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French Dip

Claim:   The French dip sandwich was invented to placate a restaurant patron who complained about stale bread.

UNDETERMINED

Origins:   A "French dip" — a sandwich made of thinly sliced roast beef on a French roll, commonly served au jus ("with [its own] juice") — is a standard menu item in many U.S. restaurants. In its simplicity the French dip isn't the type of fare that gives many diners pause to wonder how, when, and where it originally came to be, but nonetheless, the paternity of this simple sandwich has been one of modern history's longest-running culinary disputes, the subject of a debate long waged between partisans of rival claimants.

The two sites mooted as the birthplace of the French dip are both restaurants which opened in Los Angeles in 1908: Philippe (also commonly called "Philippe's" or "Philippe the Original") and Cole's (also known as "Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet"). Each claims to be the eatery where the French dip sandwich was first served, and they offer divergent explanations about its invention.

The legend associated with Philippe's has two main variants: One holds that a server or chef accidentally dropped a dry roast beef sandwich into a pan of meat drippings, and the other maintains that restaurant founder Philippe "Frenchy" Mathieu himself deliberately immersed a sandwich into meat juice in order to placate a customer who complained about a stale roll.
Was [the French dip sandwich] 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?

The legend goes that in 1918, the restaurant's founder, Philippe Mathieu, accidentally dropped a French roll into a roasting pan of meat drippings while preparing a sandwich for a police officer. Other versions of the story say Mathieu dunked the bread deliberately because it was stale. The officer (some sources say it was a fireman) liked the sandwich so much, according to restaurant lore, that he came back with friends to order the sandwich en masse.

[Philippe Guilhem, grandson of founder Philippe Mathieu] 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."

Or perhaps a chef dropped the roll into the juice in the roast pan and the customer said, what the heck, give it to me anyway. No one at Philippe's is quite sure
However, both these variants are undercut by the fact that when Philippe Mathieu himself explained in 1951 how he supposedly originated the French dip, he made no reference either to the creation's being an accident or to a customer's complaint about stale bread. Moreover, Philippe's original version of the sandwich was made with pork and gravy, not roast beef and meat drippings:
"One day a police officer asked me if I would mind splitting one of those large loaves of French bread and filling it with 'some of that delicious roast pork.' I was not too busy, so I said, 'Sure.' Then he asked me to 'please cut it in half. I've got a friend outside who can eat it.' Then he asked for some pickles, onions and olives."

Philippe charged 35 cents for the works and says that was the start of the "man-size" sandwich. The next day the policeman and his friend returned with several other friends.

"Then we started making French-roll sandwiches for those who had smaller appetites," he says.

"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."

Those were the first French-dip sandwiches.

"It was a good idea," Philippe said, "but that small amount of gravy in the pan didn't last. But it put me wise. The next day I made a gallon of the gravy — and still we ran out of it!"
The founding legend associated with rival Cole's is that the French dip sandwich antedates the Philippe's version by ten years and was a concoction created at Cole's as a favor for a patron who suffered from sore gums:
Cole's lore has it that the dish originated in 1908 when a customer with a bad case of sore gums asked for his sandwich to be lowered into the juice because the French roll was too crunchy for him. The sympathetic chef complied, word spread and soon this variation was even being ordered by folks who flossed regularly.
This version also has its confusing element, namely that when the owner of Cole's was asked about the origins of the French dip sandwich in 1997, he offered an explanation very much like the one claimed of Philippe's
Who invented the French dip? Said Bill Bender, 82, retired general manager of Philippe the Original:

"Philippe Mathieu had a French deli at the time. A policeman came in to rest, and Mathieu happened to drop the top part of the roll into the container where the beef was being kept warm. He was going to throw it away, but the policeman liked it so well he came back for six more."

Why does Cole's say they invented it?

"I don't know. Honestly, I can't imagine people weren't eating this sandwich before our Mathieu made it. I think it's kind of a joke."

Who invented the French dip?

Said Gitti Beheshti, 56, owner of Cole's:

"Mr. Cole was German. He had a friend that was a chef working here. He was in the kitchen when someone wanted a sandwich, then the bread fell into the beef juice and they liked it. The other customer in line behind him asked for the same sandwich."

That sounds a lot like Philippe's story.

"Definitely the French dip was from here. Philippe's is learning from us."
Barring the additional invention of a time machine, this is one debate that is unlikely ever to be settled definitively:
The truth behind which restaurant invented the French Dip may be lost to history.

"They are not recognized by any historical society or California or L.A.," Ali Mazarei, Cole's general manager, said of his competitor. "The reason why we are historical is because we originated the French Dip sandwich."

While the city's Cultural Affairs Commission has confirmed Cole's landmark status, its designation actually comes from being the longest continually operating
restaurant in the city, not its sandwich innovation.

"We don't have a French Dip department," said Jay Oren, the commission's director of Architecture and Historic Preservation.

And Philippe is not without friends in high places. County Supervisor Gloria Molina recently issued a press release lauding it as the originator of the sandwich, although that was based more on received wisdom than empirical evidence.

"Philippe's is the originator of the French Dip sandwich in the hearts and minds of many people," said Roxane Marquez, Molina's press secretary. "Supervisor Molina is one of them — with all due respect to Cole's."

Said Richard Binder, co-owner of Philippe's, "Who knows what happened 100 years ago? We're just happy to still be around."
Last updated:   10 March 2009

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Sources:

    Harvey, Steve.   "The Story Behind Philippe's and Its Famous French Dip."
    Los Angeles Times.   5 October 2008.

    Harvey, Steve.   "Thousands Celebrate 100th Anniversary of Philippe's."
    Los Angeles Times.   7 October 2008.

    Harvey, Steve.   "Cole's French Dip Restaurant Revives a Slice of the Past."
    Los Angeles Times.   8 March 2009.

    Melton, Mary.   "Q & A: French Dipped."
    Los Angeles Times.   27 April 1997   (Magazine, p. 8).

    Simons, Andrew.   "Dip Trip: Downtown Eateries Fight for Paternity of Sandwich."
    Los Angeles Business Journal.   7 June 2004.

    Los Angeles Times.   "Philippe's Founder Recalls Busy Days."
    27 August 1951   (p. 27).