The case for Philippe's
The highest-profile claimant is easily Philippe's, founded by Philippe Mathieu, a French immigrant born in 1877 who started out at a deli in Southern France before moving to Algeria to work as an apprentice cook. He spent a year in the French army and then saved up enough money to immigrate to the United States, where he cooked in American lumber camps and hotels -- and by 1903 he had made his way across the continent to Los Angeles. For $150 he bought himself a delicatessen at 617 Alameda, the first in a series of businesses that Mathieu would open in the neighborhood. He opened Philippe's Restaurant in 1908. And if you believe the legend, it was there that the first French dip was made.
Descendants of the family that bought the business from Mathieu in 1927 have re-branded the restaurant as “Philippe The Original” and built themselves into a French dip empire that claims to serve up 1900 sandwiches a day at their single location at 1001 North Alameda St. According to Philippe's website, “One day in 1918, while making a sandwich, Mathieu inadvertently dropped the sliced french roll into the roasting pan filled with juice still hot from the oven. The patron, a policeman, said he would take the sandwich anyway... ”
Sounds plausible at first glance. But the digging doesn’t even need to get deep to start doubting the story. On an episode of the TV show Cheap Eats, fourth generation co-owner Mark Massengill states a different set of facts. “It originated in 1917,” Massengill said. “Philippe Mathieu was carving a roast beef sandwich for a fireman and the bread accidentally dropped into the roasting pan... ”
That’s just the first example of Philippe's owners seeming unsure of their own story. In fact, Philippe Mathieu's own grandson told yet another version.
“One day a fireman complained that his roll was stale,” Philippe Guilhem told the LA Times in a 2008 interview. “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?'"
With a deliberate -- even vindictive -- first dipping, that sounds very different from either version of the story that Philippe's current owners are telling. But while he was closer to the source than Philippe's modern management, Guilheim was still telling a story that was at best second hand and already around 90 years old.
The actual closest that we can get to the horse's mouth is a 1951 LA Times interview with Mathieu. The article was written on the occasion of Philippe's relocating to make way for the Hollywood Freeway.
“One day a police officer asked me if I would mind splitting one of these large loaves of French bread and filling it with 'some of the delicious roast pork,'” said Mathieu. “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.”
The sandwich was born and awaited its dip.
"Then we started making French-roll sandwiches for those who had smaller appetites," Mathieu said. "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."