At some point, people started naming things “French” that actually weren’t from France, or French in origin. French fries. French kiss. Even French toast may have been invented in Ancient Rome. Another culinary delight that I assumed was actually French this time, the French dip sandwich, fell victim to the same fate as the fries – it’s not truly French. Legend has it that the French dip originated in Los Angeles, of all places (pretty far from France, non?).
Not only was the French dip born in LA, but it also originated at one of the city’s oldest restaurants that is still in business today. We set out to have lunch at Philippe’s, opened in 1908, and take in some local history with our meal.
Upon entering Philippe’s, it is clear this is no ordinary Los Angeles eatery. There is sawdust lining the floor, simple wooden bench seating to share, food served on paper plates and plastic trays. Even a cup of coffee remained just five cents until 1977, when it increased in price to a dime. It seems that everything Philippe’s does is in trying to stay true to their history.
We secured a place in one of the lines extending from the counter under the neon signs. The place was packed – Dodgers fans, locals (one of us), tourists (the rest of us), all waiting for “The Original French Dipped Sandwich.” Oh, and a few glasses of $0.75 lemonade.
Newspaper articles and stories lined the wall – I noticed one in particular from 1977, detailing how upset people were that Philippe’s could no longer afford to offer five cent coffee – If they could see a Starbucks today! But back to the sandwiches. It was finally our turn to order, and I went with the classic – French dip with roast beef and swiss, double-dipped (they dip the undersides of the bread for you), with a side of macaroni salad, one glass of lemonade, and one glass of iced tea. There was also a pickled egg thrown in there, just to try. You can order a sandwich with roast beef, roast pork, lamb, turkey, or ham. The hot mustard is supposed to accompany the sandwich very well, but not being a hot mustard fan, I decided to leave it at the au jus.
But wait! How did the sandwich creation that I was eating come to exist? Legend has it that Philippe Mathieu was preparing sandwiches one day, when he accidentally dropped the French bread into a pan of juices from the meat. The policeman he was serving it to said he would have the sandwich just like that. The next day, the same policeman returned with some friends raving about this dipped sandwich. No one is quite sure where the “French” label came from – perhaps the French roll? Could it have been the police officer’s last name? Or maybe because Philippe himself was French? No one knows for sure.
Their dessert selection was very tempting and is supposedly very good as well, but I knew after focusing on the dip and the mac salad, I probably wouldn’t have room. Plus, we had Sprinkles cupcakes (another Los Angeles original) waiting.
Although no one knows exactly why it is called a French dip, I do know that Philippe’s is still doing their famous original very well. Thick slices of roast beef, a perfectly dipped French roll with melted swiss, and homemade sides – all for a good price. If you are looking for some comfort food with origins in early Los Angeles history, you can’t go wrong at Philippe’s The Original!