One evening seated bar-side at Cole’s P.E. Buffet, I overheard the bartender mention Philippe’s to a customer. The barman was explaining that according to hallowed tradition, there are two places in Downtown Los Angeles (Philippe’s and Cole’s) that lay claim to being the inventor of the French Dip sandwich. After hearing this, the slightly cynical customer queried whether the establishments compete with each other. The barman was polite and said that although both restaurants claim to be the original, the experience at Philippe’s is different than the experience at Cole’s and the unique character of each results more in complement rather than competition. I silently agreed with the well-spoken bartender, and also silently thanked the restaurant gods that both places continue to exist and remain busy providing their unique spin on that most Los Angeles of sandwiches: The French Dip.
The story goes that in 1908, French immigrant Philippe Mathieu opened a sit down restaurant close to the current heart of downtown specializing in roasted meats and the like. After several moves, Philippe’s came to rest on a parcel of land on Aliso Street that was where the 101 Freeway now cuts through the city. It was in this establishment that Philippe served his first “dipped” sandwich after (again, according to legend) a busy Philippe dropped a French roll in beef jus before serving it to a hungry policeman. Not wanting to be difficult, the policeman agreed to eat the sandwich only to realize it was greatly improved after the soaking. From that point onward, the sandwiches achieved cult status and continue to be very popular with just about everyone, proven most spectacularly by the frenzied deli counter activity at lunch time or before any Dodger’s home game.
Although that beatific site of the original dipping is now lost to the ages, Philippe’s current location dates to the early 1950s and the place looks it in the best way possible. Sawdust blankets the floor to quickly sweep up spills, wooden phone booths take up one of the walls and the candy counter near the front entrance could be in a museum. Food is comprised of freshly made dipped sandwiches, sides like coleslaw, macaroni salad, pickled eggs and pickled pigs feet (!), assorted soups, and a full complement of freshly baked desserts. The wine and beer list shines in comparison to most other “old-school” restaurants with Ranger IPA, Victoria, and Leffe Blonde on tap with tasty wines like Foxen pinot noir, Justin Cabernet Sauvignon, and Groth Chardonnay available by the glass. If you want to go the value route, half pints of Budweiser draft cost a measly $2.10. Nice.
Also be sure to check out the mysterious “Railroad Heritage Museum” in the back, the second floor dining room, and be certain to ask for your sandwich “double-dipped”. Unlike at most other French dip places, you don’t get a tiny cup of jus and dip the sandwich yourself, the deli clerk does it for you. In the range of options I have found the double dip strikes the perfect balance between the dryness of the single dip and the knife and fork mess of getting it “wet”. Of course experiment for yourself and compare and contrast between Philippe’s and that “other” dip joint down the street. I think you’ll also be happy that both are doing great business and serving up fine experiences along with tasty sandwiches.