A dip into L.A.'s past
Philippe's has brought the city together for 95 years, serving its famous sandwich with camaraderie on the side.
Philippe the Original was making sandwiches in downtown L.A. well before the boys (our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers) ever headed over to Europe for the Great War. Even before a troupe of easterners trudged west to set up the beginnings of the movie industry in sunny Southern California, way back in 1908, Frenchman Philippe Mathieu opened a simple delicatessen and sandwich shop close to Union Station. Sandwiches were 10 cents then; coffee was a nickel.
It took until 1918, though, for Mathieu to make the discovery that endeared Philippe to generations of Angelenos. According to the restaurant's official history, Mathieu was making a sandwich, for a policeman, in fact, when he accidently dropped a halved French roll into the pan of roast drippings. The policeman took it anyway and came back the next day to ask for the same thing. Voilá: the birth of the French dip sandwich. For the record, Cole's, another old-time downtown restaurant also claims the invention. But whichever invented it, it didn't take long for the city to develop a taste for the newfangled sandwich, a taste that hasn't waned a bit in almost a century.
This year, in fact, marks Philippe's 95th birthday. Mathieu sold the business in 1927 to the Martin family, whose decendents, the Binder and Downey families, still own and run it. In 1951, to make way for the Hollywood freeway, Philippe moved from its original Aliso Street location to its present site near Union Station. From Alameda Street, you can see Philippe the Original's red neon sign beckoning. Every day, day in and day out, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas when the restaurant is closed, the city flocks to the beloved institution for breakfast, for lunch, and in less numbers, for dinner.
It's not a fancy place. Ceiling fans twirl overhead. Sawdust covers the floors and the large main room is set with long communal tables and worn wooden stools where everyone — judges and garment workers, policemen and clerks, basball fans and tourists sits elbow to elbow digging into Philippe's famous French dip sandwiches.
Not the usual joint
In a city that runs on fast food, Philippe's is an anomaly. Your food comes fast, but it's real. Put a Tommy's burger or a Pink's dog next to one of Philippe's finest and there's no contest. The French dip sandwich is sublimely basic and uncomplicated: slabs of well-roasted meat and a soft, tender bun that wicks up the decadent juices like blotter paper. Philippe's is not the kind of sandwich to eat on the run: it demands the ceremony of sitting down at a table with fellow Angelenos.
At Philippe the Original, the drill is always the same. As soon as you step into the cool, dark interior from the glare of the sun outside, you take a place in the shortest line in front of the counter. At peak times, there can be as many as 10 lines, but they move quickly.
The "menu" is posted on the wall, but basically it's deciding if you want beef, pork, lamb, ham or turkey French dip; potato salad or coleslaw; lemonade or iced tea — all the while checking out the desserts in the long glass case. Once you reach the head of the line, you give your order to the "carver," who puts it all together quick as a flash and sends you off with an overladen red plastic tray to find a spot at one of the tables.
Stop. Before you take a bite, find the jar of Philippe's own mustard, made up in 40-gallon batches twice a week. It's powerful stuff, but it's part of what makes Philippe's sandwiches so distinctive. The bun is a soft French-style one that soaks up just the right amount of meat juices. That famous jus, of course, helps, but these days the drippings in the bottom of the pan wouldn't last five minutes at lunchtime. Now the cooks simmer tall stockpots of beef bones, celery, onions and other vegetables overnight, enriching it the next morning with pan drippings.
Make mine lamb
Since my first visit, I've become a regular and have to get my Philippe fix every few weeks. I've tried all the permutations of the French dip sandwich, and the roasted leg of lamb may be my favorite. It's not some anonymous meat: it's distinctly lamb. And it's not rosy either. Medium rare is not in Philippe's vocabulary. The meats are moist and juicy, with the deep flavor that comes from long, slow roasting. The exception is the Turkey which can sometimes be dry. The pork is so juicy and falling-apart tender that it's more like pulled pork, which is a good thing.
Is there a better sandwich anywhere for under $5?
Add in some of the creamy potato salad laced with pickle and celery or the classic deli-style macaroni salad, and this may be the best meal going for a shade less than $6. The coleslaw is crisp and fresh, but a tad too sweet for me.
The lemonade, though, is plenty puckery, and the iced tea is an all-American basic. Coffee comes in big, thick-sided mugs, and costs all of 10 cents. And since they sell so much, this American brew hasn't had time to sit around on a burner boiling to death.
A comfort menu
For those who want a little something beforehand, Philippe's offers hard-boiled eggs pickled in crimson beet juice and pickled pigs' trotters, both delicious. Every day brings a different soup. Most are on the hearty side. If you feel a cold coming on, the chicken noodle tinged a bright yellow with tumeric and laden with thick, fat noodles should hit the spot. But delving much further into the menu isn't tremendously rewarding. The beef stew is s a little pallid, the chili just OK. Nevermind. Most people go to Philippe's for one thing and one thing only.
But there's a great deal of charm in old-fashioned desserts like a custard cup or tapioca pudding. Or, from October to May, a rosy baked apple scented with cinnamon. The tariff is an irresistable $1.70. Pies with the nostalgic taste of childhood go all the way up to $2.65 for a very generous slice. The coconut cream pie covered in a drift of softly whipped cream seems to disappear the fastest. There's also a wicked double-chocolate cake that ups the ante all the way to $3.15.
The first time wine buffs are introduced to Philippe's, they'll do a double-take as they see the list of wines by the glass posted behind the counter. These are seriously good and come at very fair prices. Owner Richard Bnder started the wine program about 10 years ago and chooses the 20 wines to serve by the glass; prices range from $4 to $15 for a Silver Oak Cabernet. Three wines by the bottle are listed at $60, but all the wines by the glass are also available by the bottle. There's no corkage fee, but probably nobody has ever thought to bring their own wine to Philippe's.
In a city where there's such disparity, Philippe's is the most democratic middle ground. At one end of the table, a Latino family says grace. At the other, two co-workers talk about baseball and a tourist unfolds a map. In the backroom, tucked in one of the wooden booths beneath train and circus memorabilia, a pair of scriptwriters discuss their latest draft. And in front of me in line, a father introduces his son to Philippe's, recounting how he came here with his father before the baseball game at Dodger Stadium. If that's not an institution, I don't know what is..