Cole’s PE Buffet was heaven itself at one time, a dank basement bar across the street from the old Pacific Stock Exchange habituated by old businessmen, the occasional artist and barely solvent drunks who had been rotting their livers there since the Eisenhower Administration. Cole’s looked as if it hadn’t seen a scrubbing since Sam Yorty left City Hall, and your Doc Martens stuck to the worn tile floors, but there was Ritterbrau on tap, a weekend barkeep who had worked there since Repeal, and improbably good French-dip sandwiches which were among the best things to eat downtown. Cole’s, which opened in 1903 to slake the thirst of the first Red Car workers, was the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles, and claimed to have invented the French dip. (I saw no reason to disagree, which may be why I am the only L.A. food writer in the last 40 years to be unrepresented on the walls at Cole’s great rival Philippe’s.)
When the moribund Cole’s was taken over by Cedd Moses, a downtown bar baron with a knack for selling old Los Angeles back to itself, tavern connoisseurs groaned. Moses’ version of adaptive reuse is perhaps more interventionist than purists might like, and the idea of having Grace’s Neal Fraser reinvent the menu was a bit counterintuitive. But here it is, resplendent in its grungy glory, a menu of French dip and only French dip, beef or pork or lamb or turkey carved to order, plopped into a roll, and served with a small cup of “jus” with which you may moisten your sandwich. Are the sandwiches too small, too inartfully constructed? Perhaps. Is the bacon-spiked potato salad tinted an alarming shade of orange? Definitely, although it is about a million times better than the grisly potato salad at the old Cole’s. Is Spaten on tap a fair substitute for the absent Ritterbrau? It will do. The pies, apple and pecan, are good too. And the bar, grown suddenly serious under the supervision of New York bar-chef legend Sasha Petraske among others, is splendid — the old-fashioned was perhaps the best of my whiskey-soaked life. 118 E. E. Sixth St., Los Angeles, (213) 622-4090, www.colesfrenchdip.com. Open Sun.-Tues., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Street parking only. (Nearby pay lot on Main at Sixth streets.) Takeout.