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Deep Investigation Puts L.A.'s French Dip Rivalry To Bed
It's a mystery that has agonized theorists as much as the matter of "Who shot first?"
For decades, food fanatics have debated where the signature sandwich of Los Angeles, the French dip, was created, a rivalry unmatched in this town. Philippe the Original on Alameda lays claim to the sandwich—a healthy portion of roast beef nestled in a fist-sized roll and covered in au jus meat broth—in their own name. Cole's in downtown L.A. has also adamantly maintained their place as the originators of the dish. And both have said the "dip" part was an inspired case of luck, though the real story is less jus-y.
According to Landers, it actually didn't take much digging to conclude that the originator of the French dip was, in fact, Philippe's namesake Phillip Mathieu, a Frenchman who opened the Chinatown diner in 1908. Though legends from the restaurant itself and Mathieu's own grandson place the first French dip in the hands of a policeman or fireman right after Mathieu accidentally dropped the bun in au jus broth conveniently placed nearby, Landers uses Mathieu's own words to confirm a less serendipitous origin.
In an 1951 L.A. Times interview, Mathieu says the first French dip patron was, indeed, a police officer who asked him to put some pork in a bun with pickles, onions and olives. Pork! For purists, pork as the protein in a French dip might seem as sacrilegious as putting peas in your guacamole, an abomination nonetheless offered by both Philippe and Cole's (along with several other meat options).
As for the dip, it was simply a request later on from a customer who wanted gravy from a pan roast on his sandwich. It became a popular addition, and, thus, the French dip was born—no divine dip ex machina.
The "French" part was most likely a nod to the Mathieu's nationality and maybe a double entendre to women's fashion at the time, according to Landers.
Unfortunately for Cole's, their origin story is too far removed to have much credence. As with some erroneous stories about the Philippe's French dip, theirs also claims a roll that accidentally fell into meat broth started the phenomenon. A 1989 interview with the then-owner stating as much did not hold meat water for Landers. Lack of any mention of the Cole's-dip connection in newspapers over the last century also fails to prove Cole's served it up first.
At the end of the day, it's doubtful this new/old information will sway loyal customers from either joint. If you're a fan of Cole's version, at least you can have a stiff Old Fashioned to drown your sandwich sorrows, but add muddled cherries to it to keep the impostor vibe going.