Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Brief History of Philippe Mathieu and the French Dip

Neon blade sign at Philippe the Original.
Philippe Mathieu started out working in a deli in his native France. By the time he retired, he'd invented a quintessential LA dish that has been imitated many, many times - but never really duplicated. (Give it up, Cole's - no one believes you. More on that in a minute.)

After a stint owning a deli on Alameda, Philippe and his brother Arbin opened the New Poodle Dog restaurant on Spring Street in 1911 (if it existed today, it would be just southwest of City Hall). The name was likely a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Old Poodle Dog restaurant in San Francisco. The New Poodle Dog closed in 1913, and the Mathieu brothers opened another white-tablecloth restaurant on Alameda Street just south of Aliso Street - the heart of Frenchtown.

Frenchtown had more than a few nicer French restaurants, however, and Philippe had a talent for simpler, but still well-prepared, food. Philippe opened his namesake restaurant on Alameda Street, south of Temple, in 1908. If it existed today, it would be firmly in the middle of Little Tokyo, but at the time, it was the center of Frenchtown's original core.

Philippe's customers often referred to him as "Frenchy", and took to calling the restaurant "Frenchy's".

You know where this is going, right?

Philippe moved his eatery to 246 Aliso Street (south of Los Angeles Street) in 1918 (again, still in Frenchtown's original footprint). That year, he began serving the sandwich we now call the French Dip.

The story of how the sandwich came to be invented varies, depending on who told it and when. I won't rehash any of the origin stories here, but I will refer you to Eater LA's commentary on a Thrillist piece examining who really invented the French Dip. (Read both. Trust me.)

I'll add a little food for thought (pun intended) to both publications' conclusions (spoiler alert: the evidence gives Philippe's a stronger and far more logical claim): imitators typically pale in comparison to originators. Every so often, someone (food blogger, local magazine, travel writer) will sample both, or ask local eaters for their pick of the two French Dips. Philippe's always wins taste tests easily and always wins polls by a landslide.

By the way, I have no personal stake in this and can't offer a firsthand opinion on either version of the sandwich (I don't eat meat). I do, however, believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Philippe packed up and moved up the street (to 364 Aliso) in 1925. But he, personally, didn't stay for very long.

Philippe (whose grandson described him to the LA Times as frugal) had promised his wife that he'd retire when he turned 50. He did indeed retire in 1927 at age 50, selling the restaurant to the Martin brothers and moving back to France with his wife.

But the restaurant, by far one of the very oldest in Los Angeles, had one more move to make. Freeway construction forced Philippe's to relocate to its present location, just north of Union Station on the southern edge of Chinatown.

Los Angeles Magazine recently explored how to correctly pronounce the restaurant's name. What they don't seem to notice is that pronunciation seems to vary based on the speaker's background. Philippe's grandson uses the French pronunciation (no surprise here), and Emeril Lagasse isn't TOO far off. Most Angelenos who didn't grow up speaking French use the Hispanicized pronunciation "Felipe's".

It's worth noting, of course, that many early Angelenos adopted, or at least sometimes used, Spanish versions of their names. To give just a few examples from Frenchtown: Louis Bauchet was typically listed in records as Luis, Jean-Louis Vignes was "Don Luis del Aliso", Pierre Sainsevain was commonly referred to as "Don Pedro", and Henri Penelon was often called "Horacio" or "Honore". Mispronouncing "Philippe" as "Felipe" is, in a way, fitting for one of LA's oldest restaurants.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my parents used to go to Philippe the Original on dates.)

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