Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Did you know that the French dip sandwich wasn’t created in France, but right here in Los Angeles? Though there seems to be a bit of conjecture as to exactly how it happened, and who truly invented the popular sandwich, this is the story I’ve heard since I first began frequenting Philippe’s Restaurant as a child.
It all began in 1903 when Philippe Mathieu immigrated to Los Angeles from Aix-en-Provence, France. Although the downtown area was experiencing a growth spurt, restaurants were few and far between. The ambitious young Frenchman located a vacant shop at Alameda and 6th Street in the heart of old Los Angeles and opened the city’s first French style deli. The menu included delicacies like blood sausage (which contained two buckets of fresh blood from the nearby slaughterhouse); French rolls and sliced meats, pickled cucumbers, olives, and onions. Even by turn-of-century standards, the food was cheap, but tasty.
Three years later, Philippe married Josephine Chaix, also a French transplant. The couple worked together in the sandwich shop which, by then, had become so successful that Philippe’s brother, Arbin, sailed from France to help them.
After changing locations several times, Mathieu opened a larger restaurant at 3rd and Alameda Streets in 1908. Named after the owner, Philippe’s (Phil-eeps) was launched amidst a publicity hoopla. The menu had changed only slightly in the five years since Mathieu opened his first eatery, though alcoholic beverages were added. Loyal customers followed Philippe’s to its new location, and good food and cheap prices continued to draw hundreds of people to the eatery each day.
Philippe's Restaurant reached a new level of success with the creation of the French Dip sandwich. Here's where the controversy begins .... It happened quite by accident sometime around 1913. A customer, a local firefighter, marched into the restaurant's kitchen complaining that the beef sandwich he had ordered was too dry. (Another version says it was a policeman, not a fireman.) Eyeing the big pan of meat drippings on the stove, Mathieu opened the roll, dipped it into the hot, seasoned juices, and handed it back. The dipped beef sandwich was apparently so tasty that a few minutes later, the other firemen in the group went to the kitchen and asked to have their sandwiches dipped. According to the Los Angeles Times reporter Cecilia Rasmussen, who interviewed Philippe Guilhem, grandson of the sandwiches creator, it was the fireman who saw the juices and dipped his own bread ! As If this isn’t enough speculation, another Los Angeles restaurant claims that they invented the first French dip several years before Mathieu dunked his first French roll!
How the sandwich was created and by whom really isn't important. The fact is that Philippe Mathieu immediately recognized that he had hit pay dirt, but he had no idea how fast news about his new sandwich would travel . Mathieu later recounted that he made a gallon of the meat juices the next morning, but that so many of "Philippe's Original French Dipped Sandwiches" were served, they ran out of the au jus before dinner. Within weeks, Philippe’s Restaurant was selling up to 1,500 sandwiches a day. The rest, as they say, is history.
With his new-found wealth, Mathieu invested in property in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. By 1927, Philippe Mathieu's health was failing. He sold the restaurant to three brothers: Frank, Harry and David Martin. Retirement must have agreed with Mathieu, as he lived another thirty years, dying at the age of 80.
Making few changes, the Martin brothers continued successfully operating Philippe’s. In 1951 they were forced to find a new location, as the building was to be demolished to make way for the Hollywood-Santa Ana/101 Freeway. The Martins found a two-story brick building across from the Union Train Station on Alameda Street. There was a market on the main level, while the upstairs rooms were reportedly used as a brothel.
In 1955 Frank Martin asked his son-in-law, Bill Binder, to join their thriving business. Today, Binder’s two sons, Richard and John, run Philippe’s. “Things haven’t changed much here since then,” said Richard Binder. He pointed out the row of old wooden telephone booths, now rarely used, along a wall inside the restaurant. Many of the neon signs are original, as is the penny scale near the front door. Mounted in a frame hanging beside the scale is the Saturday Evening Post cover, featuring the Normal Rockwell painting of that very scale, on which a jockey is being weighed in.
There's nothing fancy about the historic restaurant. The floors are sprinkled with sawdust. You wait in one of the ten lines at the counter and place your order with the server (officially called "carvers"). Big jars of purple ( pickled ) eggs and all kinds of potato chips & corn chips sit on top of the countertops. The glass cases are filled with delicious salads and desserts. You carry your tray to one of the long community tables that fill the main dining room, or grab a more private booth. But, then, those family-style tables are part of Philippe’s charm.
“You could be sitting on a stool with a millionaire on one side of you, and a factory worker on the other,” my father, Charles Adair, once reminisced. He had eaten at Philippe’s since the 1930s. “You’d see a limousine pull up with somebody famous, like Mickey Rooney or William Holden. They’d eat there like everybody else.”
I asked him why he thought Philippe's has been one of L.A.'s most popular restaurants for so many decades. "The food has always been good, the prices were cheap. And those sandwiches....," he said, referring to the famous French Dips. "Just thinking about them makes me hungry."
A new generation of Angelinos are now Philippe’s regular customers. Young men and women dressed in business suits sit side-by-side with the old timers. Movie stars, like Sean Penn, pop in to eat. Above all, the old-fashioned, home-town atmosphere remains. Where else can you go for a quick meal and find yourself engaged in a friendly conversation with a half-dozen total strangers? “There is an air of camaraderie among the customers, a kind of unspoken friendliness and consideration that’s rare in a big city,” wrote MacDonald Harris of the New York Times back in 1990.
A few years ago while eating at Philippe’s, I glanced up at a group walking by. They were all wearing black Star Wars jackets. A few of them looked quite familiar; especially one guy. It was Harrison Ford! Yep, you never know who you’re going to see at Philippe’s!
For information about Philippe’s, visit their website at www.philippes.com.