The best … cafeterias?

Posted by Glenn Gritzner on November 13, 2009

Hello Enthusiasts –

If I were you and saw the subject matter of this post, I would think “why do I care about cafeterias? I only eat in them when I have to.” But that’s the point: cafeteria dining can actually be worth seeking out if you know where to look.

But first, truth be told, cafeterias break many of my “dining out” rules. When I go out for a meal, unless I’m just grabbing something quick, I want the whole experience. I don’t want to work for my food – that defeats the point of “going out”. I want to be served. Likewise, when I actually order my food, I don’t want to have to work to eat it – like, I rarely order fajitas because why would I want to assemble my own meal? I can do that at home. Plus, I don’t want to “hassle” when I go out, and cafeterias are frequently a hassle: you have to get a tray, figure out which station offers the food you want, wait in some sort of haphazard line to get your food, jostle with other people to get a drink, and usually wait in a second (or third) line to pay. Who needs it?

But. A GOOD cafeteria can provide a welcome middle ground, especially for lunch. You avoid the time (and money) of the full “dining out” experience, but it’s not fast food. You get a pretty wide selection, you can frequently eat healthier if you make good choices, and you assemble just the meal you want. Then, after you pay, you can eat at your own pace without having to worry about getting the check or fending off a waiter. The trick is finding cafeterias that provide good food in a decent setting – which your loyal Amateur Enthusiast has done for you.

Herewith, the best cafeterias Downtown has to offer, in order:

Honorable Mention:
Clifton’s Cafeteria
648 S Broadway (near 7th)
(213) 627-1673

Clifton’s is an LA institution. During the Depression, Clifton’s instituted a “pay what you can” policy that oldtimers still talk about. Ray Bradbury wrote some of his early books here. Plus, check out the interior: how kitschy/cool is that? It only gets an honorable mention because the food hasn’t changed much in almost 80 years, the interior is comfortable enough but pretty chaotic, and you’ll be the youngest person there by decades. But you can’t write about cafeterias in downtown and not write about Clifton’s.

3rd place:

Colburn Cafe

(click on Facilities and then Cafe Menu)
200 S Grand Ave. (Grand, just past MOCA)

(213) 621-4515

The Colburn Cafe is the cafeteria inside the Colburn School for the Performing Arts. I was walking up Grand one day and saw a sign directing me into the campus, saying the cafe was open to the public, so I checked it out (the virtues of exploring). And, as you can see by the picture to the right, it was really pleasant. The food was perfectly decent, and the setting was airy and inviting, as you can see. It’s fun to see the students with their violin and horn cases walking around, and having it set back into the campus from Grand makes it a little respite in the middle of downtown. And I bet you didn’t even know it was there.

2nd place:

Lemonade

505 S Flower St. (inside the underground mall on 5th & Flower)
(213) 488-0299

Lemonade is actually a mini-chain, with branches in Venice and West Hollywood as well as Downtown. What puts Lemonade on this list is the menu, pure and simple. Salads of green tomato, sweet corn, and pepitas with ancho chili vinaigrette or persimmon, arugula, and blue cheese with sherry vinaigrette, and then your protein might be buttermilk baked chicken breast or citrus poached salmon (full menu here). I’m not going to say the Downtown outpost is the most comfortable (which, frankly, prevents it from taking the top spot), but this is so far from your typical cafeteria fare that it’s worth checking out.

1st place (drumroll please):

Flix
At Los Angeles Center Studios
450 S. Bixel (but the entrance to Flix is on Beaudry between 4th & 5th)

Flix is the “commissary” for Los Angeles Center Studios. Yes, it’s a little bit tough to get to (you either walk up 3rd St. (take the escalators above the La Salsa on 5th & Fig) and over the freeway and turn left on Beaudry, or walk across the freeway on Wilshire and turn right on Beaudry). But for the combination of good food, wide selection, and relatively comfortable setting, I think Flix is the best cafeteria in Downtown. You’ll be eating with a combination of LAUSD employees from just down the street, hipster entertainment types, and crusty behind-the-camera crew guys. It has a good salad bar, good freshly made sandwiches and/or salads, good specials off the grill, and good readymade selections. Because it has to serve entertainment folks, they have a wide selection of healthy stuff, but also just straightforward good food. And then, once you get your food, you can eat on the patio outside or in an open indoor space with a variety of seating options (sorry, I couldn’t find a picture). I understand that because of its location, you might not just “pop by”, but if you’re that direction, it’s worth finding.

So there you have it. Just when you thought I was only going to tell you about nice restaurants or dives, I give you some good middle of the road options.

Until next time, happy travels.