Who makes a better French dip sandwich—Cole’s P.E. Buffet or Phillipe’s The Original? It’s a debate that has raged in Los Angeles for years. Both circa-1908 L.A. institutions are located downtown, within a mile and a half of each other. Both claim to be the first to take a six-inch French roll, fill it with pork, turkey, lamb, or beef, and dunk it in peppery jus. (Phillipe’s origin story involves a piece of bread that accidentally fell in a meat-juice-filled roasting pan, which may explain the dunking—so the sandwich you get is toasted on the outside and moist inside. Cole’s story revolves around a customer with sore teeth and a jus-softened bun.) Over the years, Cole’s made a slow descent into total grimy disrepair. That ended when developer Cedd Moses bought the place in March 2007, closed the doors, and began a $1.6 million restoration. When it reopened just a couple of weeks ago, Cole’s had a new WWF SmackDown subname—“Originators of the French Dip”—and a carefully preserved 1920s look: original lighting, Tiffany glass panels, transom windows, and a smeary white penny-tile floor. But the bland sandwiches and rubbery bacon potato salad aren’t much of a draw. (To be fair, the launch menu, created by consulting chef Neal Fraser, of L.A.’s Grace, is still in the fine-tuning stage.) The piped-in music is pitched at just the right bouncy volume, and when one of Cole’s bartenders slides a perfectly made Cosmo or a rye-based Old Fashioned across the shiny mahogany bar, there’s a sense that you’ve climbed into a time machine and ended up in a Prohibition-era slice of Los Angeles cocktail heaven.
Phillipe’s is just the opposite: There’s nothing more satisfying than tucking into a dip of thickly layered lamb slices topped with blue cheese while drinking a red wine from the gem-filled list. But this crowded family-style restaurant, with its high-walled wooden booths and sawdust-covered floors, isn’t about settling in. In fact, at Phillipe’s you’re expected to line up, order, hover over your food, and move on. (One time, after some friends and I lingered for a couple of hours, we returned to find a handwritten screed from the parking-lot attendant on our windshield, accusing us of leaving our car to go shopping in nearby Chinatown.) To me, the old Cole’s versus Phillipe’s conversation has morphed into another question: What do you feel like doing—eating or hanging out?