January 5, 2017 Jean Trinh KCET
For over a century, diners have been flocking to Philippe the Original to get a taste of its French dip sandwich, an iconic dish that is very much woven into the fabric of Los Angeles. This old-school joint’s fervent following has a lot to do with its long history and beefy au jus that gets soaked into each sandwiches’ French rolls.
Andrew Binder, the 28-year-old managing partner and fourth generation owner of Philippe’s, says what makes the restaurant’s jus so special is the prime cuts of beef they use and the serious volume of meat they roast each day. “On a very slow day, we’re probably doing at least 400-to-500 pounds of beef, so all those juices and all those drippings that we’re roasting, they’re collected in our roasting pans,” he says.
Throughout the day, the chefs constantly add water to the concentrated pan drippings. By the end, they mix half of the meat juices with a traditional stock and simmer it overnight, making for a rich and savory jus that gets used in the sandwiches the next day.
While there’s no clear answer to the ongoing debate as to which restaurant was the progenitor of the French dip — Philippe’s or Cole’s — what is certain is that both L.A. institutions serve it differently. Philippe’s sandwiches come pre-dipped with the gravy, while Cole’s sauce comes in a cup on the side for discretionary dunking.
It would be remiss to not mention Philippe’s special hot mustard that complements its French dips, which are stuffed with slices of tender meats, like beef and lamb. “We actually have a cult following with our mustard,” Andrew Binder says, comparing their condiment to horseradish. “It burns, [but] the heat dissipates in a matter of seconds.”
As for the creation of Philippe’s French dip, Andrew Binder says it was the byproduct of a happy accident. Although French immigrant Philippe Mathieu launched the restaurant in 1908 at its first location at 300 N. Alameda Ave., it wasn’t until he moved the eatery to 246 Aliso St. in 1918 that he would make his serendipitous mistake, inadvertently dropping a roll into pan drippings from a roast and serving it to a customer. The diner, who, according to Andrew Binder, was a fireman (it’s a common misconception that he was a policeman), apparently enjoyed it so much that he came back the next day with some friends and asked for it again — and the rest is history.
In 1927, Mathieu sold Philippe’s to Andrew Binder’s great-grandfather Frank Martin and his brothers Henry and David. Years later, the construction of the Hollywood Freeway was underway and there were plans for it to cut right through the restaurant’s location. The family was considering closing the business, but Frank Martin’s son-in-law, William “Bill” Binder — a brewmaster who left his job to work at Philippe’s — convinced them to move the eatery in 1951 to its current location at 1001 N. Alameda Ave.
Andrew Binder remembers spending summers working at Philippe’s and apprenticing under former manager Elias Barajas, who retired last year after being employed at Philippe’s for 48 years. He’s worked in all facets of the company, from washing dishes to working the kitchen and managing the restaurant’s parking lot. Andrew Binder didn’t know for sure he was going to run Philippe’s until he decided to go to restaurant hospitality school in Colorado. He began working full time at Philippe’s in 2010.
In its nearly 109 years in business, things haven’t changed much. There’s still sawdust on the floor (just like Andrew Binder remembers when he was a kid), and the menu has mostly stayed the same. Philippe’s even has longtime employees still helming the counter, like one sandwich maker who’s celebrating her 40th anniversary this year. Business has also stayed busy: On average, they’ll sling over 2,000 French dip sandwiches per day, and when they’re really busy, nearly 4,000.
“Throughout all this time, World War [I] had happened, other wars, [and] the Depression,” Andrew Binder says. “So many businesses opened and closed around us that it’s a miracle we are still around.”
Part of the secret to their success is that they try not to change too many things. It was a big deal to their customers that two years ago they started accepting credit cards, and the price of a cup of coffee increased over the years from a nickel to 45 cents. Andrew Binder says their devout clientele tend to notice any slight change and usually don’t like it.
“They consider it their home as well, their restaurant, and that’s such a charming, cool aspect of the restaurant itself,” he says. “We have our regulars: At 6 a.m. when the doors open, we know what half of the people are ordering and it’s already made for them.”