The Cole's vs. Philippe's French dip rivalry may be the most one-sided rivalry since San Francisco vs. Los Angeles. (For the record, San Fran: We think you have a charming, walkable little burg with great bars and good, cheap burritos. We like to play there on weekends and extended holidays, then we return to our traffic-clogged lives and continue to ignore you). Once upon a time, Cole's and Philippe's had a real rivalry. These days, the revamped non-divey Cole's with its simulacrum of a speakeasy tucked in the back is a legitimately great cocktail haunt that just happens to serve sandwiches. Philippe's is, as it ever was, a genuine salt-of-the-earth sandwich Mecca.
All of Cole's French dip sandwiches are served with a small cup of salty brown beef broth. You dip it yourself. Sandwich purists may argue this preserves the integrity of the bun. We're agnostic about it. We don't have a strong preference for pre-dipped sandwiches vs. dip-it-yourself sandwiches. We do, however, have a hard and fast preference about flavor: The sandwiches at Philippe's just taste better.
We don't go in for a lot of the sides at Philippe's: the pickled eggs are beautiful in their magenta brine but they're overcooked and dry. The finely shredded coleslaw is sweet but a bit bland. The pies are average, the best of them being the apple crunch with hardened sugar webs on the crumbly topping.
The sandwiches are, usually, perfection. At Philippe's the meat is more finely sliced, more tender and more flavorful. They arrive on oblong French rolls that are heartily dipped (sometimes double-dipped), the au jus soaking into the soft, springy dough. Lamb, beef, turkey, pork -Philippe's has them all, but we prefer the classic beef dip. We were recently advised to try it with blue cheese. It sounded like sacrilege but it was coming from such an old school Philippe's devotee and lifelong Angeleno we took the advice, It's true: Once you go beef and blue cheese at Philippe's, it's hard to go back.
To add hot mustard or not? The eternal question. Again, we're agnostic on the issue. It's great mustard: hot and sharp, but we prefer a straight beef dip.
At Cole's, the meat is more thickly cut. It's also chewier and, often, tougher. Perhaps strangely, the best of their sandwiches is the pastrami, with thin and curling tongues of tender, excellently salted meat. It's perfect, especially with Swiss cheese and sans dip. The dip isn't bad, it just isn't one with the sandwich.
All the sides at Cole's cost more than the sides at Philippes. The coleslaw is fine, but $3 for a small cup? Yawn. The mac 'n cheese is worth it.
Where Cole's really kills are the pies. The chocolate cream pie is incredible, with maybe two inches (we do have problems with depth perception) on a crust of dark chocolate crumbles. Incredible. Exceptional. Must be eaten to the last bite.
To sum up, an ideal downtown excursion would be Philippe's for a classic beef French dip followed by a stop at Cole's for cocktails and pie.