A slice of old L.A.
BY LAWRENCE CHRISTON
The cluster of high-rises that increasingly cram downtown Los Angeles outlines a ruling corporate aesthetic that makes a sawdust-floored joint like Philippe The Original sandwich shop absolutely necessary. Those breathtakingly tall, sleek edifices are places without memory. Philippe’s is a venerable, down-here-on-the-ground institution built on a sandwich and a vanishing history.
Everyone who knows L.A. knows Philippe’s. Mention the name and watch your listener smile, or take on the pensive expression of a remembered pleasure. Philippe’s is a habit, a culinary itch you can’t wait to scratch, a guilt-free scarfing of beef stews, breakfast omelets with potatoes and cinnamon rolls; custard and apple pie. There are Caesar and garden salads for the health-conscious. There’s beer and wine, pig’s feet and a housemade mustard that will steam your sinuses. The menu list takes up half the south wall next to the cash register.
There are a lot of reasons to check out the place. The main one is the French dip sandwich, once tasted, never forgotten. The website describes it as well as anyone can:
“(The) French dipped sandwich is the specialty of the house and consists of either roast beef, pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham served on
a lightly textured, freshly baked French roll which has been dipped in the gravy of the roasts. Swiss, American, Monterey, jack or blue cheese may be added. To accompany your sandwich we offer a tart, tangy coleslaw, homemade potato and macaroni salads, hard boiled eggs pickled in beet juice and spices, large kosher style, dill or sweet pickles, black olives and hot yellow chili peppers.”
If reading this doesn’t get your juices going, check your pulse.
For those who have never visited, Philippe’s menu is served cafeteria style, only instead of moving along a buffet line, you line up in front of one of 10 female servers who carve and put together your entire meal on the spot and hand it across a deli-style counter on a tray. It’s cash only. The main L-shaped dining room, consisting of long wooden tables and stools, breaks up into smaller side rooms that are even more Spartan than a high school dining hall. There are 350 seats in all. Large ceiling fans turn overhead; the rich conversational burl of the place is punctuated by the rattling passage of busboys pushing carts loaded with glasses, cups and silverware. Once done with your meal, all you have to do is get up and leave.
If you come in through the corner entrance at Alameda and Ord streets, you’ll see an old-fashioned candy counter on your right and a row of five telephone booths lining the wall on your left. (Remember pay phones? The telephone company doesn’t. Only one of them works. The rest are used, ironically, by cellphone callers who want their conversations kept private.) If you enter from the street side, you’ll find yourself on top of a staircase that overlooks the entire room, usually crowded (3,500 a day pass through). The lines in front of the service counter will clue you in on how to proceed, once you get past the rich variety of information overload. You get your tray, sit with the people who came with you, or with strangers, with whom you may start an easy conversation. Or not. It’s that kind of place.
“Coffee is big here,” says manager Andrew Binder. “People have come in who’re down on their luck, or transient. My grandfather always wanted them to at least be able to have a cup of good coffee.”
Binder, a tall, rangy 26-year-old who looks like he could take the outfield for the L.A. Dodgers — home games are a big draw for Philippe’s — is a fourth-generation member of the most recent family to take ownership of the place. The number is few. Binder sat down at a table and patiently told the history that’s been told many times.
“There used to be a large section of French people in this part of town. A man named Philippe Mathieu established the place in 1908 on Aliso Street. The story of the French dip starting by accident is true. He did accidentally drop a sandwich into the hot beef juice. But it wasn’t a cop who bought and ate it anyway. It was a fireman, who came back the next day with more firemen.
“The French moved on. My great-grandfather, Frank Martin, had two brothers. They were from Kansas. They bought Philippe’s from Mathieu in 1927, for about $5,000. They kept it open 24 hours a day until World War II.” (The current ownership consists entirely of Martin family descendants.)
Binder stood up to point at a wall chart showing the federal government’s OPS ceiling price guidelines of the time (“Nobody knows what OPS stands for. I tried to look it up”). A breakfast of ham, bacon, sausage and eggs, plus toast, potatoes and coffee, cost 65 cents. Draft beer was 10 cents a glass. The 5-cent cup of coffee held its price until the 1990s, when it went up to a dime. Now it’s 45 cents.
Construction of the 101 Freeway forced Philippe’s to relocate to its current spot, once occupied by a machine shop and a second-story hotel. Otherwise, little changed.
“Tradition and loyalty are very important to us,” Binder said. “Most of the servers have been here so long that some of them baby-sat me when I was a little kid. We’re unionized too, with full health benefits for people who work 20 hours a week or more. That’s not true of many restaurants in L.A. Our turnover is very low.”
Celebs have come through; Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson. Leonardo DiCaprio once stepped behind the counter for a picture with the servers. And food writers keep rediscovering and marveling at the place. Gourmet magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Pan Am Clipper magazine, the New York Times. Old Herald- Examiner columnists (one headline reads: “Hold the Glitz”). The ultimate tribute, a 1999 James Beard Foundation Award, stands over a Dodgers memorabilia case.
What most characterizes Philippe’s atmosphere is less tangible; everyday working class people coming in off the street – cops, firemen, train men and travelers who walk over from Union Station, laborers and city workers wearing employee swipe cards on lanyards. Street people, families, people alone. Teens taking selfies by the candy counter, not far from the wizened little Asian woman jammed into a corner staring out with an expression that says, Whatever you can think of, I’ve seen worse.
Beneath the Ord Street entrance hangs a three-quarter-length photo of a scrawny, bearded old bone under a 10-gallon hat, who looks like a prospector in from the 19th century. Charles L. Sample is his name, carefully inked in. The shy gleam in his eye suggests he couldn’t be more tickled. From 1919 to 2003, Philippe’s gave him comfort and pleasure. It was a place to be. It still is.
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