Photo by Ted Soqui
When considering one of L.A.’s oldest restaurants, it’s important, first, to get the name right. Don’t say Fil-Leap; say Fil-Leap-A. It’s pronounced in three syllables with the accent on the leap, the way restaurant founder Philippe Mathieu intended. That’s how they say it when you call on the phone, and that’s how Elias Barajas, a Philippe’s manager for over 20 years, was instructed to say it by a prior manager, who’d been around for decades before that.
If that’s all too much to retain, just describe it to anyone who’s been in L.A. for more than five minutes as “that French-dip place near downtown” and you’ll be understood.
First opened in 1908, Philippe has operated at its current location for nearly half a century, offering a glimpse of L.A. dining history in a town that all too often seems little interested in such matters. The canned fruits displayed in a neat pyramid on the shelves behind the serving counter hearken back to a time when preserved goods signified the culinary cutting edge. The walls are scattered with fawning reviews from various decades, along with relics from the lion tamers, clowns and freaks of Ringling Bros. Circus, who used to park their trailers nearby and treat Philippe as a sort of commissary, feasting on dishes much the same as those offered today.
Philippe’s claims to serve 300 pounds of pig’s feet a week, but you’re more likely to see diners biting into one of the French-dip sandwiches that Mathieu reportedly invented. They’re served on sturdy French rolls, and you can choose from roast beef, roast pork, turkey, ham or, my personal favorite, leg of lamb. Tender and juicy, the lamb sandwich is best with a slice of melted jack cheese and a sparing swipe of Philippe’s own hot mustard. All requests for a side of gravy will be rejected — dipping is done only by the “carvers,” as the ladies lined up behind the long serving counter are known. But if you ask for a double or triple dip, they will happily oblige.
The menu offers many sides: potato salad, olives, chile peppers, sour dill or sweet pickles. The best are the not-too-sweet coleslaw — crisp, fresh and perfectly dressed — and the pickled eggs. When you order an egg, the carver scoops it out of a large jar, where it floats in fuchsia beet juice, and serves it sliced in half, revealing the pink-tinted white surrounding a yellow yolk. A couple of glasses of Philippe fresh lemonade provides the perfect accompaniment. Or try a selection from a surprisingly varied list of premium wines served by the glass. If your dining nostalgia extends to pricing, opt for a cup of coffee — at Philippe it’s still just a dime. 1001 N. Alameda St., downtown; (213) 628-3781.