The Big Dipper
The restaurant spreads before you, six steps below ground: sawdust floors, lines of people, painted menus and neon beer signs on the walls. The lines--at peak hours there are 10 of them, each up to 20 people long--weave between the tables where scores of others are eating, oblivious to the crush. Pick a line and wait your turn.
When you reach the counter, you don’t need to consult the menu on the wall, of course. You’ve been here before. You make it short and snappy--"Beef, double dip. Coleslaw, blueberry pie, coffee.”
This is Philippe the Original, an L.A. institution that will be 100 years old in October. It has been serving French dip sandwiches--single-, double- and even triple-dipped--for 90 of those years.
Philippe’s (as everybody calls it) is in the heart of old Los Angeles. Union Station is a block away; Olvera Street skitters off to the south. Chinatown is in its backyard. And our town would be a different place without it--not just because Philippe’s still manages to be one of our favorite restaurants, serving 2,200 to 3,000 customers a day on weekdays and as many as 4,000 on weekends. (“Last Saturday,” says Juanita Gonzalez, who’s been making sandwiches here for 20 years, “there were so many people trying to get in, they got stuck at the doors.”) No, Philippe’s special contribution to this town of feverish change is that it is a rock--decade after decade it seems to be the same restaurant your father or grandfather introduced you to when you were a kid.
As always, a woman in a light tan uniform sets to work putting together your order: scooping slaw, dipping both halves of a French roll in jus with a pair of tongs and assembling your sandwich on a thick, gray pulp-paper plate. She’ll use the same tongs to pick up a slice of pie, and she’ll get the coffee from a counter behind her.
It takes about a minute and a half. You pay cash, but don’t try handing the money to her--she won’t touch it. Put your payment on a little metal tray, and someone else will return it with your change. Then you’ll wander around with your food and choose a seat. You can grab a stool at one of the long common tables, with lines of customers inching forward on either side of you. But if you don’t want somebody’s elbow in your coleslaw, continue around to the right--there’s a spacious room with more common tables and some booths.
Finally, you bite into your French dip sandwich: thin-sliced, well-done roast beef on a slightly crackling French roll sopping with rich meat juices and--of course--freshly made mustard that you have just spooned on the sandwich with care because it’s pretty hot.
When you’ve finished the sandwich, the slaw, the generously filled pie and the coffee, you walk out. Maybe not through the door you came in, because often there are people walking down those six steps (it’s nearer to the parking lots), but through the front door, between an old-fashioned candy counter and a rank of antique wooden phone booths. Glowing with contentment, you’ve just had a quintessential L.A. experience.
Why did you come here in the first place? For those beef, lamb and pork dip sandwiches (the turkey’s pretty good too, nice and moist). And, of course, that ultrafresh coleslaw, the house-pickled beets and those gaudy magenta hard-boiled eggs, plucked from a jar of beet juice, the fruit pies, the perfect baked apples (like miniature apple pies without crust), that rare old favorite, tapioca pudding, and the refreshing tart lemonade. I might also say a word for the mild, meaty, old-school chili, a cross between gravy and beef soup, and the tuna sandwich, made with pickle relish the way Los Angeles Unified School District cafeterias did it 60 or 70 years ago.
At any given time, most customers will be having beef dips--Philippe’s sells more beef than lamb, pork, turkey and ham put together. But the lamb and the pork versions definitely have their devotees.
Pork is a traditional favorite because it was one of the original dip sandwiches. The meat is irresistibly tender and juicy. Lamb is the only meat sliced at the counter by the “carvers,” the women who assemble your meal. The lamb sandwich is the second-biggest seller. It’s a lamb-lover’s treat: chewy slices (thicker than the other meats) full of the tangy, gamy taste of lamb, softened by the rich meat flavor of the dip.
If I can add my two bits (and I’m backed up by Manager Elias Barajas, who has been working and eating at Philippe’s for more than 40 years; he oversees the kitchen), the only sandwich that beats the lamb is a beef dip with blue cheese. It’s almost too flavorful to bear.
Talk to some of its 73 employees, and you get the feeling this is a happy workplace. “I like working with the people. It’s like a family,” Gonzalez says. “Lots of carvers have worked here 22, 25, 29 years.” Adding to the family feeling, six employees are second-generation.
Unlike most restaurants that aren’t attached to hotels, Philippe’s is a union shop. “We’ve been union since at least 1954,” General Manager Richard Binder says. “Our employees say they’re very happy with their medical plan, which covers spouses and children--the whole family.”
Who comes to Philippe’s? In the early morning, it’s a neighborhood restaurant for Chinatown. “At 6 a.m., it’s all Chinese people coming for coffee,” says Mariann Chaisuwatananone, a carver since 1978. Later on, you might see construction workers having breakfast (they often have a French dip instead of scrambled eggs or a stack of hots). At lunch, she says, “It’s office people, judges and attorneys, people from the Jewelry District with their badges.” At dinner, you see families and USC students. On weekdays, the rush hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m., but on Saturdays and Sundays, Philippe’s is crowded from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.--in part, Binder says, because of former Los Angeles residents who have returned for a nostalgic meal.
In short, people of all sorts and conditions come to Philippe’s. In the parking lot, I once saw the shuttle bus of an Altadena senior citizens’ home parked next to a van with the bumper sticker of a Navajo-language radio station in Chimney Rock, Ariz.
When a restaurant has been around for 100 years, it accumulates traditions. Credit cards are not accepted. They would slow things down, Binder explains. (But don’t worry, there’s an ATM in the main room.) “Anyway, we don’t have to change, so we don’t,” he adds. Not very often, anyway. Coffee is 10 cents; it was big news in 1977 when Philippe’s raised the price from a nickel.
The carver won’t give you a glass of water; you get your own at a fountain in the main room. And don’t even bother asking for lettuce, tomato or any kind of condiment on your sandwich. They don’t have any.
It’s not advertised, but you can ask for your sandwich to be triple-dipped, which makes it really sop with jus. “That’s my favorite way,” Binder says. “Of course, you have to eat it pretty fast or you’ll have to eat it with a spoon.”
“Some people even ask for a tuna dip,” Chaisuwatananone says. “We ask them two or three times, ‘Are you sure?’ But we’ll do it.”
Pickled pigs’ feet--boiled for a day and then pickled for two more--are a tradition going back to 1908, when Philippe Mathieu first opened his restaurant. Pigs’ feet were popular bar snacks in this country through the ‘30s, but most people seem to have forgotten about them. Understandably, because they’re far from convenience food, with all the gnawing it takes to winkle the tiny bits of meat from their prison of leathery pig skin and an annoying maze of foot bones (carpal, metacarpal and phalangeal, my friend). But at Philippe’s, where the meat is attractively perfumed with pickling spices, customers order an average of 300 pounds of pigs’ feet every week. You have to pick up one of these pigs’ feet with your hands--don’t even try to use a fork and knife (though if you want to, there are tumblers of spare cutlery at the right-hand end of the service counter--the carver will give you only the utensils she deems necessary).
This is how Philippe’s came to be. Philippe Mathieu, one of 14 children, was born in Pontis, a little sheepherding village in the French Alps, in 1876. As a teenager he worked at a butcher shop in Aix-en-Provence, then apprenticed as a chef in Algeria and served a two-year tour of duty in the French army.
He came to this country in 1901 and wound up in Los Angeles, by way of Buffalo, N.Y., in 1903. He liked his prospects here. In a few months he opened a deli and invited his brother, Arbin, to join him.
In 1908 he opened his first Philippe restaurant at 300 N. Alameda Ave., where he served roast beef, roast pork, roast lamb--and liver pate and blood sausage. The last were not necessarily exotic here--we’d had French restaurants since the 1860s. In fact, all of Mathieu’s restaurants were in L.A.'s traditional Frenchtown neighborhood, which dated to the 1830s (it has long since disappeared, torn down for City Hall and the 101 Freeway).
“He never mentioned selling sandwiches there,” says his grandson, Philippe Guilhem. “It was basically the kind of food restaurants served at the time. His food was probably a little more and little better.”
Certainly a little more, because this was an all-you-can-eat restaurant. A meal was 25 cents, and that included a pint of homemade wine. Ph. Mathieu’s, as the sign read (the Ph. stood for “Philippe”), drew such crowds that people sometimes called the police, figuring there must be a fight.
In 1911, the Mathieu brothers opened the New Poodle Dog French Restaurant (perhaps named after the famous Old Poodle Dog in San Francisco) at 156 N. Spring St. It was a white-tablecloth place that advertised live music every night. After two years of this sawdust-free dining venture, they closed it and opened another inexpensive place at 617 N. Alameda.
“I think the New Poodle Dog was more formal than he wanted, with its orchestra and so on,” Guilhem says. “He was a farm boy. He had simple tastes.”
In 1918, Philippe Mathieu moved to the auspicious location at 246 Aliso St., where he first served his French dipped sandwiches.
Probably no L.A. food subject has been so much debated as the origin of the French dip, and the controversy is not about to die because there’s no evidence to settle the matter. One story is that the French dip was invented at another downtown restaurant, Cole’s P.E. Buffet, in 1908. In this narrative, a cook dipped a roll in gravy to accommodate a customer who had a hard time chewing because of his bad teeth. Cole’s is still around too, though it’s closed at the moment. It was sold last year, and well-known chef Neal Fraser (Grace, BLD) plans to tweak Cole’s French dip sandwich when the place reopens in the fall. “We want it to be at least as good as Phillipe’s,” he says.
Philippe’s, for the record, has never had to rethink its dip.
There are three stories connected with how Philippe’s French dipped sandwich was born. In 1951, Mathieu told a Times reporter, “One day a customer saw some gravy in the bottom of a large pan of roast meat. He asked me if I would mind dipping one side of the French roll in that gravy. I did, and right away five or six others wanted the same.” He quickly ran out of gravy. “But,” he said, “it put me wise.” The next day he had a gallon of gravy ready, but so many people wanted dip sandwiches that he still ran out.
Grandson Philippe tells a slightly different version. “It was frugality on his part,” he says. “A fireman came over, maybe it was on a Monday, when there were leftover rolls. [Mathieu] would use them up although they were stale. The fireman complained that the roll was dry, so Philippe dipped it, basically to get rid of the guy.” This might be more likely--in 1951, Mathieu may have preferred to credit a customer rather than a stale roll. Needless to say, Philippe’s never had much of a problem with stale rolls after L.A. fell in love with French dips.
The most familiar story is that Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll in pan drippings, and the customer who had ordered the sandwich agreed to eat it anyway. This is highly unlikely, because an accident is the lazy explanation people usually come up with when they have no idea how a dish was invented.
Originally, Mathieu referred to this as a dip sandwich. “It was several years before they called it the French dip,” Guilhem says. “His place was colloquially known as Frenchy’s, so people would ask other restaurants, ‘Dip [my sandwich] like Frenchy’s does over there.’”
In 1925, after his landlord had doubled his rent several times, Mathieu bought his own property at 364 Aliso St. Two years later, exhausted by overwork, he sold the restaurant to a lawyer whose name nobody remembers, which is just as well, because he flopped. After a couple of months, Mathieu bought back the restaurant and sold it to brothers David and Harry Martin, making good on his promise to his wife to retire at 50.
The Martins and their in-laws the Binders have run it ever since. From 1927 to 1941, they kept it open 24 hours a day. In 1951, when the last bits of Frenchtown were paved over for the 101 Freeway, the Martins moved Philippe’s to 1001 N. Alameda, where it has been for the last 57 years.
An antique clock emblazoned with the name of a long-forgotten veterinary practice hangs on the wall as a souvenir of the livery stable the Martins once operated across Aliso Street from Philippe’s. Despite having owned a stable, they were a food-oriented family from the start. Two Martin brothers who later joined the company had been chocolate makers. Bill Binder, who married Frank Martin’s daughter, once ran his own restaurant, though his background was in brewing; his father had been the brewmaster at Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee. Now the Martins and the Binders have run Philippe’s four times longer than Mathieu himself did.
In Philippe’s kitchen--where there is no “chef,” just “cooks using old family recipes"--ovens are going from 3 a.m. to 5 p.m., roasting bottom rounds of beef, legs of lamb, pork butts and turkey breasts to keep up with the sandwich-making. For the jus, the cooks simmer 150 pounds of beef bones with stockpot vegetables for 24 hours, then use the stock to deglaze the roasting pans so those little browned bits can enrich it. (All sandwiches are dipped in the same jus.) Just beyond the ovens is the doughnut fryer, way over to the right is the mustard maker and in between are ranges for cooking soups, desserts and breakfasts.
What if you want to make a French dip at home? You know most of the secret now. Simmer bones and aromatic vegetables for 24 hours to make the stock, roast some meat until it’s well done and deglaze your roasting pan with stock. Pick up French rolls from Frisco Baking Co. in Cypress Park (that’s where Philippe’s gets them; the kosher pickles come from Schwartz Pickle Co. of Chicago). Slice the meat into 4- to 41/2-ounce portions (the lamb can vary more, because it’s carved by hand). And then dip. Of course, you’ll still have to come to Philippe’s for the mustard, because that’s one secret it’s not sharing.
You might not expect a sandwich joint to serve wine, but Philippe’s offers a quirky and somewhat sophisticated range of 10 California reds and an equal number of whites; the list is posted prominently above the counter.
“I got a passion for wine a couple of years ago,” Binder says. “I wanted to bring a few good wines by the glass, and I kept adding wines because the more you go to Napa, the more friends you get.”
The remarkable thing is the low prices. “I got upset at everybody overcharging on wine prices at restaurants,” he says. “So we charge cost plus 30%.” As a result, the once-chic cult Silver Oak Cab is $15 a glass, when it would be $25 or $30 at most places. Philippe’s has a beer list--more exactly, a dozen or so neon beer signs scattered around the walls--that includes Stella Artois and New Belgium Fat Tire as well as everyday beers.
In a way, Philippe’s unchangingness is a mirage. Nothing in this world stays the same forever. The turkey sandwich joined the menu in the ‘80s when diners started expressing diet concerns. The tuna sandwich was introduced in the ‘70s as a meatless dish for Fridays and Lent. And now there’s a wine list with hoity-toity Californias.
Still, if time travelers from 1918 entered Philippe’s today, they’d be at no loss for words. Beef, double dip. Coleslaw, blueberry pie, coffee. *
Philippe the Original, 1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-3781; www.philippes.com. Breakfast 6 to 10:30 a.m., sandwiches 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The owners of Philippe’s pronounce the name fil-LEE-pee’s, but they don’t insist that anybody else do so.
At Philippe, Mathieu’s first restaurant, roasted sheep’s and goats’ heads were weekend specials.
The sawdust on the floor (swept out every morning) is a tradition dating to 1908. In the ‘50s, Philippe’s successfully fought a health department demand to stop using it by arguing that sawdust was part of the restaurant’s essence.
Philippe’s can seat 350 people at the booths and tables in its nine dining rooms, which include two small rooms to the left of the counter and four larger upstairs rooms.
The Train Room, way in the back, houses a changing exhibit on railroad history provided by the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Assn. One corner is adorned with circus memorabilia because a group of circus people had lunch at Philippe’s every Monday for 30 years.
Posters on the walls cover up where the restaurant was obliged to brick in some of its windows for earthquake safety.
In 1958, the Los Angeles County Fair borrowed Philippe’s penny scale to weigh jockeys. Norman Rockwell happened to be at the fair that day and did a painting of jockey Eddie Arcaro on the scale. You can weigh yourself on it today.
Among dishes Philippe’s no longer offers are tamales, roast chicken stuffed with olives and nondip sandwiches with salami or Limburger cheese.
Until the smoking ban in restaurants, Philippe’s candy counter sold cigarettes. Smoke build-up on the walls was such a problem that the dining room had to be repainted every six months.
As a true Provencal homeboy, Mathieu had his Echo Park backyard set up for boules, the southern French version of lawn bowling.
Retired owner Bill Binder was born on the grounds of the Miller Brewing Co. brewery in Milwaukee, where his father was the master brewer.