The French dip is certainly one of the most unique sandwiches on menus like yours today. Take a thick French roll, part it down the middle and layer it with thinly shaved beef. If you ended it there, you’d have an ordinary sandwich.
But what makes the French dip really special for customers is the dip: hot beef drippings, commonly called “au jus,” either served in a small cup for the patron to dip into, or submerged in before serving. And voilà! The French dip.
It’s simple in make-up, yet the act of dipping the sandwich in hot, savory broth makes it one-of-a-kind and a specialty that has found popularity on menus across the U.S.
The Very First (Disputed) Dip
Contrary to what your customers may think, the French dip didn’t originate in France. “It’s a classic American sandwich with maybe some French influence,” says Tony Finnestad, Executive Chef of the Foodservice Group at Hormel Foods. The California-born invention earned its name from either the French bread it uses, the French deli owner who possibly created it or maybe a combination of the two.
The dipping experience is born out of its origin—or origins, as there are two competing stories that claim to own the creation of the sandwich.
The first claim is by French immigrant Philippe Mathieu in 1918. As the story goes, Philippe— then owner of deli and sandwich shop Philippe the Original in Los Angeles—was preparing a sandwich for a customer who was in a hurry. Philippe accidentally dropped the sliced roll into a pan of beef drippings and the rushed customer (who some say was a fireman or police officer) took the sandwich as is and left—only to return the next day with friends for more.1
Today at Philippe the Original, the back-of-house team still dips the sandwich before serving to their customers.
The second possible origin story stars Chef Jack Garlinghouse in 1908 at Cole’s Pacific Electric Café, also in LA. In this instance, a customer came into the shop and told Chef Jack how he couldn’t chew well due to his unhealthy gums. Feeling sympathy for the customer, Chef Jack softened the sandwich by dipping it into the pan of beef drippings. The customer loved it so much that he came back again and again, word got out and the popularity took off.2
Unlike at Philippe the Original, Cole’s Pacific Electric Café now serves each sandwich with a dip-it-yourself side of broth.
While most French dip enthusiasts tend to believe Philippe was the true creator of the sandwich, both restaurants are a destination for fans across the country. While the deliciousness of the sandwich is necessary to its success, an interesting history like this only adds to the allure of the French dip—and is just another reason to menu it.
The King of the Dipping Experience
So how is it that one sandwich owns the dipping experience? To start, there aren’t many other activities a customer can have with sandwiches. You usually serve them up completely prepared. Maybe a customer will throw on additional condiments, though few would count that as an experience.
While other foods like s’mores and fondue have true hands-on, actionable experiences, sandwiches nearly always come finished—besides the French dip. “The au jus is the perfect way to end the sandwich,” says Chef Tony.
Also, in few other instances is it essential to dip a sandwich in order to complete the preparation. Other similar sandwiches tend to be evolutions of the French dip. The Chicago-staple Italian beef sandwich originated in the 1930s and is made of thinly shaved roast beef, peppers, giardiniera and gravy on a bread roll that can be ordered dry or dipped in beef drippings.
The Philadelphia pork sandwich is similar. Another 1930’s creation, its sesame seed roll is sometimes saturated with meaty pork juices by the back-of-house crew.
Regardless, the French dip has resisted regionality to become the sandwich-to-dip known across the country.
Its Simplicity Brings Focus to the Dipping
Another reason the dipping experience stands out is because the sandwich is so damn simple. With just beef, bread and broth as base ingredients (and often the only ingredients), the main focus is the act of dipping.
This simplicity challenges the idea that something has to be complex to stand out or become popular. It has that same simple delight of a classic cheeseburger, though the French dip is arguably more unique.
Even the action of dipping is uncomplicated—no technique or utensils are required. “It’s really approachable,” say Chef Tony. Your customer can dip a little, dip a lot or if you dip it before it gets in the customer’s hands, they can request it single dipped, double dipped or more.
This delightful simplicity along with the rich history of this sandwich just adds to the allure, the satisfaction and the overall unique experience of the French dip.
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