The History of the French Dip

The classic French Dip sandwich
The classic French Dip sandwich

Show of hands…how many of you thought the French Dip was a French sandwich?


It is 100% an American sandwich.

It’s okay.  I didn’t know that either.

Lately, I’ve been reading up on the history of different foods.  Yesterday, I researched the origins of the potato knish.  You don’t get anymore New York than a potato knish with some dijon (or honey dijon) mustard.  While most people believe it is predominantly a Jewish snack food, brought to New York by the Jews when they immigrated here, it’s not completely true.

In the 1900s, the knish (the word is actually Russian) was brought to New York when Eastern European immigrants settled here.  It’s a dumpling that was found in Russia, Poland and various other Eastern European countries.  There is no direct connection that the Jews brought it with them when they came to America.

The only known connection to the knish being part of the Jewish culture is the fact that this group is responsible for the knish’s resurgence in the 2000s, especially in urban areas.

The knish appears as variations throughout many different cultures, even in India, where we know it as being a samosa.

How’s that for a food history lesson?

So for today’s non-French history lesson into the French Dip sandwich, we find its origins taking place somewhere during the early part of the 1900s in Los Angeles, California.  There is a battle between two restaurants in LA on who invented the sandwich first.  Was it Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet or Philippe The Original?

No one knows who is responsible for the original French Dip sandwich because both restaurants claim to have invented the original French Dip sandwich at around the same time.  Today, both restaurants are still open and dishing out this classic.  KCET recently did a poll on who had the better Dip sandwich.  You can find the results here.  Believe it or not, in LA, the French Dip sandwich went all the way to the final round of KCET’s poll to discover what was the most iconic dish in LA.  Sadly, it didn’t win.  The Strawberry Donut at Donut Man won out.

The Donut won. 

At any rate, when it comes to HOW the sandwich was invented, no one knows exactly how it came about or who created it first.

But the reason why it’s called the “French” Dip has more to do with the type of bread that was used in the sandwich, not because it came from France.

The story at Cole’s was that the Dip was invented because a customer had some dental work done and needed ‘soft’ food.  Because French bread is so hard, Henry Cole dipped the bread in juice and served up the sandwich that way.  Other customers thought it looked good and requested the same.  They fell in love with the sandwich and the French Dip was born at his restaurant.

As for Philippe The Original…the story is a little different.  Philippe Mathieu opened Philippe the Original in 1908.  In 1918, while making a sandwich for a policeman, Philippe accidentally dropped the bread into the roasting pan with the meat juices (thus the term ‘au jus’).  Instead of wasting the food, the officer said he’d take the sandwich anyway.  He enjoyed it so much, he came back the next day with friends, wanting more of the dipped sandwiches.

Thus the “French Dipped Sandwich” was created.  The restaurant today is not sure why that specific name was selected.  Was it because of Monsieur Mathieu’s French Heritage?  Because of the French roll?  Or was it because the policeman that loved the sandwich so much was named Officer French?  Maybe it was all of the above?

According to the restaurant, “The answer is lost to history.”

You can find Cole’s on your next visit to Los Angeles at 118 E. 6th Street.  Philippe’s is also located in LA at 1001 N. Alameda St.

{Special thanks to Chef Joe and his crew for dishing up this amazing French Dip sandwich (pictured) for today’s post.}



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