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L.A. Then and Now

Dipping deep into the history of a sandwich

As Philippe's hits 100, the founder's grandson tells how the French dip got its start.

October 05, 2008|Steve Harvey | Special to The Times

Philippe's, home of the French dip sandwich, turns 100 this year, and for much of the last century local historians and foodies have been arguing over one question: How was the dish created?

Was it the brainstorm of a customer who didn't want to see the juice in the roast pan go to waste? Was it an accident -- a server dropped a dry sandwich into the pan and found that the patron liked the result? Or was it conceived at Cole's, a rival downtown eatery, for a gent who had sore gums?

You can't go back in time to ask Philippe "Frenchy" Mathieu, the founder of Philippe's. But you can journey to that era, price-wise, on Monday when the North Alameda Street restaurant throws a centennial bash.

From 4 to 8 p.m., sandwiches (normally $5.35 to $6.50) will sell for 10 cents, and coffee (normally 9 cents) will be reduced to a nickel. (Tips of more than 20% for the servers might be in order this day.)

KCET-TV Channel 28 storyteller Huell Howser will emcee the show, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other politicos will speechify, the USC band will march through, and Roger "the Peanut Man" Owens of Dodger Stadium will toss bags of goobers to hopefully attentive folks waiting in line.

Also on hand will be 64-year-old Philippe Guilhem of Alva, Okla., grandson of founder Mathieu. And he knows the story of the birth of the French dip from his namesake.

Guilhem, who was located several months ago through a chance meeting at an art gallery between his relatives and those of the current owners of Philippe's, tells it this way:

"One day a fireman complained that his roll was stale. It was probably a Monday and the roll was a leftover from the weekend. My grandfather was a thrifty person. He said, 'Give me the damn thing back.' He dipped it in the juices and said, 'You happy now?' "

The fireman was happy.

Added Guilhem with a laugh: "I'm sure the guy had already bitten into it when my grandfather grabbed it and dipped it in the juice. Real sanitary. But that was S.O.P. [standard operating procedure] back then."

It wasn't called a French dip right away, either. "People would just say, 'Put it in the sauce like Frenchy does,' " Guilhem said.

Stale rolls, of course, are no longer served. But tradition in other areas is important to Richard and John Binder, whose family purchased the restaurant from Mathieu in 1927. Hence the sawdust- covered floors, the painted menus, the ceiling fans, the old-fashioned setup of stools at long tables, the wooden telephone booths.

And you can still leave your credit cards at home.

Mathieu, being a Frenchman, would have no ketchup on the premises, and the Binders honored the ban in full until 1991, when Richard persuaded his brother John to set out bottles of the stuff in the morning.

"I like ketchup on my eggs," Richard explained without a trace of guilt. "But the ketchup disappears at 10:30 [a.m.]. We think it overwhelms the flavor of the meat."

Philippe's has all but given away coffee ever since it opened. It was a nickel as late as 1977 and skyrocketed to a dime in 1991. It was dropped to the present 9 cents a few years later when a state snack tax was passed. That way the full price is still only 10 cents.

Philippe's sells about 2,200 sandwiches a day on weekdays, 3,800 a day on weekends. (Lots of pickled pigs feet too, but you probably don't want to hear about that.)

Customers wait in lines that are sometimes 20 people deep, shuffling toward the counters. Regulars know a secret: One of the middle lines has less of a wait because it splits off into two shorter lines when it dead-ends at a pillar.

A first-time visitor often gives himself away when he attempts to pay the server directly. She will refuse the money, which must be placed in a red tray next to the food tray. The server then takes it to the cashier and returns with the change, never having touched the filthy lucre. (This sanitary measure was put into use after the less-fastidious Frenchy had sold out.)

Philippe's has been in its current digs up the street from Union Station since 1951, when its previous location on Aliso Street was flattened to make room for the Santa Ana Freeway.

During the demolition, an empty beer keg was found in a hollowed-out section of wall on the second floor. Turns out a room had been rented to a bootlegger, who was said to have moved to Spain with a $40,000 nest egg.

Of course, Mathieu was no teetotaler.

"He used to make his own wine during Prohibition," Guilhem said. "He told me city officials used to come by and pick up their bottles. He hinted he made a little brandy too."

The current building has a bit of racy history itself. Originally, it housed a machine shop on the first floor and a hotel on the second. The second floor (now a dining area) has numerous doorways, indicating that the rooms were very small. The place was in L.A.'s red-light district of the early 1900s.

"You hear stories," Richard Binder said.

The funny thing about the landmark restaurant is, here it is 100 years old, and its founder's French name is still being mispronounced. It's fuh-LEEP. But a lot of folks seem to think it is of Spanish origin and call it fuh-LEE-pay.

"That's the way I pronounce it," Richard Binder said with a laugh. "I guess it's because I never took French in school."

--

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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