A guy walks into a bar and sees three people: a man eating a French dip sandwich, a prostitute and an exterminator. What's the punch line? There isn't one. It's what downtown night life baron Cedd Moses saw when he first set foot in Cole's in the mid-1980s.
"The exterminator was spraying about 5 feet away from where the guy was eating," he said. The scene was enough to make Moses, a dive-bar connoisseur, fall in love.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, December 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Cole's and Philippe's: An article in Monday's Calendar section about the reopening of Cole's in downtown L.A. quoted Cole's chef Neal Fraser as saying the difference between Cole's French dip sandwiches and Philippe's is: "Ours is hand-carved, theirs isn't. Their meat is warmed up in the au jus." Philippe's says it hand-carves its lamb and does not warm up its meat in au jus. In addition, the article misspelled the name of a cocktail at Cole's; the correct spelling is Sazerac, not Sazerack.
Twenty years later, Moses, who owns the Golden Gopher and Seven Grand among other downtown bars, bought the down-on-its-luck Cole's, restored it and is now opening it.
Moses worked closely with the Los Angeles Conservancy to ensure he was taking Cole's back in time rather than into a slick future. He hired a consultant to identify which features of the 1908 bar and French dip restaurant were original and which had been tacked on. Everything original -- tile floor, wallpaper and light fixtures above the booths -- Moses restored or faithfully reproduced.
For Cole's acolytes, the result is remarkable. The bar is trapped in the amber of the early 20th century, when it was among L.A.'s most popular drinking establishments. You can envision gangster Mickey Cohen in his favorite booth (farthest to the right when you walk in) -- and how Cole's sold 19,000 gallons of beer the day Prohibition was repealed.
The kitchen is one of the few wholesale reinventions. Moses hired chef Neal Fraser of L.A.'s Grace to put together a menu of French dip sandwiches (lamb, beef, turkey or pork), sides (bacon potato salad, cole slaw) and seasonal pies.
A key aspect of Cole's legacy is its century-old rivalry with Philippe's over which restaurant invented the French dip sandwich. So how do Fraser's dips differ from Philippe's?
"Ours is hand-carved, theirs isn't. Their meat is warmed up in the au jus, ours is stored at 140 degrees and served with the au jus on the side; it's just more of a nostalgic take," Fraser says. But Moses and Fraser aren't concerned with perpetuating the face-off. They both love Philippe's and would rather dip in the present day.
Unquestionably superior is Cole's bar. Its cocktail list, created by star mixologist Eric Alperin, is flush with old-school drinks, including the Sazerack, Death in the Afternoon and the 1926 Cosmopolitan. "These drinks have only fallen by the wayside because a lot of people don't know where they came from," Alperin says. The same could be said of Cole's.
Where: 118 E. 6th St., L.A.
When: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.- Tue.
Price: French dip sandwiches, $8-$9
Contact: (213) 622-4090, www.colesfrenchdip.com