LA’s French Dip Sandwich Smackdown: Cole's vs. Philippe's

Everyone loves the French dip. What’s not to like about a sandwich of French bread with meat (and cheese if you choose) that’s dipped in meat juice, otherwise known as au jus? For years there’s been debate in Los Angeles over which restaurant created it first. Cole’s and Philippe The Original (aka Philippe’s) both say they invented it, but both statements obviously can’t be true. So who created it first and most importantly, who does it better? It’s time for a full investigation.

  • 01 of 07

    History

    Philippe The Original Restaurant
    ••• Ted Soqui / Contributor/ Getty Images

    Both Cole’s and Philippe’s say they were the first one that created the French dip, but obviously that’s impossible. Sandwich enthusiasts have done plenty of in depth research to get to the bottom of this.

    Cole’s story is someone wanted a sandwich in 1908 and the bread accidentally fell into the beef juice. The sandwich was well received and the French dip was born. (Another tale involves a customer with sore gums who asked for his sandwich to be dipped so it would be easier to eat.)

    Philippe’s story is a little more controversial. Different sources have given different stories: that it happened just as it did at Cole’s with a piece of bread accidentally falling into the beef juice and the second; that a customer, a fireman, was annoyed his bread was stale so Philippe dipped it in beef juice and asked him, somewhat angrily, if that made him happy; that one day a customer asked for one side of his sandwich to be dipped after seeing the au jus in a pan of roast meat and then five or six...MORE people wanted the same.

    Advantage: Philippe’s – Every good legend seems to have multiple ways of telling the tale, but the last of the three from Philippe came from the owner himself in a newspaper article from 1951, so that’s the most convincing.

  • 02 of 07

    Ambiance

    ••• ricardodiaz/flickr/CC BY 2.0

    While the history can be debated until the bitter end, you can’t debate the status of what things are like in the present. You're not eating the sandwich in the 1900s. You're eating it now.

    When you walk into Cole’s, it feels like an old school place with a little bit of class. It looks like a saloon with its classic wooden bad and cushioned booths. Cole’s has some photos and news articles on the walls in the back room, but that adds a little charm to a place that makes you feel like you were transported back in time. Cole’s also has a fully-stocked bar, which is never a bad thing.

    Philippe’s has the look of a run-down New York City deli. It has a large counter where you place your orders before bringing your French dip back to the table. Philippe’s is a little larger than Cole’s, but looks like it needs a cleaning and a paint job.

    Advantage: Cole’s – The ambiance at Cole’s is much more comfortable than Philippe’s. Cole’s makes you feel like they want you there, including the bar...MORE that will keep you around. Philippe’s ambiance makes it looks like they don't care about keeping you there, but rather want the customer in and out as quick as possible.

  • 03 of 07

    Bread

    ••• Philippe's. lafoodie/flickr/CC BY 2.0

    It’s time to get serious now that we’ve gone through the peripheries. This is about the sandwich itself after all, and good bread makes a sandwich. It’s the vehicle that takes the contents into your mouth. Anything sub-par and it becomes a messy and possibly unenjoyable experience. You might as well not even eat a sandwich at all if you don’t care about the bread. 

    Cole’s bread isn’t as long as Philippe’s and is a little softer. Philippe’s provides a crustier bread that doesn’t have as much interior cushioning. (That may just be an optical illusion, however, that we’ll get to a little later.)

    Advantage: Philippe’s – As long as a piece of bread isn’t stale, the crustier the better. That gives Philippe’s the advantage by a nose, but Cole’s bread is right there with Philippe’s.

  • 04 of 07

    Meat

    ••• Cole's

    The French dip is associated with beef, but the funny thing is that both of these restaurants offer different meat options. Cole’s provides pork, pastrami, turkey, and lamb in addition to beef. Philippe’s goes one better with pork, pastrami, turkey, lamb, and ham on top of beef. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how many different types of meats are offered. Eating a French dip with anything other than beef is sacrilegious.

    Cole’s offers you the option of Skinny Dip or a Big Dipper, but anyone who goes with a Skinny Dip (half the size of the Big Dipper) is doing themselves a disservice. The meat is cooked perfectly with the bath of au jus that it’s cooked allowing the beef to get nice and soft. They certainly give you plenty of meat on your sandwich.

    Philippe’s cooks their meat in a collection of au jus from all their meats and it’s quite juicy as well. There’s only one size of sandwich, but chances are you may go back for another if you don’t get a side.

    Advantage: Cole’s – There’s...MORE slightly more meat on the sandwich at Cole’s vs. at Philippe’s. The beef at Cole’s also had a little more flavor to it, but as with the bread, it’s a very close call. 

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Au Jus

    ••• Cole's

    The reason a French dip is a French dip is because of the au jus. The whole point of the sandwich is to dip it the sandwich into the meat juice that the meat itself had been cooked in.

    Cole’s gives you a bowl of au jus with your sandwich allowing you to dip it yourself. The au jus is very flavorful like you want to take a bath in it. It’s a little salty, but that works perfectly with the beef.

    Philippe’s dips your sandwich for you in advance. They offer the option of “single-dip,” “double-dip,” or “wet.” It also has flavor, but you’re at the mercy of the French dip gods as to how it’s given to you based on your option. This also relates to the thickness of the bread. We’re really not sure how thick Philippe’s bread is because they dip it for you.  It's seemingly not as thick as Cole's, but we’ll never know for sure.

    Advantage: Cole’s — Sometimes you want a little more au jus with a certain bite. Sometimes you want to dip your French fries in the au jus. Part of the French dip...MORE experience is dipping the sandwich yourself. 

  • 06 of 07

    Toppings & Condiments

    ••• Philippe's. thegirlsny/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    The classic French dip can be enjoyed with just the bread, the meat, and the au jus.

    Cole’s offers Swiss, Sharp Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Goat, or Blue cheese with their French dip. (Swiss is a safe bet — it doesn't overpower the sandwich.) You can also add Cole’s homemade atomic mustard. It has quite the kick, so you don’t want to overpower your sandwich with too much of that either. Every French dip also comes with an atomic pickle spear, which is great for of us who love pickles.

    Philippe’s also offers cheese with the options of American, Swiss, Jack, Blue, or Cheddar. Philippe’s has their own hot mustard as well, which isn’t as hot as Cole’s, but has the same warning with adding too much of it.

    Advantage: Cole’s — The mustard brings everything together. It’s not a requirement, but certainly a worthwhile addition as the kick starts your mouth off right before the au jus hits the palette. The addition of the pickle doesn’t hurt either.

  • 07 of 07

    Final Verdict

    ••• Cole's

    Both sandwiches are worth enjoying when visiting Los Angeles. You may even decide to favor one on a given day depending on your preferences in general or what you’re in the mood for on that day. Many have their opinion on what’s the best and it seems to be a debate that goes on and on. But there can only be one winner...

    Advantage: Cole’s — Part of it is the ambiance, but at the end of the day, Cole's wins for its sandwich. You get a little more meat and you get to dip your own French dip, which is very important. Maybe the bread is slightly inferior, but it’s not enough to have Phillipe’s overcome Cole’s advantage in all the other areas. The pickle and mustard put things over the top. So if you can only choose one, head to Cole’s. You won’t regret it.