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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Big Dipper

January 06, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Around 4 o'clock at Philippe the Original, the restaurant mostly emptied of the last of the lunch rush, a waitress stretches and yawns behind the stainless-steel service counter as if she'd just awakened. She counts out seven olives from a bin in the back, 5 cents apiece. She smacks a cardboard "Closed" sign in front of her station. Her shift ends in a minute, and she hums to herself as she slices big, asymmetrical slabs off the outside of a leg of lamb and lets a French roll soak in a bowl of salty pan drippings just a second or two longer than strictly necessary, but not long enough to soften the crisp edges of the slash in the roll's top.

She cuts the good American blue cheese thinly and sort of laminates it to the roll with a brisk twist of her knife. She is happy to be serving her last French dip sandwich of the day, and she seems to savor the wine order.

"Silver Oak," she says. "Silver is very lucky for the new year. It means you will make a lot of money."

She walks over to the Cruvinet at the rear of the service area and measures out a healthy slug of wine. She smiles. "To a prosperous new year," she says.

It feels almost sybaritic at Philippe's in the late afternoon, sitting at a chest-high table in the main dining room, reading somebody's wrinkled old Metro section and crunching sawdust beneath your feet. The lamb sandwich is wet and rich, with something of the gamy animal pungency of old-fashioned roast meat; the Cabernet is a strong, deep-purple wine that tastes of blackberries and sharpened pencils and vanilla-scented new-oak barrels. All around the restaurant you can see nostrils flare when people hit a little depth charge of Philippe's hot mustard in their sandwiches--some people daub it on kind of randomly, and I sometimes like to spread it on thickly as mortar. Time moves slowly here; it is a fine place to have lunch.

Philippe's is so much a part of old Los Angeles that sometimes it feels as if it isn't a part of Los Angeles at all, as if it belongs to a city much older, much more attached to its distant past than this town, where historic preservation committees work to save old branches of McDonald's. A 1951 newspaper column on the wall actually begs Philippe's not to mess the place up with chrome, which may have been the travertine marble of L.A.'s Golden Age.

Everybody who has lived in Los Angeles more than a year knows the story of Philippe's, how Philippe himself supposedly invented the French dip 60 years ago when he accidentally dropped a sandwich into some gravy, how the coffee still costs a dime (well, 9 cents plus a penny tax, though it was a nickel through the '70s and briefly rose to 11 cents last year) and how it is one of the very few places where cost-conscious county supervisors can still have expense-account meals.

There are fresh, crisp doughnuts for breakfast, and decent cinnamon rolls, and the standard bacon-and-eggs breakfasts you'll find at every hash house in the United States. Chili is house-made but tastes more like a spicy hamburger condiment than anything you'd want to crumble Saltines into for dinner; beef stew is a Depression-era lunch, full of meat and carrots and potatoes but a little short on flavor. Cream pies are beautifully sculpted, also a little over-laden with preservatives.

The menu board may no longer list dishes in alphabetical order, and I have yet to meet anyone who has ordered one of the pickled pig's feet that protrude scarily from their containers of brine. But though I am one of the few Philippe apostates--I happen to believe that the French dip was "invented" at the slightly older Cole's P.E. Buffet at 6th and Main, which has not only a slightly tastier dipped sandwich but also Ritterbrau on tap--I still find myself at the restaurant more often than I sometimes believe.

* Philippe the Original

1001 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-3781. Open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Cash only. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $7-$12.

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