Philippe’s: The French Dip Sandwich that Unifies Los Angeles

Philippe’s is a Los Angeles staple. Located centrally at 1001 N Alameda Street in the heart of Downtown, it is an icon that has stood the test of time in a rapidly changing and growing city. The French dip sandwich is Philippe’s signature, a revolutionary culinary creation yet so simple in nature; thinly sliced roast beef stacked onto a French roll that has been dipped into the roast’s natural gravy. The appeal of Philippe’s goes beyond just a mouthwatering French dip sandwich, however. The deeper appeal is comfort, a place stuck in time to when it first opened; a place where, no matter one’s background, unity exists between every Angeleno who is also there for the exact same thing. I myself have a deep personal connection to Philippe’s, an unchanging reminder of joyful memories with my Grandfather.

To understand how Philippe’s got so popular in the first place, we have to look back over a century to 1903. 1903 marks the year when Mathieu Philippe immigrated from Aix-en-Provence, France to Los Angeles, California. He arrived with his simple belongings and a groundbreaking business idea for something Los Angeles had yet to see: a delicatessen. He opened his delicatessen shop just a few months later, a place where consumers can buy French rolls, sliced meats, and barrels of pickled vegetables to make their own sandwich. Upon the popularity of his products, he decided to open a restaurant in 1908 crafting up signature sandwiches with his delicatessen products. Mathieu’s restaurant thrived, but the sandwich that sent his quaint restaurant into real glory was not born until 1918: the French dip sandwich. As Mathieu Philippe himself tells it in a 1951 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “one day a customer saw some gravy in the bottom of a large pan of roast meat. He asked me if I would mind dipping one side of the French roll in that gravy. I did, and right away five or six others wanted the same”. The word caught on about this “combination sandwich” and soon the place was overflowing with customers. In order to keep up with the new demand, Philippe had to receive daily deliveries of “125 dozen French rolls… the gravy was made by the gallon…meats were cooked by the quarter of the animal… and his daughters peeled 50-gallon barrels of pearl onions” (Los Angeles Times). Demand since the beginning days of the French dip has only increased.

The Famous French Dip Sandwich

Philippe’s remained in the same spot in Koreatown until a huge change was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles: the freeway project, with its projected path to go directly through the restaurant. With an influx of immigrants and a largely growing population of people seeking city life, Los Angeles’ infrastructure failed to keep up. Thus, Philippe’s closed on July 2nd, 1951 and reopened in its current location in September of the same year. Since then, Philippe’s has remained perfectly consistent— both in their sandwich quality, and in their timeless delicatessen feel that is described to be “like an operational museum”. As a result, Philippe’s became established as a common gathering place for every Angeleno including “Civic Center habitues, from news boys to superior judges” as described by the Los Angeles Times in 1969. This popularity as a gathering place has never seemed to slow down, either. At the 100th anniversary celebration the line snaked around the building in the blazing southern California sun, but patrons reported to still be happy to be there and mingle with one another. One customer waiting patiently to get their hands on a 15 cent French dip that day stated that “you become family quickly when you come to Philippe’s”. People largely value consistency, comfort, and feeling a sense of togetherness especially in a hectic world, and Philippe’s is an atmosphere that expertly promotes these ideals. 

The classic delicatessen dates back a couple hundred of years. The first “delicatessen”, the word borrowed from the French word délicatesse or “delicacies”, emerged in Germany in the 18th century. The first was from the company “Dallmayr”, which sold fruit and other foreign delicacies that were imported from faraway regions of the world that were difficult to otherwise obtain. However, the delicatessens that we think of today that sell sliced meat and pickled vegetables did not emerge until the 19th century in the United States. At the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City had seen a large uptick in German-Jewish immigrants, who brought a demand for traditional European cured and roasted meats. As a response to this demand, delicatessens opened up as a special place to buy these, at the time, delicacy ingredients. Roast beef was of special popularity to Europeans, making its first defined appearance as “beefsteak” in 18th century England. It was enjoyed plain and roasted in its own natural flavors, thus the roast became a symbol of  “frugality, unfussiness, manly virility and prosperity, in contrast to foreign food, which was dressed up with fancy sauces and regarded with English disapproval” (Wilson, Carol). Additionally, roasting has been one of the world’s first cooking techniques for meat and it requires little to no effort, which was of great appeal to people who did not own proper stoves or ovens as we know them. 

The roast beef sandwich first appeared in America in 1877, originally known as a “beef on weck”. The sandwich originated in Germany and was brought over by an immigrant who ran a successful bar in Buffalo, New York. Weck is the German word for roll and the sandwich consisted of a stack of rare on a kummelweck roll, with the bun dipped in the meat’s jus (Piatti-Farnell). The difference between the beef on weck and the French dip sandwich is the extent to which the beef is roasted, the type of bread that gets dipped in the gravy, and the French dip is typically paired with swiss cheese and pickled vegetables, while the beef on weck is served completely plain. Despite there being earlier versions of a similar French dip, Philippe’s invention was astounding for a population that had never experienced a sandwich similar to its predecessors; Philippe added a French-American twist to a classic sandwich.

Philippe’s, like a lot of Angelenos, means a lot to me. Philippe’s was the place my grandfather would take me to after a long day of driving me around in his 1929 Ford coupe and showing me his old stomping grounds. He would tell me stories of his afterschool walks from Cathedral High School with his buddies to get a 50 cent French dip; stories of coming to Philippe’s before his important exams during his time at USC; stories of coming to Philippe’s after a hard shift as an L.A. County Sheriff with his coworkers, always greeted with a smile and a free French dip. At the time, I didn’t realize how much a place like Philippe’s truly meant to my grandfather. Throughout tough years growing up and struggling to survive in Los Angeles, Philippe’s was a constant for him to run back to since he was a child, too. The changing times in this modernized world was confusing to him, but Philippe’s never tried to catch up with the world around it. I also didn’t realize how much Philippe’s would eventually mean to me, too. A place reminiscent of my Grandfather who I lost this year and his endlessly fascinating stories, rather than a place I just thought was cool because of its old telephone booths and sawdust littered floor. When I think of Los Angeles, I think of Philippe’s to be a key characteristic of what makes my hometown so great. Our favorite foods are seemingly always rooted in comfort and memory rather than taste— Philippe’s offers both. 

My grandfather and I outside of Philippe’s in Downtown, Los Angeles; 2003.

Works Cited

Los Angeles Times, Archives.

Jay. “Https://allaboutdelis.com/history-of-the-delicatessen/.” All About Delis.

Wilson, Carol. “A brief history of eating beef.” Hereford Beef. 21 Jan. 2020. Hereford Beef. 4 Dec. 2022 <https://www.herefordbeef.org.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-eating-beef/&gt;.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.