No trip to downtown Los Angeles, whether it is for a game at Staples Center, a concert at Disney Hall or just a trip to the Fashion or Jewelry Districts, is complete without a French dip sandwich. The two purveyors of this sandwich, both of whom claim to have invented it, are Cole’s French Dip and Philippe’s. There are several differences in the places. Philippe’s is a place where you wait in line, get your sandwich with sides such as cole slaw or pickled beets, grab a spot at one of the long group tables and sit down to eat. It has not changed much in many years. Beer and wine can be had if you desire and they are famous for their pie and the 25 cent coffee. Cole’s, on the other hand, has booth and table seating in a room with dark woods, a waitstaff to serve you, a bar with cocktails and side dishes like seasoned garlic fries. Two different experiences and both worth trying.
Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet was established in 1908, the same year as Philippe’s. Cole’s still inhabits the original building they started in which was the headquarters and main terminal for the Pacific Electric Railway, Los Angeles’ original mass transit system. The “Big Red Cars” and buffet are long gone, but the building still stands, with Cole’s keeping their original saloon look from the early 1900’s.
The Red Car name still exists in the Red Car Bar where the original 40 foot mahogany bar is still in use. Some tables were made of the doors of the original cars. Photos of Los Angeles in the early 1900’s, including beauty pageant pictures, maps of the Red Car railway system and the Pacific Electric Railway Building under construction adorn the walls, as well as pictures of the Big Red Cars. Many of the Tiffany glass shades are original. All in all, the preservation of the inside has earned the restaurant the Los Angeles Conservancy’s coveted Preservation Award.
As you step down into the somewhat dark interior, you enter a different era. A host seats you and the waitstaff appears to take your drink order. Sidecars, Old Fashioned, Manhattans, Martinis and Bloody Marys set the mood unless you want something a bit less powerful such as fresh lemonade, iced tea or soda. The Bloody Mary is excellent, a perfect example of how it should be made. Cole’s also has a Happy Hour drink and food menu from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and all day Tuesday. The menu itself is presented in a beautiful leather-bound book. The menu is short and to the point. French dip sandwiches, available in pork, pastrami, lamb, turkey and USDA Prime beef are the choices in small or large sizes. Cheese can be added for an extra charge. The sandwiches all come with a pickle spear. Sides include cole slaw, mac’n’cheese, French fries, bacon potato salad and the seasoned garlic fries made with either regular or sweet potatoes. There are also a few regular sandwiches such as turkey salad and a chili bowl. The French dip sandwiches, though, are the reason that most people come to Cole’s.
The beef dip has thin slices of beef piled on it. Full of tender USDA Prime beef, served on a French roll and dipped in au jus before serving, they come with an extra bowl of the au jus for dipping. The rolls have been dipped in the au jus before the meat is put on, giving a nice contrast between the crusty roll exterior and the soft, almost mushy but extremely flavorful inside part of the roll. The pastrami dip uses a lean, good quality pastrami and has that zing people expect of the pastrami spices. The lamb dip is a classic flavor, appealing to fans of the meat. While it is not for everyone, if you like lamb it is certainly one of the most flavorful ways to eat lamb. Not only is the lamb tender, but the high quality meat they use has flavor without the gaminess some people feel lamb has. The turkey is fresh sliced off a roasted breast and served with thick, juicy pieces on the sandwich. To top the sandwiches off, Cole’s has their own hot mustard to spread on the roll for extra flavor.
Extra credit has to be given to the chef for creating the seasoned garlic fries, especially the sweet potato fries. The contrast of sweet and garlicky flavors makes the fries a must get item, one of the best side dishes around. Credit also has to be given to the waitstaff, attentive without hovering and friendly, not in the way they are at most new chain restaurants, but instead polite, knowledgeable and with that professional attitude that classic waiters and waitresses used to have. It all adds to the ambiance of the place, allowing you to imagine finishing your meal, walking outside and climbing on one of the Big Red Cars to take you to Venice and Pacific Ocean Park.
As the old saying goes, “there’s always room for pie”. Banana cream, dark chocolate cream and Bourbon pecan are standouts and worth getting. Of course, sharing the pies is a great way to try them all. There are also seasonal pies such as apple and blackberry.
Dining at Cole’s is dining at a part of Los Angeles history. If you want to grab lunch or dinner at a place where not only is the food delicious but the atmosphere is straight out of a 1930’s movie, Cole’s is the place to go.
Cole’s French Dip
118 East 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA, 90014