Walk into Philippe the Original, the French dip institution on the eastern edge of Chinatown, at any time of the day, but especially the morning, and you'll notice a few things. There's the crowd, of course, a cross-section of Los Angeles: tourists, cops, kids, parents, lawyers, city workers, the kitchen crew at a nearby Chinatown noodle shop on a break. There are the carvers behind the counter, many of whom have been here for decades, taking orders, dipping and double dipping sandwiches, picking out pickled eggs.
And then there is the coffee, which has become notable in the same way that Los Angeles street tacos are often considered notable: for the price. But unlike cheap tacos, the existence of which some Angelenos regard as their birthright, the price of Philippe's coffee gives folks pause, so much so, that as manager and partner Andrew Binder says, many see the sign hanging above the enormous batch brewer that advertises the coffee (roasted by Sante Fe Springs-based Apffel's Fine Coffees) and the price (45 cents) and mistake it for a fun artifact of a time past.
In fact, you might recall that the coffee here used to be cheaper still. Binder's great-grandfather, Frank Martin, bought the restaurant from Philippe Mathieu in 1927, and then the coffee was priced at a nickel.
"He always wanted people to afford a nice cup of coffee," Binder says, about his great-grandfather. "For people who were down on their luck, for whatever reason. They always wanted to keep it at a nickel."
And so it was a nickel for decades. This was a price even lower than the ceiling set by the Office of Price Stabilization during the Korean War, a history lesson you may inadvertently learn if you browse the many, many things hanging on the walls at Philippe’s and find among the ephemera a 1952 OPS price sheet setting the maximum prices that the establishment was permitted to charge. The maximum price for hot coffee then: 7 cents.
In fact, the price remained unchanged until the 1970s, and it changed only because the cost of coffee skyrocketed. A family meeting was called. “It was a very serious issue," Binder says. They ultimately decided to double the price, to 10 cents.
Philippe's coffee remained at a dime until 2012, when supply issues and the cost of coffee again forced the family’s hand. This time, it went up to 45 cents, where it's stayed steady ever since. It’s even free if you buy a breakfast meal. In all, Binder says 400 to 450 cups are sold a day.
As the family is committed to keeping their menu as affordable as they possibly can, this cup of coffee will continue to be inexpensive, regardless of the volatility of the international coffee market. "Oh, we're going to keep it like this forever," Binder says.
Today, then, and tomorrow and the days after tomorrow into the foreseeable future, you can step up to the counter at Philippe's, drop two quarters in the tray and receive in return a mug the color of a Hershey’s bar and filled to the brim with an especially robust, full-bodied coffee that feels and tastes exactly like what you should be drinking here amongst the sawdust.
It’s great alongside one of Philippe’s rather exceptional plain cake doughnuts or with a lamb and blue cheese sandwich, double dipped, of course. It’s nice with cream or sugar or both of the above or none of above. It’s as cozy as your favorite sweater. Sort of like Philippe’s.
Philippe the Original: 1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-3781.