I went to Philippe’s yesterday, so it seemed only right today to go to Cole’s— the other downtown restaurant opened in 1908 that claims to have invented the french dip sandwich.
I took the bus, partly because parking’s a pain and gas is expensive, and mostly because it’s fun to sit and read and look out the window at neighborhoods I don’t often see. I got off the bus a little early and went to see the mural commemorating Biddy Mason, a former slave who became a midwife and wealthy landowner in 19th century Los Angeles.
Cole’s could not be more different than Philippe’s, with its waiters and wallpaper, and yet it manages to look exactly as ancient-without-being-decrepit. Lovely and cozy and nice, is the general feel.
-Dark wood paneled walls, except in the places with red wallpaper. The ceiling is the same red. The booths and tables are dark wood as well, and the leather on the booths and seats are maroon. Bright hanging globes keep it from being gloomy. The floor is small white tiles, the kind that always looks dirty whether it is or not.
-On the wall are tons of photographs of old L.A., plus a couple signs that I assume were hanging here in the old days, except it’s impossible to not think of those “old-timey” signs in novelty shops. One says “Avoid Sinful Enterprises” and the other, “We Do Not Extend Credit to Stockbrokers.” Cole’s is such a perfect example of an early-20th-century restaurant, it reminds me of all the modern restaurants trying to copy that look. It seems retroactively–and unfairly–corny.
-I got a beef french dip (that’s what I got at Philippe’s, and I wanted to compare). They didn’t have a fruit cup, so I had tater tots, which were amazing. I know that’s not often said about tater tots, but I can’t help it. The french dip was exactly as delicious as Philippe’s, but not more so. It’s a tie, as far as I’m concerned.
-I asked for water, and the waiter put a glass with ice and an old Wild Turkey bottle full of water on the table. I appreciated this very much, because every time I poured myself more I could pretend I was a disgruntled cowboy who’d told the garter-armed bartender to leave the bottle.
-the ladies’ room requires a token. It wasn’t hard to get one, but I hate knowing that if I have to use the restroom it’s going to be a whole thing.
-the menu has comical illustrated instructions for how to eat a french dip (the sandwich wasn’t pre-dipped like at Philippe’s; there was the expected cup of au jus on the plate) including the “rule” that one should dip for exactly two seconds. In spite of my amused contempt at this, I found myself counting out two seconds every time I dipped.
-The dipping did change the experience a bit. On the one hand, I enjoyed the ritual of it, but on the other hand it made things quite messy. This is not a place I’d want to go for a job interview, or to have lunch with a girl who’d been mean to me in middle school.
-There is a “history of Cole’s” printed in the menu, and it includes the Fun Fact that Mickey Cohen was a regular and had his own table. I asked the waiter where the table was, and he said the last booth in the other room. “He kept his back to the wall, just like Han Solo!” I did not point out that it’s more the other way around.
-I checked out Cohen’s table as I was leaving. It doesn’t look any different from the others, except that on the wall next to it is a large mounted deer’s head. It is the only example of taxidermy in the place, and I wonder if that is deliberate.
I assumed that Philippe’s and Cole’s were rivals, but I don’t really know how they could be. They are such an incredibly different experience, I can’t imagine someone not knowing which they were in the mood for.
What I Ate: Beef french dip with “atomic” mustard, tater tots
What I Read: “Eeney Meeney Murder Mo,” by Rex Stout, the first in a collection of Nero Wolfe short stories. Nero Wolfe is my very favorite detective. I recently learned that my grandfather loved these books too, which makes them even more precious to me.
What Sort of Ghost I’d Expect to Find if I Believed in Ghosts Which I do Not: A bartender with a curly mustache who loved his job.
118 E 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014
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