I miss cafeterias.
I don’t mean the ones in school lunchrooms, but those that used to be in just about every city across America in the 1950s and ‘60s.
I loved the food, of course. But the next best thing was how I got the food—pointing to exactly what I wanted, with each choice then handed to me by a female worker (never a man) wearing a starched white uniform with sensible shoes.
The line itself was both precise and artistic.
After grabbing a tray, the first stop was looking at the tiny white bowls of salads, all propped up on a narrow island of crushed ice. Should I get coleslaw, or cottage cheese with a maraschino cherry on top, or sliced peaches? Usually, I’d pick my favorite—strawberry Jell-O cut in identical, sparkly cubes.
Under heat lamps and in the center of the line were the entrees. There was chicken pot pie, and roasted turkeys
and hams and roasts, all carved to order. Alongside were steam tables, with sides including mashed potatoes,
fresh succotash and brown gravy. Next came baked-that-day bread and rolls, and then, on a second bed of shaved
ice, juices and milk. After that were desserts—featuring tapioca and rice puddings topped with whipped cream,
and displayed in crystal cut glass parfait dishes. Sitting alongside those were from-scratch slices of fruit pie,
and chocolate and vanilla cake, too.
The last stop was the cashier’s station. Here, my entire meal cost, at most, a few dollars.
Where I grew up—in Long Beach, a coastal city about 25 miles from Los Angeles—not one of these places was part
of a chain.
Instead, they were owned and managed by local families, and had names like Riley’s, Arnold’s, Crown and Royal. Because they were not only cost efficient, but big and well-lit and noisy, lots of families ate there, too, giving off an ambiance of good cheer and wholesomeness.
One exception was a small chain called Clifton’s, which in its heyday had eight locations.
The most famous of these was Brookdale, opened in 1935 in downtown Los Angeles. The food was also great, and with a kitschy redwood forest theme, it was also the largest cafeteria in the world. Here, guests could sit near a working waterfall that meandered through the entire dining area; animated toy raccoons and a giant stuffed bear holding a fishing pole sat on custom built perches above them. During the Great Depression, and even later, customers who couldn’t afford a meal could eat at any Clifton's for free.
With their homey food choices, lots of folks think that cafeterias took off in the Midwest.
But California is where the cafeteria craze began.
It started in 1905, when a woman named Helen Mosher opened a small restaurant where customers selected their food at a long counter, and then carried their trays to a table. She called her place the Cafeteria (the same name as a smorgasbord restaurant that had opened a decade earlier in Chicago); by the 1920s, there were so many similar establishments in Southern California that one writer dubbed Los Angeles “Sunny Cafeteria.”
Brisk and breezy, they were marketed as the new and modern way to dine, a place where customers could choose as much, or as little, food as they wanted. And because the food sold on its looks, it was designed to be appealing.
As a kid, I never imagined that cafeterias might vanish by the time I became an adult.
In the last four decades, fast food conglomerates—big on advertising and cheap ingredients, small on fresh and healthy choices—have supplanted the mom and pop places that I had once taken for granted.
Indeed, the cafeterias of today only provide food where people go to eat because they have to—schools, hospitals and prisons. At best, the choices are bland and unappealing; at worst, they’re tasteless and made edible only because most of the food is packed with sodium and sugar.
I don’t know if the cafeterias I loved will ever come back.
But I do know that I’ll never stop missing them.