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The History of French Dip Sandwiches

The French dip sandwich was created in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. Two L.A. restaurants both claim to have invented the iconic dish: Philippe’s Restaurant and Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet. Philippe’s Restaurant was founded by a French immigrant named Philippe Mathieu in 1908. Legend has it that the first French dip sandwich was made at Philippe’s, and the descendants of the family that bought the business from Philippe in 1927 have even re-branded the restaurant as “Philippe The Original.” There are several different stories about exactly how the first French dip got made at Philippe’s, but the most compelling by far is Phillippe’s own first-hand testimony. In 1951, Philippe Mathieu gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times and said that a police officer asked him to split one of the large loaves of French bread and fill it with roast pork, cut it in half, and include some pickles, onions, and olives. From there, Philippe said that he and his team began making French-roll sandwiches. One day, a customer noticed some gravy on the bottom of a large pan of roast meat and asked him to dip one side of the French roll in the gravy. Philippe noted that once he did so, five or six other customers immediately asked for the same, giving rise to the French dip sandwich. And as for the name? It’s likely that it was partly a reference to Philippe’s heritage and partly a tongue-in-cheek joke about a slimming feature in popular fashion called — you guessed it — the French dip. Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, arguably the oldest bar in L.A., also claims to have invented the French dip sandwich. The restaurant’s owners claim that the sandwich was invented there in 1908 when a chef, who was friend with the original owner, Henry Cole, was making a sandwich and the bread fell into the beef juice. However, the customer apparently liked it and the next person in line requested that the chef make the same sandwich again. However, no interview with either Henry Cole or the chef has been found to confirm this. Because Philippe Mathieu’s story is the only first-hand account on record, several publications have awarded him the credit for inventing the sandwich. In the 1930s, the sandwich gained popularity and mentions of the dish cropped up in publications all over the country. Today, the French dip sandwich looks a bit different than the original version — notably, it is now made with roast beef instead of the original pork and does not feature much in the way of toppings, although cheese is sometimes included. It remains an iconic dish in L.A. and is also quite popular in other parts of the country.

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