's hoping to make a few of those aspirations come true.

Once it's reconstructed, the cafeteria will be open 24 hours a day and at least one of the spaces (the one with a cabaret license) won't shut down until 4 a.m.

Meieran, who also owns the Edison, bought Clifton's in 2010. In February of this year, he publicly unveiled the original facade of the building; exposing peeling paint, brick and the weathered letters of the original "Clifton's Cafeteria" sign.

This marked the start of heavy construction and a "symbolic beginning to truly bringing back the Broadway of invention, hope and wonder," Meieran said at the February unveiling.

On Thursday, he was named a "Treasure of Los Angeles" by the Central City Association at a luncheon in Downtown. Alongside Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner and Yang Ho Cho (owner of Korean airlines and the now-closed Wilshire Grand Hotel), Meieran said it was a "daunting honor" to be recognized among these visionaries.

"It truly is all the people who've made Los Angeles what it is," said Meieran.

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