It may not seem like a big deal, but nothing is more comforting to me than a glass of wine and a grilled cheese sandwich. If you add an overcast sky to the equation, a crunchy homemade pickle, and a bowl of tomato soup— just stick a fork in me, I’m done.
Lucky for me, my friend dragged me to Cole’s for lunch today. We sat at the tables outside, where you could look through the glass window front into main part of the restaurant pub. There I saw a woman sitting by herself, enjoying a glass of white wine and a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup. I almost clapped my hands with joy.
Actually, the soup was tomato and red pepper, and the sandwich had both Swiss and cheddar cheese on it. I already knew what I wanted, but went ahead and perused the rest of the brief menu that advertised atomic pickles for .50 cents and French Dip sandwiches with a variety of interchangeable meats and cheeses to choose from.
We tied our two dogs to the bar stools out front and perched there, listening to the buses go by. The waitress nodded to me through the glass window, to say she’d be right there. A car rolled past Cole’s blasting the Jackson Five.
“They need some music out here,” I said. A woman one table over from us smiled and nodded through a puff of cigarette smoke.
My friend and I both ordered the Telegraph beer, atomic pickles and sandwiches. I picked the grilled cheese of course and our waitress casually mentioned something about the growing popularity of the Los Angeles Grilled Cheese Invitational. Which lead to me telling her a story about how I missed entering it a few years ago. A friend and I had planned to enter the contest with a killer whiskey laced cheddar grilled cheese concoction, but wound up spending our Spring Break hitchhiking out of Death Valley instead. It’s a long story that involves a dead battery, unfriendly campers, and a series of bad omens. Anyway, I told her, I missed it. I asked her if Cole’s would be represented at the Invitational this April 25th? Unfortunately, she said, no they wouldn’t.
The food arrived soon after. My friend’s lamb and goat cheese French Dip was a little salty for my taste, but she loved it. The pickles arrived in their very own ramekins. My grilled cheese was excellent. The only thing upsetting was that I almost sliced my lip on the beer glass, which had a little chunk missing from the rim. I should have gotten the wine, I thought.
While our waitress hurried off to replace my beer glass, I walked into Cole’s to check it out. I strolled over the white and black penny tiled floors, past a large stainless steel furnished carving station, and sucked in the smell of roasting meats and general pub odor while my eyes adjusted to the dim light. An older woman sat nursing a small glass of light beer, staring off into a misty glass wall behind the massive mahogany bar. She looked like a regular. I noticed they had my new favorite tequila on the shelf, 4 Copas, a tasty organic tequila I discovered late one night at an unlikely spot in Las Vegas last year. The General Manager, Yanna, sidled up to tell me that they had their own resident tequila expert. I wondered if there was an official title for tequila aficionado? The equivalent of…sommelier?
Yanna offered to give me a quick and dirty tour of the restaurant, and a little bit about the history of the place. She let me know that she had been working there since they’d opened. I must say, she looked great for having been around since 1908.
She led me down a hallway behind the bar where the restrooms were, and turned suddenly to face the wall. “There’s a secret in here,” she said, tapping her fingernails teasingly on a dark wooden panel. She motioned for me to put my eye up to it and look through a tiny spyglass peephole. I leaned forward and caught a tiny fisheye view of a set of white stairs and a piece of silky faded pink lingerie and some old shoes. Yanna caught the puzzled look on my face and smiled. I secretly hoped she was going to tell me that the Pacific Electric Railway building also used to be a brothel.
She pushed the corner of the panel hard, and the wooden door popped open like a cabinet revealing a concrete enclosed time capsule. A perfectly preserved set of stairs that lead into a low pipe-filled ceiling. This was part of the railway station, and these were the exact white tiled stairs that lead down to the platform. They spruced it up a bit, she told me, gesturing at the vintage suitcases and personal belongings sitting at the base of the stairway. That explained the nightgown and high heels. So much for my brothel theory.
“Cole’s closed for renovation in 2007 and reopened last year. I came on board in December,” she said as we emerged from the hallway. “We’re a historical landmark, so we tried to stay as true to the original as possible.”
Yanna lead me through the back of the restaurant, past a wall full of photos from movie shoots and pictures of dour looking turn of the century railway workers. Past funny old signs that said things like, “No credit extended to stock brokers.” Past original light fixtures faithfully etched with the words P & E Parlor Bar. Past the mounted head of a deer presiding over a newly renovated walk in cooler. She pointed out each feature in turn.
The Telegraph beer must have gone to my head; I nearly tripped over Yanna as I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Wait a minute,” I said, glancing at the sign hanging outside the restaurant. “Cole’s is the originator of the French Dip sandwich?”
“Yes,” Yanna said.
“Then why is it called a French dip, when it’s not French?”
“It’s on a French roll,” she replied.
Good one, I thought. “Did you guys really come up with it?”
“Well,” she replied. “Phillipe’s also claims that they were the originator of the French Dip, but it’s a…friendly rivalry.”
“We hold the official title,” she added.
“And the reason it’s dipped in au jus, is because an old man once asked if the cook could soften the bread of his sandwich,” Yanna said. “He had sore gums. So they dipped it in the juice the meat was cooked in, and created the French Dip!”
That was plausible, I thought. It sounded like there was more to this rivalry than Yanna was letting on, though. As I said goodbye to the manager and headed back out to my table, I made a mental note to visit Phillipe’s and get the opposing camp’s story. But regardless of the results—whether Cole’s is the true originator of the French Dip or Phillipe’s is—I’m sticking with my grilled cheese and tomato soup. Which means I’ll be back.
Thank you Cole’s!