Illustration by Kim Steinhilber

Beef. Bread. Broth. Maybe some mustard. Maybe some horseradish. That’s all it takes to make a French Dip, one of the most controversial and mouthwatering sandwiches to ever come out of — not France — but California.

The French Dip is a Los Angeles staple with a complicated origin myth, embroiled in a battle between two restaurants — Philippes and Coles — who both claim to be the sole originator. The sandwich is, essentially, a roast beef sandwich on a French roll served with a side of broth or gravy into which the sandwich can (and should) be dipped. While they can also be served with slices of cheese (like mozzarella or provolone) or even cooked onions, we’re fans of the classic.

The sandwich has since moved East, appearing on menus and in stomachs around the country. Read on for the history of the French Dip and how to make the perfect, healthier version at home.

A Two-Theory History of a Not-So-French Sandwich

There are a bunch of theories on how the French Dip came into being, but the CliffsNotes version is that two L.A. restaurants are locked in a battle over who actually came up with the idea. Philippe: The Original claims they created the first dip in 1918, while Cole’s claims they figured it out in 1908. No matter which side you take, there are two versions of how the sandwich was created.

Theory #1 — The Drop

The French Dip was created because a clumsy server accidentally dropped a perfectly normal roast beef sandwich into the meat cooking pan juices (or “drippings”). The customer (either a police office or a fire fighter — the story varies), took the sandwich anyways, liked it, and so it became a staple.

Theory #2 — Bad Bread:

A customer came in, complaining that either the bread on their sandwich was stale, or their gums were sore (again, the story varies). In both scenarios, a roast beef sandwich was dipped in drippings to placate the customer either out of spite or out of kindness.

Here’s the kicker: Both restaurants claim versions of both stories, in different parts of the same city, separated by 10 years. The story of how the sandwich got its name varies, too: It was either from the “French roll” (baguette) it’s served on; the French ancestry of Philippe’s original owner, Philippe Mathieu; or because the original cop’s name was “French.”

Unfortunately, the odds of getting a definitive answer here are pretty much zero, but we can actually trace the sandwich’s ancestry even further back to the 1800s with the “beef on weck,” a beef sandwich whose roll is usually covered in salt and carraway seeds, and brushed with drippings. Sorry, Philippe and Coles — looks like neither of you were that original.

The Sandwich Now

The French Dip has never been considered a “healthy” sandwich. Lucky for us, that perception is changing as sandwich makers use healthier cuts of beef and the public are looking for simpler sandwiches done right.

The French Dip experienced bursts of popularity in beef-mad cities like Wichita, Montreal, New York, and Toronto. The sandwich even prompted New York Magazine food experts Robin Raisfield and Rob Patronite to declare: “In 2012, everyone will be eating French Dips.”

Want to get in on the fun? Below is our guide to make the perfect (and dare we say healthier) French Dip sandwich.

How to Make the Perfect French Dip

First off, a small disclaimer: If you’re reading this, we’re assuming that “perfect” means a sandwich loaded with flavor that won’t lead to a gastric bypass down the line. The French Dip is a heavy sandwich, so attempt to eat in moderation — but all the more power to you, oh brave sandwich-maker.


The French Dip is traditionally served on a “French roll,” or baguette. It’s totally fine to buy a nice roll and call it a day, but if you want a healthier, tastier sandwich, try making your own roll. This recipe’s super easy, usually just consisting of flour, water, yeast, and salt. Add some extra fiber and nutrients by opting for a whole-grain bread, like this recipe using chia seeds, flax seeds, whole-wheat flour, and sunflower seeds.


French Dips are actually made with all kinds of meat, not just beef. The standard is roast beef, but Philippe and Coles both sell lamb, pork, and various other cuts. If you’re going old-school and sticking with beef, aim for an eye round which has the most protein and least calories per pound, and takes well to braising.

Now it’s time to get cooking. The best way to prepare beef for this sandwich is to braise or broil the meat in beef consommé, condensed onion soup, or some combination of flavorful liquids (some recipes call for beer, for example). Of course, if you’re going the easy route, it’s possible to just buy deli roast beef and pre-made consommé, for anyone short on time and big on hunger.

Drippings (aka the “Dip”)

This is both the easy part and the hard part, depending on how DIY you want to get. The easy route is to gather the cooking liquids from the meat and pour it into a cup. Done and done.

For folks who want a fine jus, pour the drippings through a piece of cheesecloth to strain out any chunks. Of course, if you want to make your own consommé (basically, clarified beef broth) from scratch to use as the dipping liquid, well, that will be a little more time consuming. French Dips can also be served with a full-on gravy, but stay classic and stick to the lighter stuff.

The Condiments

What else goes on a French Dip? Philippe’s used to sell their original with “the works” (pickles, onions, and olives), but the standard is now either a spicy mustard or similarly piquant horseradish spread.

Fast fix? It’s easy to buy both. It’s also surprisingly easy to make both and skip out on weird, unpronounceable preservatives. Try this recipe from “The Mustard Book,” or this whole grain option, spiked with beer.

Horseradish sauce is even easier to whip up; all you need is horseradish (duh) and some vinegar. The best part? Both mustard and horseradish are chock full of nutrients — horseradish, in particular, can help digestion and act as a diuretic, and is rich in polyphenols (a type of antioxidant)Nematicidal Activity of Allylisothiocyanate from Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) Roots Against Meloidogyne incognita. Aissani, N., Tedeschi, P., Maietti, A., et al. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2013 Apr. 29 [epub ahead of print].

How do you dip? Let us know in the comments below or find the author on Twitter at @zsniderman.

Photo by txcrew