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At this burger stand, the thrill may be gone, but the grill is not

Bill Elwell doesn't want any more customers, but they just keep coming.

"Is McDonald's closed today?" he likes to grunt to those lined up outside his tiny burger stand in an industrial pocket of the San Fernando Valley. "Why is everyone here? Go down the street!"

Elwell is 87 and cranky, and folks can't seem to get enough of him.

It's been 49 years since Elwell took to the grill of his 10-by-20-foot burger stand on Oxnard Street where Van Nuys meets Sherman Oaks. He once flipped a burger from grill to floor to shush a customer complaining about too much mayonnaise. And he's been known to eat raw burger patties to irk anyone who says the meat isn't done enough.

But to the legions of people who crowd Bill & Hiroko's Burgers every day, Elwell can do no wrong. A trip to his walk-up eatery is a trip back in time, they say, to a place where you can relish a laugh with a stranger and a ribbing from the white-haired grill master.

Elwell keeps it old-school. And they like that.

A sign above the cash register spells it out pretty clearly: "This is not Burger King. You don't get it your way, you take it my way or you don't get the damn thing."

On a recent afternoon, 27-year-old Mark Reyes, from Van Nuys, leaned against the red counter, watching the bespectacled Elwell plop pink patties onto the flattop grill.

"I like him," Reyes said, nodding toward Elwell as he waited for his double cheeseburger.

"Huh?" Elwell shot back.

"I like you!"

Elwell rolled his eyes and turned back to the meat. Reyes grinned and shrugged.

The restaurant is squeezed between a moving truck rental lot and a carpet warehouse. The hedges surrounding the squat building are a splash of green in the otherwise concrete landscape of the five-lane street dotted with warehouses and parking lots.

The restaurant sits right on the border of what was, just a few years ago, a bitter San Fernando Valley neighborhood border war. In 2009, the Los Angeles City Council voted to redraw neighborhood boundaries, allowing about 1,800 homes in Van Nuys between Oxnard Street and Burbank Boulevard to join the more upscale Sherman Oaks. They were isolated, proponents argued, from the rest of Van Nuys by the industrial zone in which Elwell's eatery — now technically in Sherman Oaks — sits.

Elwell, a World War II veteran, bought the burger stand for $2,500 in 1965, back when a dirt path led to the counter, he said. (He personally etched the year 1970 into the sidewalk when it was added.) The dirt parking lot behind the restaurant would fill with freight trucks whose hungry drivers knew where to get a burger for less than a dollar.

He still cooks on the restaurant's original cast-iron grill, which he said dates to the 1920s and is seasoned with decades of burgers. And he takes only cash in large part because his vintage register can't ring up anything higher than $5.99.

Not much has changed in Elwell's business except who's married to him. One of Elwell's five ex-wives — was she the second or third? he tries to recall — first showed him how to maneuver in a kitchen, he said.

With an ornery smile, Elwell can turn just about any conversation to his string of marriages, to the amusement of his customers.

At his father's funeral about 20 years ago, three ex-wives sat in the pew behind him at the Catholic church, he said. Later, all of them came to the hamburger stand. The customers, he said, were shocked that they were there together.

"We get along fine," Elwell claims one of the women said. "It's him we can't stand."

One of his ex-wives, Sharon Elwell, still works the counter several days a week.

Elwell eventually added the name of longtime friend and employee Hiroko Wilcox to the business sign out front. They met at a now-closed Van Nuys bowling alley more than two decades ago.

"When I met him, I said, 'He's been married five times and I'd better stay away from him.' And I ended up working here," Wilcox said.

Every day, Elwell waddles to the front of the outdoor counter, toting a large, mustachioed doll in a plaid shirt. A stub of a cigar dangles from the doll's scowling lips.

"My security guard," Elwell grunts, tying him to the patio "just to bug the customers."

Wear him down enough, and he'll admit he likes his customers — most of them, anyway. He's seen generations of families come through. He knows their orders; they know his sense of humor.

Like clockwork, the eight black stools around Elwell's counter are full by noon. Behind the counter, Joe Mario hurriedly jots down orders: two double cheeseburgers with pastrami and eggs to go; a single cheeseburger, a side of potato chips and a soda. Mario had been a regular customer since meeting Elwell at a nearby auto body shop in 1982 and was hired two years ago.

One customer, Bob Hyman, 61, pulls up a stool and points to the man with him, a first-timer. Hyman comes down every few weeks from California City and orders a cheeseburger with extra mayo and onions.

"I always feel like a heroin pusher when I show up here!" Hyman said.

As he approaches his 50th year in business, Elwell shrugs off retirement.

"There's nothing else I want to do," he said. "On the weekends I get kind of bored."

His business seems to be growing, he said, because the Internet "found" him. Online reviews say his eatery is a "vanishing 1950s time capsule" and comment on his "creepy" security guard doll. They even mention that he just hates it when you don't want mayo.

"I don't want any more business," Elwell said. But try telling that to his customers.

"They just laugh," he said. "They know me."

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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