Tuesday, June 30, 2009


At a place like Cole’s nostalgia permeates the present. It becomes a tourist attraction. To let it all go would just be a shame. Food here in this old brick building has been the same for the past 101 years; an anachronism to the concrete jungle of art galleries that urban hipsters and gangsters fluctuate towards. The city’s hankering for large meat piled sandwiches served with a side of salty, meaty au jus coupled with human inkling for nostalgia, has kept a place like Cole’s running along smoothly like the mass transit system that once roared out of the very same brick building.
An urban tumbleweed in the form of a pink balloon drifted in front of my car as I patiently awaited the blushing stoplight to turn an emerald green. The buildings were the same bland, boxy, dull gray color, nothing chic or posh in this part of town. This was downtown L.A.? A sad combination of lonely streets and warehouse type shops that close before the sun completely sets. All I could think was that this place reminded me of a ghost town version of downtown San Francisco, everything reminiscent of Market Street, sans the hustle and bustle commonly associated with any downtown.
Parking was not much of a hassle. I parked at a meter about a block and a half away from what I was hoping to be the best sandwich I’ll ever have. Of course, I’m assuming that you don’t consider left hand-side parallel parking a hassle. My mouth watered as I maneuvered my car into the snug spot, fantasizing about taking a huge bite out of Cole’s famous French dip.
As I walked down past the indiscriminate L.A. lofts towards Cole’s, I peered into some large windows noticing that the majority of the buildings housed street level art galleries. Across the street from Cole’s was another gallery. Lined up outside were young, hip-hop styled individuals with their baggy pants, baseball caps, and candy color accented shirts. Other than the line outside the gallery, and the handful people sitting in the outside dining part of Cole’s, the streets were deserted.
Cole’s is no stranger to this town. It has been around since 1908. Above Cole’s are nine stories of the Pacific Electric Building which was built in 1905 and was once the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was built by Henry Huntington, who in 1911, moved out and sold the premises to Southern Pacific. At the peak of Los Angeles’s mass transit period, more than 100,000 passengers would move through the depot. Today, some artifacts from rails can be seen on the second floor of the building.
Designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1989, Cole’s is older than “The Big Red Cars” that used to tunnel through the city; for as long as commuters have been riding the once famed trolleys, they’ve also been eating at Cole’s. Now that the city has turned into a megalopolis of freeways, and The Big Red Cars are part of a “once upon a time”, Cole’s is still hauling on.
Located below street level of the Pacific Electric Building at 118 E. 6th Street in the Historic Core District of downtown Los Angeles, Cole’s has continuously operated from the same location since its founding in 1908 by Henry Cole, the restaurant’s namesake. Cole is not only often credited for the creation of the first French dip, but he also operated Los Angeles’s first check cashing service from the restaurant’s backdoor. On payday, the line of wage-earners waiting to exchange their pay stubs for a beer, a shot of bitters, or slices of meat slapped between a French roll, would extend all the way down the block.
There has been a long-time standing debate on who the actual originator of the French Dip was, Phillippe’s, which also opened its doors in 1908 and Cole’s. As legend has it, one day in 1908 a man who was waiting to exchange his paystub for a sandwich at Cole’s asked the chef to dip the bun of his beef sandwich in the juice of the meat because the bun was too hard for his gums. The news of this savory creation spread like wildfire. It was called, “the French Dip”, taking the name from the type of bread used. And that’s how it all started.
Passer-bys are intercepted by a luminous neon sign sticking out over the sidewalk screams:
SINCE 1908

This was my destination; an old brick building among a bounty of hipster galleries and a failed New York loft make-over. I walked towards the sign as if it were the North Star. I carefully walked down the concrete steps towards the large opened door. Sitting at a tall table next to the door was a very unassuming dirty-blond haired man smoking a cigarette as his black trench-coated body slouched back in his tall chair.

My high heels excitedly clacked their way into the restaurant and I was welcomed by a dark, semi-empty room.

Walking into Cole’s, I am encapsulated by the back drop of a black and white movie; as if I had stepped into a time portal. The restaurant is dimly lit which created a sepia colored atmosphere. The first thing that caught my eye was the large bar to my right. Not much of a crowd was gathered at the sleek mahogany bar counter or in the dining room. The polished bar glistened under the Tiffany lamps tear-dropping from the ceiling. If these lamps could talk, they would tell a story of Cole’s golden age and of a time when Los Angeles was still a fledgling.

A large, red, keg barrel stuck half-way out of the mirrored wall behind the bar. Cleaned stemware huddled around the barrel, and hard liquor bottles lined the walls on either side. The bartender couldn’t have been more than 30 years-old. His black shirt starkly contrasted the gleam that came from the glass as it caught the light whilst he ran a towel along its cleaned rim. He had a friendly smile on his face as he conversed with a lonely customer in a cardboard-colored suit. He sat with impeccable posture. His amber colored beer sat in a frosty glass, as the beer head slowly decrescendo.

A young, dark, curly-haired DJ, who I had not noticed upon entering, began bumping hip hop beats from his silver Mac Book which radiated out of the speakers around the room. Expecting to hear Nat King Cole or Dodge City saloon music, hip hop just didn’t seem to fit the ambiance. Set up at his own little table next to the entry way with wires and cords flowing around him, he converses with a man in black about something the man had done over the weekend, joking and laughing, they turned over to me and smiled as I walked into the dining area and seated myself at a stiff, and under this lighting, what appeared to be a burgundy colored booth.

The floor near my booth was missing a cluster of what were once white honey-comb tiles, revealing a concrete gray base. A few tiles were missing here and there throughout the restaurant, but I guess that just added to the “aged” feel. My waiter; tall, young, medium completion, faux-hawk hair cut, and rather handsome, trekked out of the kitchen wearing a white buttoned-up shirt and black pants (the brightest room in the entire space), making his way across the dirt-stained floor to my booth.

“How are you doing today? Would you like a drink?”

I asked for a glass of water.

Music, which I didn’t recognize, continued to play from the DJ’s Mac Book as I admired the raspberry-colored wall-paper dining room is adorned with framed black and white photos of Los Angeles’s past. Photos of the P.E. Building in its younger years, crowds of men with slicked back hair and fedoras, tall unfinished buildings; all a reminder of how far Los Angeles has come. My stomach grumbled as my eyes brought my attention back to the table.

I grabbed a laminated menu which was hiding behind the horse radish bottle and the napkin dispenser and perused it. The dinner menu was printed on one side with a little more than a dozen food items you could order. What I was here for was the French Dip.

The menu was basic; French Dip with either pork, beef, turkey, pastrami, or lamb and 92 cents extra for Swiss, Cheddar, Goat or Blue Cheese. The menu also featured a handful of side dishes and pies. On the back side was a historical time line of Cole’s, dating from 1908 to 2009. A second menu listed “Cole’s Historic Cocktails”. Stiff, old fashioned bourbon, whisky, and rye drinks jumbled in with the lighter champagne cocktail and Cosmopolitan on one side and draft beers and wines on the other.
My waiter came back with my glass of water.
He pulled out a pad of paper and a pen and asked to take my order—beef French Dip, no cheese, and a side of spicy garlic fries, and to drink, a Lillet with a Twist.
The hip hop beats continued to infiltrate the dim room as more people came in. A family of three with and elementary school aged child sat at the table next to me. The little boy hoisted himself up on to the stool as his father held out a “just in case” arm. The kid pouted his face as he lifted his left knee onto the stool, grabbed the table with both arms and said in a whinny voice, “No Daddy, I can do it myself.” And with that he swung his right knee over and on to the stool, and plopped his behind down proudly.

Diagonally next to this family and adjacent to the well-lit kitchen, were a male and a female couple who appeared to be in their late twenties. She wore a strapless, denim-colored, acid washed dress that hit mid-thigh when she sat down. Her sleeveless dress exposed her heavily tattooed upper arm. She brushed back her bleach blonde bangs on her tar head of hair, securing it with a bobby pin. Her dark red lips smiled excitedly at her companion who was wearing a blue auto-mechanic shirt and dark colored pants. His arms were also tatted. He chuckled looking up at the waiter who placed their massive sandwiches in front of them. They chatted for a few seconds before both picking up half a sandwich with two hands dipping into the au jus and then struggling to take a full bite. He laughs as he wipes the au jus dripping down his goatee.

My waiter brought my drink. Condensation was dripping from the white wine glass as he set the water-color orange drink down in front of me noting that my food would be out shortly. The content was a Lillet Blanc served on the rocks with a twist of orange, thus giving it a most literal name—“Lillet with a Twist”. I took a sip and continued to look around the room. I noticed an old wooden sign hung up on the wall across that room that said, “We do not extend credit to stock brokers”, and another sign that said “Avoid sinful enterprizes” (and yes, it was spelled with a “z”).

This is not what Cole’s used to look like. Once a simple wooden walled eatery with fire engine red booths, old Big Red Car doors as tables, and wood shutters on the windows, Cole’s has officially transformed into a swanky, hip new restaurant. People who knew the old Cole’s feel robbed of a historical past that the restaurant once so dearly represented. Now, it was just a fraud—a romanticized vision of the past made tangible by an entrepreneur with a large wad of money.

My eyes wandered over to the back of the room, where a random door was present. This was Varnish. Cole’s little dirty secret—the speakeasy in the back. A place that sparked my curiosity, but it wasn’t open on this particular day because filming was happen behind that door. (Apparently, they film Hollywood movies in there, and on top of that, Cole’s is closed every Monday for filming or special events—it’s a hard knock life in L.A.)

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my waiter bring over my food. He set small round white plate down along with my basket of spicy garlic fries and condiment cup of ketchup. Two hefty halves of a beef sandwich, a ramekin of deep brown au jus, and a pickle spear left no space for the white of the plate to peep through.

Thick sliced beef brisket was layered high and neatly between the two halves of a dry, French sandwich roll. I picked up half of the sandwich with both hands, secured it in my left hand, grabbed the hot horse radish with my right hand and squeezed a good bit on one corner of the sandwich, dipped it in the au jus, opened my mouth as wide as I possibly could, and took a huge bite.

The meat was moist but tough and without the au jus, the sandwich was incomplete. My jaw was exhausted by the time I finished the first half of my sandwich.

The fries however, were a complete success. They were borderline shoe string fries. The long strands of extra crispy potato covered in chili powder and garlic smelled and tasted of rich butter which left the parchment lining of the basket translucent with grease.

I asked for a parchment paper to wrap the other half of my sandwich with to take home. The waiter brought my check over in a cup along with a neon pink flyer which promoted today’s “All nite happy hour, 10pm – 2am, 2$ off all drinks” and introduced the DJ who was playing –DJ Humberto and DJ El Reyes.

Time stands still at Cole’s. There’s something both reminiscent and representative of a past to which I did not belong to. I was seemingly sucked into a 1908 saloon twilight zone; a dark, noir place where people go to drink their stresses away. However, the silencing of nostalgia and the erasure of a sepia ambiance is brought about by the diverse crowd Cole’s draws, its location, and the anachronistic music that it hosts. Cole’s is both trying to hold on to the past, in a presumably gaudy and romanticized manner, yet still draw a crowd by incorporating modern and young aspects. The bipolarity that Cole’s has given into reflects the constant contractions that surround the city. The business decision to turn Cole’s into a swanky, hip dining spot will determine its further success, or if it will be just another piece of the disappearing Los Angeles.

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