Philippe the Original

French Dips: History on a Bun, a Window into Early Los Angeles

Thursday, August 28 2008 13:38   Delis and Cafes
We love French dip sandwiches - carved slices of just-roasted beef piled on the bottom half of a fresh-baked French roll, a slice of Swiss or provolone on top of that, with the top of the bun quickly dipped in beef au jus and gently pressed on top of the meat.

We love the way they get sort of drippy ooey-gooey, and with just a little mustard or horse relish added at the last minute to create kind of a juicy sauce with a kick. A small cup of beef au-jus for dipping ... a couple of cold Kosher dill pickle slices on the side ... the mouth waters just at the thought of it all.

For years there has been a culinary debate (of sorts) raging in Los Angeles-yes, raging-about when (and how) French dips were created and which of two historic downtown restaurants legitimately could lay claim as to being the originator. The two who claim to have created the French dip sandwich are Philippe's, founded in 1908, and Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet, also founded in 1908.

We were planning to review both of these Los Angeles historical cullinary treasures for you, but sadly, we must report that one of the restaurants-Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet-is closed. Gone. History.

A little background. The Pacific Electric Building opened in 1905 as the terminal for the Pacific electric Red Car rail lines that ran east and south of downtown Los Angeles. It was a time of boom and development for the sleepy little pueblo. Henry Cole started his restaurant in the building three years later.

(We've talked to people who, in their youth, used to ride on the Red Cars and have nothing but fond memories of one of the best inter-city rail lines ever to operate. The Red Cars are long gone, replaced by Southern California's infamous freeways, but that is another story for another day.)

The Pacific Electric Building was sold maybe a year ago and the building is being extensively refurbished into expensive downtown lofts, quite the "in" thing these days for downtown Los Angeles. The developer has said that he intends to re-open Coles, but the buzz we hear is that it may not, or at least not in its old form; maybe just a trendy bar.

So we can't compare French dips for you, or really get into the debate, since it's moot at this point. We can, however, point you to Philippe the Original, and urge you to go taste not only a great sandwich, but look through a window into early 20th Century Los Angeles. By the way, 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the restaurant,

Simply known as Philippe's, the restaurant was founded by French immigrant Philippe Mathieu as a delicatessen and sandwich shop. For 10 years Mathieu operated his deli and sandwich shop with some success, but it 1918 lightning struck-not literally, but in the form of a French roll that fell into the beef drippings at the bottom of a roasting pan.

The customer, allegedly a Los Angeles police officer named French, told Mathieu he'd take it anyway. He was back the next day asking for the same thing, but dipped not by accident. Word spread. So was born the French dip-Philippe's-style.

Mathieu sold the place to Harry, Dave, and Frank Martin in 1927, and the family descendents continue to operate the restaurant today. The 101 freeway took the old building on Aliso Street in 1951, but Philippe's relocated to the current address at 1001 North Alameda Street.

Whenever we're passing through Los Angeles we try to stop at Philippe's-definitely for lunch and a French dip, but sometimes for breakfast if we have an early morning meeting. We recommend the corned beef hash and eggs and really tasty hash-browns.

Not far from Dodger Stadium and within a one-block walking distance of Union Station, Philippe's is unique.

Walk in either the front corner door on Alameda Street (don't miss the old wooden telephone booths on the left, and the wood and glass cashier's counter on the right) or the back door on Ord Street, and you step into the 1940s. Sawdust scattered on the floor, long wooden lunch tables (a few wood and leather booths off to the right), plenty of black and white photos of old Los Angeles hanging on the walls, and a lunch display counter where all the delights await you.

Carvers, Not Servers

Behind the counter are servers in brown dressy uniforms wearing little waitress hats (Philippe's calls their servers "carvers") where your meals are assembled; meats sliced, sandwiches built (on paper plates), French rolls dipped, and everything arranged on food trays. You'll need both hands to carry them. Want breakfast or something like the restaurant's classic beef stew? Your carver will place the order and in a jiffy it comes from the kitchen, given to your carver who then places it on your tray.

Looking for a menu? Look up high at the wall behind the counter. A cup of coffee? Just ten cents. It was a nickel for decades, but in the 1970s the price went up. It's still a dime in 2007.

There is room behind the counter for ten carvers, and during the very busy lunch hour all ten positions are staffed. You line up in front of a carver (along with five or six other hungry patrons), and wait your turn. These ladies handing you the food are pros; many have been there for more than 20 years, and regulars know them by their first names. Be sure to tip generously; these ladies earn it.

We love the lamb French dips. Fresh roast leg of lamb, carved right there. Watching the ladies is like watching a symphony performed: smooth, not a step missed. Voila! Your sandwich is ready. And the side dishes-great tangy Cole slaw, home-style potato and macaroni salads, wonderful sweet, rich tapioca pudding. Prices are very reasonable.

Suggestion: Don't miss the Philippe's French mustard. Hot? Oh, brother. A little dab will do you. Too much and tears will flow from your eyes. No kidding. But it is oh, so good on the French dip.

Sitting Next to You

Usually we'll sit on a wooden stool at one of the long tables, sometimes stopping to wonder who we're sitting next to. A judge? One of L.A.'s finest? A high-powered lawyer? A retired city worker visiting for the day? A neighbor from nearby Chinatown? You never know. Pass the mustard, please.

After you're finished, wander around a little bit and look at the photos, old newspaper clippings, etc. It's almost like being in a museum. Nobody will bother you, or even give you a glance.

Soft drinks, beer and wine. Don't forget the ten-cent coffee, and it's really good coffee. There's free parking while you're eating at Philippe's, and the place is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We are sorry about Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet. We mourn the loss of any part of a city's vibrant history, especially when it relates to the West. We hope Cole's returns, but if it does, it will never be the same.

In the meantime, go enjoy Philippe the Original. Stand in line. Get a French dip. Say hello to a friendly carver. We dare you to try the mustard - just a little. Look at the photos on the wall. While we believe there's a long and successful future still ahead for the family-run restaurant, time is a fidgety thing. Enjoy Philippe's while you can.

Philippe the Original

1001 N. Alameda Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012