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L.A. History That You Can Bite Into

November 02, 2003|Merrill Shindler

There is a pantheon in the world of bread and meat. New York has Nathan's, and Katz's as well. Philadelphia has Pat's King of Steaks. Chicago has Fluky's.

New Orleans has Domilise's. And Los Angeles has Philippe the Original. Not the Original Philippe. Not Philippe's Original French Dip Sandwiches. But Philippe the Original, a magisterial title, a moniker wreathed with grandiosity well earned over 95 years, as of Monday -- which in Los Angeles terms is positively antediluvian.

It is where we go to experience Los Angeles. Not the Los Angeles of today, with its freeways and gridlock and parochial attitude about never leaving your neighborhood. (There are fools on the Westside who proudly announce that they never travel east of the San Diego Freeway; they might as well brag that they never leave their own homes.) Instead, Philippe's is where we go to experience a Los Angeles that exists more in memory than in actuality -- and perhaps more in myth than reality. But it does exist at Philippe's, where the unwritten history of the city is preserved like a saint's thigh bone. There is reverence here for who we were, and who we are. Attention must be paid.

There is a common thread that runs through the few surviving Los Angeles restaurants that could be described as "venerable" -- restaurants that were actually around in the Golden Age of Hollywood, when there were giants in the land. Their names are knee-jerk, a universal response; along with Philippe, there's the Original Pantry, Musso & Frank, Cole's P.E. Buffet, Clifton's, El Cholo, Canter's. They are all restaurants for -- how to put this? -- the Rest of Us. (Chasen's, Scandia, Perino's, they were for the upper crust, and look where that got them.) These survivors are for the hoi and the polloi. Go to any of them and you'll find a cross section of humanity unique to Los Angeles -- power brokers taking meetings, screenwriters glaring at scripts, hod carriers on a break, the homeless nursing a cuppa joe, actors looking for attention, hookers in search of a guy named John, cops doing a coop. The crowd is black and white, Asian and Latino, gay and straight, weird and weirder, and just plain reg'lar folks out for a feed. And a taste of how we used to be.

Philippe's sits at the cusp of many L.A.s. There's Olvera Street to the west, Union Station to the south, Chinatown to the north. City Hall and Disney Hall and the Music Center are nearby -- and so for that matter is what used to be called the Nickel, home to the homeless. There's an octopus of freeways just down the street, and a would-be SoHo, where lofts are still relatively cheap and the streets have no names -- or at least not names that most of us know. Dodger Stadium is just up the hill; Sunset Boulevard virtually begins at Philippe's door.

They claim that the French Dip Sandwich was invented here, by founder Philippe Mathieu, back in 1918. The story, possibly apocryphal but accepted after decades of telling and retelling, has the original Philippe dropping a French roll into pan drippings while preparing a sandwich for an officer of the law. The policeman praised the sandwich to his pals, who returned the next day to demand more. And more.

The sandwich is claimed as well by Cole's, which also opened in 1908. But it's Philippe's that owns the myth. It's to Philippe's that parents take their children, to pass on the wisdom found in a sandwich.

I'm always surprised to find there's more on the menu at Philippe's than the French Dip Sandwich. There are soups served daily (the Friday chowders are quite good). There's a Caesar salad with chicken. There's a tuna sandwich and a blue cheese sandwich. There's beef stew. All of which might be fine. But none of which offer a taste of L.A.'s lost past. To find that, you have to stand in the sawdust, waiting for a server with some serious crust to build you a Dip.

I keep meaning to try the pickled eggs. But I'm in no rush. I know that Philippe's will be around. I know it will outlive every last one of us.

Merrill Shindler is the editor of the Los Angeles Zagat Survey.

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