Sunday, January 25, 2009

Detour into history

We were heading to Chinatown, and we were hungry. We were trying to decide where to go first. Grab a banh-mi at the little Vietnamese deli? Or try a bowl of noodles at a Chiu Chow place I'd read about? Or get a lamb and bleu cheese dipped sandwich at Philippe's?

Traffic on the 110 was heavy, so we decided to slip off the freeway into downtown. As we rolled up Broadway, it occured to us - "Hey, wait a minute! Isn't Cole's re-opened?"

Los Angeles food and history lovers alike know about the long-standing rivalry between two downtown joints over credit for inventing the french-dip sandwich - roast meat on a crusty french roll, dipped in the roasted meat juices.

Cole's was established in 1908, on the ground floor of the Pacific Electric Building, which was the main terminal for the interurban Pacific Electric Railway, or the "Red Cars" that was Los Angeles' mass transit system before it disappeared in the 1950s. Cole's claims to be the longest continually operating restaurant in the city - and if you don't count the months between March 2007 and December 2008 when it was closed for its recent renovation, that might be true.

The signature french-dip sandwich was invented when a customer, concerned that the bread was too crusty for his sore gums, asked proprietor Harry Coles to dip his sandwich in the juices of the roast meat. Other customers asked for the same, and it became the restaurant's signature sandwich.

Of course, across the 101 freeway on Alameda, Philippe's restaurant claims to be the inventor of the french-dip sandwich - but that's for another blog post.

In 1974, Coles was designated as Los Angeles Historic Landmark #104. But despite that honor, in recent years the place mirrored the general decline of its neighborhood. I read somewhere that Cole's was the kind of place where you would typically see a bookie buying a drink for a prostitute, a drunk passed out at the bar, and an exterminator spraying the place for roaches, all during the same visit. Debates over the french-dip rivalry on Chowhound invariably mentioned the seedy atmosphere at Coles. When Jonathan Gold's book "Counter Intelligence" was published in 2000, he described going to Cole's as

[stumbling] into another era, with real Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floors, and a couple of pickle-nosed guys at the bar who look like they haven't budged from their stools since 1946... There's horseradish and hot mustard on the tables , darts in the back rooms, and dark Ritterbrau on tap; a sort of romantic, Chandleresque dinginess you won't find anywhere else in town.

Gold notes that the offerings at the cafeteria-style buffet ranged from bad to worse - the only attraction was the french-dip sandwich - but what a sandwich. Gold rated them better than those at Philippe's.

Recently, Cole's was purchased by Cedd Moses, downtown developer and entrepreneur, owner of the Golden Gopher and other downtown bars. He closed Cole's for renovation in March 2007, and re-opened in this winter. His pledge to preserve the historic interior has been praised by preservationists. His re-vamping of the old menu has met with mixed reviews.

I had never been to the old Cole's - I learned about it just a little too late. But once we heard it was reopening, we were eager to try it. So, instead of continuing up Broadway to Chinatown, we took a detour east on 6th. We parked on a rooftop lot off Los Angeles Street and rode an elevator with a Latino family to the sidewalk, passing the wholesale fabric dealers and discount lingerie and toy stores bustling with shoppers and bacon-dog vendors. Round the corner on 6th, a ramp beyond a wrought-iron railing sloped down past a trendy coffee shop to the entrance of Cole's. Even in such a short walk, you can't avoid the diverse and ever-changing flavor of downtown Los Angeles.

We sat at the bar - its original dark varnished wood substantial and solid. There were chrome-trimmed formica-topped pedestal tables surrounded by deep maroon upholstered booths. There was red-flocked wallpaper, and white penny-tiled floors, old photos on the wall and stained glass panels inset into the woodwork.

It no longer has a cafeteria-style buffet like it did in the old days. The menu is limited to french dip sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, and caesar salad. There's a handful of sides, a tomato soup, and a choice of two pies for dessert.

The bar menu features classic cocktails and draft beers.

We decided to have a cocktail first, opting for a Manhattan made with rye whiskey in the classic manner. They were stirred, not shaken, in an ice-filled mixer in front of us, and served without the usual maraschino cherry, in coupe glasses - the kind that you often see incorrectly used for champagne at celebrations. The coupe is the classic cocktail glass, before the vogue of today's martini glass. Even though we were starving, we savored the drink before ordering our lunch.

The sandwiches come in your choice of beef, lamb, turkey or pork, and cost $8. Cheese is a dollar extra; for another $3 you can get extra meat. [The Man I Love] had a french-dip lamb and bleu cheese. I wasn't in a french dip mood, so I had the tomato soup and grilled cheese combo.

While we ate, we chatted with our neighbor at the bar, who was enjoying her own french dip along with a draft beer. She is one of downtown's new residents, living around the corner in a loft building. We talked about the economy, the prospects for the revitalization of downtown, and mused on what the future would bring. We shared our experiences living in other cities - she was raised in Manhattan - and talked about raising kids. I have to admit, I had a flash of envy. How exciting it would be to be in her shoes, participating in the transformation, and preservation, of one of America's great cities.

And not only that - she gets to have Cole's as her local!

Our new acquaintance is also a blogger, and if you want to know what life is like living in downtown Los Angeles, visit Li's blog, Under the Alexandria.

Cole's serves two types of pickles - one called Atomic and the other called Garlic. We tried them both. The Atomic pickle's heat comes from horseradish, while the Garlic pickle was surprisingly hot from flaked red chiles.

I asked [The Man I Love] for his review on the sandwich, and here's what he said -

There was less meat on it than there should have been, and I had a couple of pieces that were gristle. The bleu cheese was great. And the pickles were great, both kinds! I didn't notice the bread. The setting really made a difference, having a real bar with a knowledgeable bartender in an historical setting, serving historically accurate cocktails is a plus. If you're looking at strictly the sandwich, Philippe's still has the edge, but if you add up the whole, I need further research.

My tomato soup was delicious, warming, and, while in the classic style of Campbells, very much better. There was a hint of red pepper or pimiento along with the tomato. The grilled cheese on thick sourdough bread was comforting - just the meal for a January day with looming thunderclouds.

We'll see how Cole's develops. There have been some negative reviews in Yelp and Chowhounds, mostly in reaction to the meagerness of the helpings and the price - $9 for lamb and bleu cheese compared to Philippe's more abundant sandwich at $6.50. And the menu, frankly, could be expanded.

But we'll study it. [The Man I Love] is a scholar, after all, and it's important to research thoroughly before drawing conclusions. It will be arduous, requiring several future trips as well as comparison forays to Philippe's. But I think we're up to it.


Queenly Things said...

You had me at the Manhattan. I don't remember Coles but I remember feeling the same awe at a golden era of restaurants and bars when we ate at the Pantry not too far from where you were. Food just tastes better when the surroundings caress you with old time warmth .

cactus petunia said...

Mmmmm. Grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. Comfort food to the max!

I am a Tornado ~ proven fact! said...

I too love grilled cheese - mix it up with different cheeses and breads: swiss & pumpernickel, munster and honey wheat, sharp & sourdough, mozzarella and italian with sprinkle of basil - YUM!

Sounds like more research is definitely needed, have fun.

I'm hungry for grilled cheese and tomato soup ... easy dinner tonight!

Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

yeah baby, more horseradish and garlic!

skidrowdude said...

Hey G- I just stumbled on your blog because of your comments on Li's site, and i really enjoy it. You are a great writer. Love the Cole's review- but I'm afraid it convinced me to hit Blu LA again befroe Coles (right next door, downstairs by same wroght iron fence)- I'm sure we were there at same time on Sunday as Li saw me walking home on Main St.

I'm looking forward to Chinese Dragon Parade too- Chinatown is one fun place to enjoy a day of window shopping, dim sum, nad people watching.

Take care,


Floyd B. Bariscale said...

All I know is you've made me hungry for pickles.

Barbara said...

The photos are great, and the cocktail sounds like something I would love to have tonight. Thanks for the sandwich review. It sounds like Philippe's has nothing to worry about.

blognut said...

Here I am just about to head off to bed and you've got me thinking of french dip sandwiches. I swear to God, if I eat my pillow tonight, I'm going to be so mad at you tomorrow!