The French dip sandwich is an American 'happy accident'

History • Utah has its share of restaurants that make this popular sandwich, but its origins are colorful — and distinctly red, white and blue.
This is an archived article that was published on in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

American restaurant menus can be misleading. Take French fries and the French dip sandwich, neither one originated in France.

Fries can be traced back to Belgium and the French dip is American, created in Los Angeles in 1918.

"In France, we don't have a French dip sandwich. We don't eat sandwiches like that," said Jean Jacques Grossi, who emigrated from France 36 years ago and is the executive chef at Gourmandise Bakery. "I'm not sure where it comes from. I would have to Google it."

When you do search the Internet, there's some dispute about its origins. Some say Cole's Pacific Electric Buffet was the first restaurant that served the sandwich.

Others say it was invented at a different place: Philippe the Original. Legend has it that an officer ordered a beef sandwich and Philippe "Frenchy" Mathieu, the original owner of the downtown deli, accidentally dropped the bread in a roasting pan that still contained the drippings. The officer was in a hurry, so he took the sandwich anyway.

The officer enjoyed his lunch so much that he returned the next day and brought others who all wanted to try the sauce-soaked sandwich. This happy accident eventually became known as the French dip — so named because the sandwich is served on a French roll and because of Mathieu's nickname and heritage.

"I spoke with the grandson of Philippe Mathieu at the restaurant's 100th anniversary and he confirmed the story. That's exactly what he heard from his grandfather," said Mark Massengill, a managing partner at Philippe the Original. His family has owned and operated the restaurant since 1927 when they purchased it from Mathieu.

First opened in 1908, Philippe the Original is considered a historic site in L.A. The restaurant had to relocate in 1951 to make way for the 101 Freeway. Other than that, not much has changed, especially not the menu.

"The menu has been basically the same and that's something we've been very careful to maintain," Massengill said. "People come here because they're familiar with it. They come here because their parents brought them and they know exactly what they're going to get."

The French dip is served with a savory broth mixture, called the au jus, which is applied directly to the bread rather than on the side. That's how the sandwich was originally conceived and the owners are not ones to break with tradition.

"The history is a big part of it. It's what brings people back," Massengill said.

Philippe the Original attracts many tourists but a major part of its clientele are locals who have been dining there since childhood.

"I've been coming here for 20 years," said Joel Jones, a downtown L.A. attorney. "My dad started bringing me here when I was a kid."

In Utah

In Salt Lake City, several restaurants offer French dip sandwiches. Grossi, at Gourmandise, offers one made with thinly sliced Italian beef and Swiss cheese on a baguette. At The Robin's Nest, "The Big Dipper" comes with medium roast beef, melted Swiss and au jus. Horseradish is available upon request.

Ryan Lowder, owner and chef at the Copper Onion remembers his first run in with the humble sandwich.

"My mom used to make it. She was a pretty ambitious cook," he said. "First she was using deli slices but then she started braising the meat herself. It was definitely a homegrown French dip."

At his Salt Lake City restaurant, Lowder keeps the French dip simple. "You don't need to gussy up a French dip," he said. "We don't do anything out of the ordinary but it does take some TLC."

The au jus, which is served on the side, takes 10 hours to prepare. The sandwich consists of beef sourced from Pleasant Creek Ranch, caramelized onions and Tillamook cheddar all piled in a house-made baguette — an important part of the equation.

"The bread, I mean, that's your delivery," Lowder said. "I think dipping it is fun. You just use the sandwich like a shovel and get all that au jus."

The American-made sandwich is served with a side of — what else — French fries. —

French dip in Salt Lake City

The Copper Onion • Roast beef from Pleasant Creek Ranch with grilled onions, Tillamook cheddar in a house-made baguette, $10; or $13 with a side. 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-355-3282. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. -10 p.m. ; Friday, 11:30 a.m. -11 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Gourmandise Bakery • Thinly-sliced Italian beef with Swiss cheese on a baguette, with au jus. Half: $6.25, full: $8.45. Available for lunch at dinner. 250 S. 300 East, Salt Lake City; 801-328.3330. Open Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Robin's Nest • "The Big Dipper" comes with medium roast beef, melted Swiss and au jus. Horseradish is available upon request. Half $5.95; whole, $7.95. 311 S. Main, Salt Lake City; 801-466-6378. Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.