The Most Interesting Cup of Coffee in Los Angeles
An affordable jolt at French dip pioneer Philippe's is the foundation of a morning to remember
The first thing to know about the coffee at Philippe’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles, is that it is not very good. Roasted just down the road by one of those old-school outfits that has been doing business in Southern California since forever, this is cafeteria-grade stuff, mostly notable for the reasonable, per cup price of 46 cents, one of the great values in a city of million dollar teardowns, and $11 egg salad sandwiches.
When freshly brewed, like nearly all coffee, it passes; this is textbook diner stuff. Nutty, fragrant, nearly rich. Within minutes, however, the whole thing collapses inward, slouching toward nothingness; the warmth, the fragrance are by now a distant memory. You are left with notes of ash, of leaf pile, perhaps a whiff of tree bark. Some days, your mind will play tricks on you, the aroma remaining in your memory for a while longer than the actual taste; on other days, the coffee will come across with bright, nearly floral notes at first sip, then quickly crash to earth. This hollowed-out result is typically what you will find at Philippe’s, where they appear to brew the coffee in the sort of industrial-sized urn you do not see all that frequently, anymore. Really though, never mind any of this, because in any state, in any shape, the coffee at Philippe's remains one of the most satisfying cups in Los Angeles.
Opened up near Union Station back in 1908 by French immigrant Philippe Mathieu, Philippe’s has lived at the corner of Alameda and Ord, a few steps from the heart of old Chinatown, since 1952. During those early years, Philippe’s was exactly the kind of place you might have gone to mingle with the sort of people that inhabited the Los Angeles made famous in classic films—Chinatown, for instance. While that was all very long ago now, if you wander into Philippe's on any given morning, and step on to its sawdust-covered floors, you will immediately feel as if you have stepped back into the Los Angeles of old, and you will probably like to stay, at least for a little while.
For most of its life, Philippe’s has been famous for things that tend to happen later in the day, notably the house specialty, the French Dipped Sandwich, or the French dip—this is a meaty sandwich (anything from roast beef to leg of lamb) dipped in jus, and, classically, dressed with the house hot mustard, of which Philippe's produces roughly eighty gallons a week, which gives you an idea of the demand for Philippe’s, for those sandwiches, and that mustard, which you can purchase by the bottle at the in-house kiosk, over near the Alameda street entrance, where they will also sell you gum, candy, and copies of the New York Post, like the last couple of decades never happened.
And while there is never a bad time for Philippe’s, this is one of the liveliest lunch crowds in town, to say nothing of early evenings when the Dodgers are at home, it is the mornings that feel most special, the most communal. The faithful, from local business owners to cops to construction workers to suits and ties, not to mention plenty of retirees, arrive bright and early, beginning at six o’clock, taking their rightful places on the well-worn wooden stools, at the long, red formica-topped tables—think free-flowing mess hall, rather than your typically constrained diner or coffee shop. The spare, masculine space is soon warmed by early light, trickling in through the east-facing windows, highlighting the walls lined with clippings from newspapers that failed long ago.
Some people order eggs—hard boiled, or scrambled, over easy, even eggs pickled in beet juice, stored in large jars on the counter. Others leaf through the sports section, they catch up on gossip, they debate taxes and traffic, they make small talk with the mostly elderly busboys, who still wear paper hats, and of course they drink coffee. Some come here for nothing else besides the coffee, ordering two or three cups at a time, only occasionally splashing out for an old fashioned donut, a similarly excellent value at less than a dollar apiece. For these long-timers, the coffee is merely the entrance fee to one of the city’s most inclusive social clubs. If you do not know very much about Los Angeles, if you are new in town, and you miss what it feels like to belong, there are very few places that will make you feel more welcomed, more at home, than Philippe’s.
It will be helpful to know how everything works. Many customers come through the Ord Street entrance—that’s where you’ll find the free parking lot, a rarity in this part of Los Angeles, or any part of Los Angeles these days; a set of stairs brings you directly down to the counter area, where a small army of no-nonsense matrons, many of them long-time employees, cater to customer whims. When it’s your turn, lean into the counter—it gets loud in here, you may need to speak up—and tell your server, known in Philippe's-speak as a carver, what you’d like. Some mornings, you’ll have had plenty of time to deliberate, to ponder the deli case, which is like a museum of vintage foods—rice puddings, pigs feet, pickled beets, coleslaw, all un-artfully presented—this is cold storage, essentially, with a view. In the mornings, you will go for breakfast—fluffy pancakes are the way to go, and scrambled eggs, and the very good corned beef hash, with a necessary side of the fresh, fiery house salsa.
The breakfast is good. Respectable, even. The hash is the sort you might eat again and again, and the salsa—by no means a mild affair—makes it all the more memorable. In the end, however, a morning at Philippe’s is about so much more than eating, it is about being here; at the beginning of your day, this can be an almost meditative experience, something you might do for hours, if you have no place else to be, Los Angeles swirling all around you, as you breathe deeply, slowly, gazing into your mug, wondering if you shouldn't stay for just one more cup of coffee.