Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dipping Into the Past

When I first drove to a new job in downtown Los Angeles some years back, it was as much a rite of passage as it was a trip down the freeway.

I left the sleepy suburbs behind that day. I was now part of the Workforce, a cadre of men and women descending on the big city every day to engage in commerce, build skyscrapers, cure illnesses, dispense justice and right wrongs.

It felt like I belonged to something big and wonderful.

I'd been in big cities before. I worked in San Francisco while going to college. I served part of my military duty in Washington, D.C.

But working in downtown Los Angeles was something special. This is where my father spent most of his career. When I was a kid, it was a treat to go downtown and have my dad take me to lunch at Cole's, or Little Joes, or some out of the way place in Chinatown. Or if I was really lucky, the Jonathan Club.

When Dodger stadium opened, we'd often stop at Phillipe's on the way to the game. Dad seemed to know every nook and cranny in the city.

Now it was my turn to discover the Big City on my own.

It didn't take my long to find a favorite haunt, a place where I headed as often as I could for lunch.

But it wasn't anything new or trendy. In fact, it was old and worn.

It was the very same Phillipe's, the sandwhich joint which celbrates its 100th aniversary this month.

I can honostly say I have never met anyone in Southern California who hasn't been to Phillipe's at least once. Or at least heard of it.

But if you haven't, it is a somewhat less than elegant eatery that is a shrine to the French Dip, a place hard by Union Station that has been in operation since 1908 making it one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles.

Come to think of it, in a city which has historically bulldozed almost everything several times over, Phillipe's may be the oldest institution of any kind in Los Angeles.

Customers stand sometimes 10 deep behind a long counter staffed by women wearing starched waitress attire the likes of which you haven't seen in 50 years.

When they deliver your order (on paper plates), you sit at long tables atop sawdust covered floors where your dining partners could be anyone from a judge to a transient. Or, befitting the atmosphere of the place, a barrister or a bum.

Specialty of the house: French dip sandwhiches of beef, pork, lamb or turkey although they also serve soups, stews, even pickled pigs feet. Don't ask for lettuce or tomato for your sandwich. They don't have any. In fact, the only condiment available I've ever seen is their homemade mustard.

And if you must wash down your dip with a sophisticated beverage, they even have a decent wine list which includes Silver Oak Cabarnet at 15 bucks a glass. It is a dining experience as meomorable as it is simple.

The origins of Phillipe's French dip sandwhich are legendary.

According to food writer Charles Perry, original owner Phillipe Mathieu told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1951, "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." He quickly ran out of gravy.

"But," he said, "it put me wise." The next day he had a gallon of gravy ready, but so many people wanted dip sandwiches that he still ran out.

An alternative explanation bases the invention in frugality. A fireman came into the restaurant when there were leftover rolls. Mathieu would use them up although they were stale. The fireman complained that the roll was dry, so Philippe dipped it in au jus, basically to get rid of the guy.

This alternative is likely since Mathieu may have preferred to credit a customer rather than waste a stale roll.

The most common story is that Mathieu accidentally dropped a roll in pan drippings, and the customer who had ordered the sandwich agreed to eat it anyway. This is less likely since the "happy accident" theory of food origins is typically used where there is no alternative explanation.

Whatever the truth may be, it was the most fortuitous culinary marriage since peanut butter met jelly.

Time has not stood still in downtown Los Angeles. My father would be astonished to see the skyscrapers, the condos and lofts, the Staples Center complex rising south of downtown.

His employer, the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad, is no more.

My former employer, the Los Angeles Times, is a shadow of its former self. The building, half vacant, is up for sale.

But I'm sure if we could meet one more time for lunch, Phillipe's would be the destination.
We'd have a single dipped roast beef with a side of cole slaw and a lemonade.

It would be as if time stood still.

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