No dip in its popularity

Times Staff Writer

By the time Mary Jo Hafner arrived at Philippe the Original on Monday afternoon, the line of people waiting to celebrate the restaurant’s 100th anniversary had snaked around the restaurant and was stretching up Ord Street. The sun was in full tilt, and while some had packed lunches, umbrellas and bottles of water to fortify themselves against the wait, Hafner had none of those.

But the 59-year-old from Hawthorne stood with a grin on her face and a quick laugh in her throat. She’d befriended the people around her, she said: “You become family quickly when you come to Philippe’s.”

Lured by the promise of 10-cent French dip sandwiches, nickel cups of coffee and the chance to mingle with other fans of the downtown institution, thousands of people flocked to the restaurant Monday.

They represented a broad swath of Los Angeles and beyond, and included a couple from Riverside who had the restaurant cater their wedding; three generations of a family from Covina, the youngest a 3-month-old tucked in her car seat; and two friends from San Luis Obispo who usually take the train down for Dodger games, French dips and coconut cream pie.


In a city in which culinary trends are fleeting and restaurants open and close at a dizzying pace, a restaurant that can endure for 100 years is a rarity.

Richard Gonzalez, 29, of South Pasadena was there, he said, to pay homage to a place that was “an L.A. institution in every sense.” Gonzalez said he’d discovered the restaurant about five years ago after stepping off a Red Line train at Union Station, and had quickly fallen in love with the old-time feel of the place, from the waitresses’ 1950s-style uniforms to the old-fashioned telephone booths adorning one wall.

Customers who had discovered the restaurant in the last decade were among the minority of those in line Monday, though. Others waiting remembered childhoods spent on the restaurant’s sawdust floor, playing in the back room lined with model trains, and carving names in the restaurant’s wooden walls before that practice was forbidden long ago.

Some even had visited Philippe’s at its last location on Aliso Street -- the restaurant moved in 1951 to make way for the Santa Ana Freeway.


Jimmie Bria, 87, was one of the old-timers. His father, he said, knew the original Philippe -- that would be Philippe Mathieu, who sold the business in 1927. Bria remembered his parents sending him to the restaurant with a bag when the sandwiches were 35 cents, telling him to fill it up with French dips.

Now, Bria comes to the restaurant once a month from his home in Alhambra with his son Bob, 49. “I get a kick out of it,” said Bob Bria.

For George Munana, the restaurant is a time-honored staple going back more than 50 years. His family would travel from San Bernardino to Dodger games, and “before or after the game, we’d be here.”

Munana, 63, lives in San Juan Capistrano now. But he still drives up to the restaurant. He’d been to its 95th anniversary too, he said.

While Philippe’s serves such old-time delicacies as pickled pigs feet and eggs, sweet baked apples and icy lemonade, almost everyone in line told of a long love affair with the French dip -- usually made with beef, though some cited lamb and pork as favorites.

That’s what Tina and Marcos Enriquez served at their 1978 wedding reception, which was held on the restaurant’s second floor. (Deviled eggs and potato salad were also on the menu). The couple left work early for Monday’s party, bringing six family members with them, including Marcos’ father, Salvador, 82.

The legend goes that in 1918, the restaurant’s founder, Philippe Mathieu, accidentally dropped a French roll into a roasting pan of meat drippings while preparing a sandwich for a police officer. Other versions of the story say Mathieu dunked the bread deliberately because it was stale. The officer (some sources say it was a fireman) liked the sandwich so much, according to restaurant lore, that he came back with friends to order the sandwich en masse. They cost 10 cents back then.

But the biggest part of Philippe’s appeal may lie in its reliability, the fact that coffee is always served in the same brown cups, there’s always the same amount of sawdust on the floor, and the food -- served always on paper plates -- tastes the same day in and day out.


Richard Binder, whose family has owned the restaurant since his grandfather bought it from Mathieu in 1927, said that sort of uniformity requires an unusual vigilance on the part of his family -- five of whose members work at the restaurant -- and a stable of longtime employees.

Bread, meat and other staples must not vary, in size or taste. Customers notice any variation from the norm, said Elias Barajas, who began as a busboy at the restaurant in 1967 and rose through the ranks to become meat slicer, fry cook, head cook and now manager.

When a chef is sick or on vacation, Barajas says, he has to sample the gravy and dressing to make sure they taste as they always do. And while he has ceded most of his cooking responsibilities, Barajas is still responsible for making the mustard fresh each week -- an estimated 80 gallons of the sinus-clearing stuff. He’s slowly teaching the routine to the new head cook -- who has been in that role since 1981.

On a day when the Dow Jones dropped below 10,000 for the first time in four years and economic news looked grim, the idea of a 10-cent sandwich wasn’t half bad, said Robert Donley, 73, of Canyon Country. He and his wife, Marylyn, said they had been visiting the restaurant for 50 years, ever since Robert ate dinner there after a shift at the Department of Water and Power. They sat at a low table, eating French dips with cheese and paper bowls full of beef stew.

“I won’t be here for the next one,” Marylyn said of the centennial. “So I have to celebrate when I can.”

Bob Bria said the pricing is one of the few ways he can measure that time is passing at Philippe’s -- prices rise a little each year, and a beef French dip now normally costs $5.35.

Bria and his father debated how to pay for their sandwiches Monday -- eventually pulling out a dollar bill to cover their order, plus tax. While they enjoyed the deal, they said, it wasn’t the reason they were there.

“We’ll come back next week and pay five-something too,” Bob Bria said.