Philippe the Original, Los Angeles
This is a blog that’s been a long time coming. Years ago, when I had just started my first adult job covering Idaho State men’s basketball, I quickly discovered two major perks that came with covering a Division I team: traveling to road games and free meals in different cities. Of course, with the newspaper industry drowning, those benefits are fading fast for those still in the business, but at the time in 2009, the rule at the Idaho State Journal was that if I could justify the expense and keep the costs as low as possible, any road game the Bengals played was fair game for me to cover.
That was both the right and wrong thing to say to me, because I am very good at planning and scheming to achieve whatever goal I want. If I knew a flight somewhere would be expensive, I’d skimp on the hotel to knock the cost down. If the hotel was costly, I’d fly into a further away airport and add an hour to my drive. I even once drove from Pocatello, Idaho to Cheney, Wash. (eight hours, 15 minutes each way) because flying into Spokane would have been too expensive, but I wanted to cover a game at Eastern Washington. On top of wanting to be at every game because I loved my job and wanted to do the best job I possibly could with it, I also wanted to get to as many cities and restaurants as I could. There aren’t many opportunities in life to travel a certain region and not have to pay for it, and both the Big Sky and the Bengals’ schedule each year was full of enjoyable places to travel.
One of those places was Los Angeles, where I knew that a visit to Philippe the Original was a requirement. Since 1908, Philippe’s has been a Los Angeles icon as one of the two restaurants (Cole’s is the other) that claims to be the birthplace of the French Dip sandwich. As Philippe’s legend has it, in 1918, owner Philippe Mathieu was constructing a sandwich for a hungry police officer and accidentally dropped the sandwich in the roasting pan that the meat had come out of, soaking the sandwich with juice and broth from the meat. The officer told Mathieu he would take the sandwich anyway, and Mathieu handed him the wet sandwich. The next day, the officer came back with some of his friends and asked for more “dipped sandwiches”. As usually happens with mistakes or special requests being served and enjoyed, a light went on for Mathieu, and the French Dip was born.
Why is it called the French Dip? The answer is as much an unsolved mystery as the question of who came up with the sandwich first. Philippe’s offers three possible explanations: it was named in homage of Mathieu, a French immigrant, it was named for the French bread that the sandwich is served on, or the officer’s name was Officer French and the sandwich was named after him. Nobody knows for sure, and even Philippe’s says that the true origin has been lost to history. So much for finding out the answer to that question.
What hasn’t been lost to history is tradition and taste, which I found out for myself back in 2009 before watching Idaho State play at Southern California. So why so long to blog about it? Two reasons: First, by the time I had started this blog, too much time had passed since my visit to Philippe’s that I didn’t think I could fairly and accurately write about my experiences. Second, I couldn’t pass up the chance to introduce two important people to something I knew was outstanding. If you’ve read any previous posts on this blog at all, you know that my wonderful fiancee Amy is with me for all of these trips, and I love finding blog-worthy places with her. In addition, my brother Simon moved out to Los Angeles from Virginia in 2013, yet hadn’t made the trip up U.S. 101 to Philippe’s. Needless to say, that’s an opportunity that I could not resist, and when Amy and I headed to the City of Angels in December for a visit with Simon, a trip to Philippe’s was in order on our second day in Southern California.
The first thing that makes Philippe’s different is the way that they get your meal to you. At most places, the line forms at two or three cash registers, and the order is prepared in the back while you move to a separate part of the restaurant to wait on your meal. At Philippe’s, the lines can get so long that doing it the normal way would cause a ridiculous amount of time to get your sandwich, so they feature 10 different stations for customers to order, pay and receive. Each station featuring its own carver, who handles everything from taking your order to making it and delivering it, and it’s not like you’re dealing with your average teenager who’s learning the business here. Many of Philippe’s carvers have been working at Philippe’s for decades, with one having worked at the counter since the Nixon administration. In case you weren’t sure how long that’s been, that’s 42 years of experience there. When you do anything for that length of time, you’re bound to get pretty good at it. Also helping is the fact that if you want to add a side or dessert after paying for your meal, there’s a separate spot for ordering and paying for all non-sandwich items. Very efficient.
The next difference comes after you’ve handed your cash (Philippe’s is cash only, again done in the name of speed) to your carver, because a quick glance at the dining room reveals that Philippe’s doesn’t have small tables. Instead, it’s grab a seat wherever you can find one at a long table that stretches across the room. Unless you have a large group, there’s a decent chance that you might find yourself sitting next to a complete stranger while you’re enjoying your lunch. It’s just the way it is here, and it’s as much a part of their history as the sawdust on the floor, which is used to help neutralize any spills and has been for decades.
Tradition aside, the reason people have been coming here for the past century is in the French Dip sandwiches, and you’ve got several options to choose from, as long as it’s not too early or too late. Philippe’s opens at 6 a.m., but only the beef and ham dips are available that early. For pork, turkey or lamb, which round out the lineup, you’ve got to wait until 9 a.m. Don’t wait too long, however, because if Philippe’s runs out of a certain kind of meat, they’re done selling it until the next day. Hey, when you’ve been around 107 years in a place like Los Angeles and survived two relocations, chances are you’re not sacrificing on quality.
Once you’ve decided on your meat, the next choices are whether you want cheese and how wet you want your sandwich. Despite the name of French Dip, Philippe’s does not serve their au jus in a separate side for you to dip throughout your meal. Instead, they dip the meat to get the au jus on it before it’s even served to you, simply because they would not have enough au jus to satisfy the demand if they served it on the side. You can get it single dipped, double dipped or wet, which are varying levels of broth on the sandwich, as the names imply. I haven’t seen the wet one, but I’m guessing that at that stage, it requires silverware to eat.
Truthfully, a single dip is enough, and as soon as I sank my teeth into my dipped beef with Jack cheese, a lot of great memories came rushing back. The beef is so tender and the jus gives it both the perfect flavor and the perfect texture. The meat practically melts in your mouth and the bread soaks up the jus beautifully to take on its flavor as well. The crustiness of the French bread means that unlike Italian beef, which is also a great sandwich, the bread is going to stay together in the face of all of that broth rather than get soggy, which makes French bread the perfect vessel for all of that flavor.
Amy, of course, despises beef in all forms, so she opted for turkey, and it turns out that Philippe’s is as skilled with poultry as it is with beef, and the jus works just as well with turkey as it does with beef. Her sandwich was incredible, and made even more so with the addition of Philippe’s homemade hot mustard. Contrary to both popular opinion and the opinion of my taste buds, there actually is no horseradish in the mustard. The mustard does taste like it has horseradish in it, which Philippe’s says is because the mustard seed is in the same genetical family as horseradish and other plants.
Instead of adding horseradish, Philippe’s simply allows the mustard seed’s naturally sharp flavor to shine, creating a good amount of heat that is best enjoyed in small doses. Amy was very pleased with the added flavor once she figured out how not to overwhelm the sandwich, and it worked just as well on Simon’s pork, which was also incredible. Following the rule of keep it simple, there’s a reason Philippe’s sticks to only five meats on its menu. It’s because it knows what it’s doing with those meats, resulting in a quality sandwich every time.
That’s how you stay in business in the country’s second-largest city for over a century. That’s how you get customers to accept open seating, cash-only registers and lines out the door. Quality and innovation are crucial for any restaurant to become beloved, and Philippe’s has both of those for sure. Whether or not they actually invented the French Dip is disputed, but there’s no doubt they’ve perfected it. I just hope I don’t have to wait another five years for my next visit.
Time to go: Depends on the time of year. If at all possible, avoid going between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., because lines can get very long during this time frame. Also, if you’re going during the summer, check the baseball schedule first to make sure the Dodgers aren’t at home. Philippe’s is one mile away from Dodger Stadium, and as such, it is a very popular hangout spot before and after Dodger home games, so it’s likely to be very packed when the Dodgers are playing. Otherwise, it opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Remember, if you’re going for lamb, turkey or pork, don’t go before 9 a.m., because it’s not served until then.
Wait during my visit: None this time, shockingly. The first time, the wait was lengthy, but thanks to the fast ordering system, the long lines do go quickly.
Location: After being forced out of its second home by U.S. 101, Philippe’s has been at 1001 North Alameda Street in Los Angeles since 1951.
Cost: Very reasonable. Philippe’s isn’t as cheap as it was decades ago, of course, but a sandwich and drink can be had for about $7 per person. Of note, iced tea and lemonade are both under $1. Keep in mind, though, no plastic accepted unless you’re buying a shirt or mustard from their gift shop after your meal (yes, you can buy jars of their mustard). At the counter, it’s cash only.
Parking: Have hope, there are spaces here. Philippe’s operates two lots, one directly behind the restaurant and one just across the street from the restaurant. Parking is free to Philippe’s customers only and cars must be moved when one leaves the restaurant so people don’t try and use it to get free parking for Dodger games.
Seating arrangement: As discussed above, it’s long tables and open seating, with a few counter areas. You might end up sitting next to or across from someone you’ve never met, and if it’s crowded, you probably will.
Specialty items: French Dip sandwiches, hot mustard