For nearly a century, a vicious battle has raged on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles — two opposing factions make the bold claim as the rightful originator of the French Dip Sandwich. And it’s a feud that doesn’t look to be settled in the next 100 years.
Philippe’s vs Cole’s
In 1908 two restaurants, less than a mile from each other in Downtown Los Angeles, declared that a new type of sandwich — the French Dip — had been invented in their respective kitchens.
But was Philippe Mathieu or Henry Cole the first Los Angeles chef to dip a French roll into the pan drippings from a roasted joint of meat and create a new culinary delight loved the world over? Let’s dig in!
Philippe the Original
Philippe the Original is named for Philippe Mathieu, a French chef who opened a restaurant (he named it after himself), in Downtown Los Angeles in 1908.
Philippe’s is famous for its sawdust-covered floors and its lunch-counter ordering style. Customers still queue up in long lines to order from one of many waitresses buzzing about behind the glass-fronted deli counter showcasing pies, pickled eggs, and potato salad.
In 1927 Mathieu sold Philippe’s to brothers Henry and David Martin, who owned a livery across the street. The Martin family, along with their in-laws, the Binders, have operated Philippe the Original ever since.
Philippe’s also keeps the price for a cup of coffee nostalgically low. And while this has gone up slightly over the years, today a cup of coffee at Philippe’s will only set you back just 46 cents, possible the best coffee deal in town.
Philippe the Original’s French Dip Claim
Mathieu’s restaurant had been operating for a decade before the chef boasted that he created the world’s first French Dip Sandwich. How this event unfolded on an otherwise uneventful 1918 day is still up for debate. In fact, there are no fewer than three distinct origin stories — the frugal chef, the customer request, and the happy accident.
The frugal chef version, as recounted by Mathieu’s own grandson, has the chef serving a fireman a sandwich on a stale, day-old roll. The fire-fighting customer complained about the roll’s toughness, so Mathieu dipped the bread in pan drippings to soften it up. The man was, of course, delighted with the result.
The customer request version, the tale Mathieu himself recounted to reporters over the years, has a curious customer asking if Mathieu would dip one half of his sandwich in the gravy pooling in a rosating pan. Phillipe agreed, and naturally the customer loved it. From that day forward, Mathieu always made extra gravy for dipping his French Dip Sandwiches.
And the happy accident story postulates that Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll in drippings, but the policeman who ordered the sandwich was hungry and in a hurry, so he insisted on eating it despite the chef’s gaffe. To the surprise of everyone, the customer loved it.
In each case, word quickly got out about the new style of sandwich, eventually referred to as the French Dip after Mathieu’s nationality, and the legend was born.
Philippe the Original’s French Dip Sandwich
Today, a French Dip at Philippe the Original can be ordered three ways — single dip (only the top-half of the roll is dipped), double dip (both halves dipped), and wet (an extended double-dipping) — and is offered in beef, lamb, pork, pastrami, ham, and even turkey.
You can also dress it up with a variety of cheeses (blue cheese is recommended), horseradish, and Philippe’s own special mustard recipe.
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Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet
Henry Cole opened his eponymous restaurant, located in the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building, in 1908. Back then it was called Cole’s P.E. Buffet. Today it goes by the unwieldy name of Cole’s, Originators of the French Dip.
These days Cole’s is more nightclub than restaurant. It doesn’t open until 5:00 p.m. and isn’t family friendly — though minors can still sit outside and take in the unique ambiance of the nightlife along Sixth Street while they enjoy dipping a French Dip.
Because of its long history and its location in the Pacific Electric Building, once the terminus of the Pacific Electric Red Car Line, Cole’s was named as Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument Number 104 on October 17, 1989.
The historic restaurant’s late-night status probably has a lot to do with the fact that it’s now owned by Pouring With Heart, a corporate collection of taverns and night spots with 19 locations in Los Angeles.
Cole’s French Dip Claim
Legend has it that Henry originated the French Dip almost immediately upon opening his restaurant. If that’s the case, it would have happened around ten years before Philippe’s claim. And like the competition, there are a few different origin stories.
One version follows the template of the customer request — a customer who had just visited the dentist asked if he could have the hard French roll dipped in gravy to soften it up for his sensitive teeth. Henry obliged and the dentally challenged diner was overjoyed. Other customers noticed this innovation and requested their sandwiches with the same treatment.
The other version falls into the lucky accident category — Cole dropped the roll into the pan drippings, served it anyway, and the customer loved it. The next customer in line ordered their sandwich the same way.
Cole’s French Dip Sandwich
Unlike Philippe’s sandwich, the French Dip at Cole’s is a dip-your-own affair. Your choice of meats — pork or roast beef — is served dry with cup of au jus to dip it in and a pickle on the side. Like Philippe’s, you can top the sandwich with a variety of cheeses should you be dairy inclined.
So Who’s Got the Better French Dip Claim? (And Better Sandwich?)
On a first listen, Philippe’s frugal chef origin story feels the most believable, if only slightly. But his lucky accident version has the benefit of being a tale told first-hand by the chef himself. Conversely, there are no first-hand accounts of the sandwich being originated at Cole’s. Also consider that Henry Cole was arrested for fraud in 1942. Just saying.
But in the end, it doesn’t really matter who invented the French Dip Sandwich. The competition between the two spots makes for a far more compelling story, and one which generates more interest in both restaurants than if a definitive originator could be decided upon.
As for which sandwich is better, both are quite delicious. Our expert tasters prefer the roast beef at Philippe’s and the pork at Cole’s. But we encourage you to sample each in its multitude of combinations for yourself.
Another Dispute: The Oldest Restaurant in Los Angeles
In addition to quarreling over who invented the French Dip, Cole’s and Phillipe’s have also frequently been at odds over the which is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles. As both restaurants opened their doors in 1908, this could very well be an impossible matter to settle.
Although the sign on the Philippe’s building boasts “The Original,” this is actually the restaurant’s third location. It first opened at 300 N. Alameda before moving to 246 Aliso St in 1918. The restaurant moved to its current location when The 101 freeway came through Downtown in 1951.
Cole’s is still located in its original location on the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building, but the restaurant closed its doors for most of 2007 and all of 2008 for an aggressive remodeling that took longer than anticipated.
Because of these facts, the two restaurants have come to a compromise over the oldest restaurant dispute. Today, Philippe’s makes the claim of being the oldest continually operating restaurant in Los Angeles (working on the assumption there was no interruption of service each time it changed locations) while Cole’s is proud to call itself the oldest public house in Los Angeles.
But even though the two businesses managed to navigate through the claim of who’s been operating longest, the dispute over the origins of the French Dip sandwich will never be settled. And, frankly, that’s a good thing — for the restaurants and for Los Angeles.
French Dip Feud in Los Angeles
- Philippe the Original • 1001 N. Alameda St, Downtown • Open Daily 6 a.m. — 10 p.m.
- Cole’s French Dip • 118 E 6th St, Downtown • Daily 5 p.m. — 2 a.m. 21+ only.
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