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The last day in the life of L.A. legend Art’s Famous Chili Dogs

Art Elkind, the original owner of Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, claimed to have invented the chili dog at his South L.A. hot dog stand. The landmark restaurant closed its doors on Sunday, March 8, 2020.
Art Elkind, the original owner of Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, claimed to have invented the chili dog at his South L.A. hot dog stand. The landmark restaurant closed its doors on Sunday, March 8, 2020.
(Jo Stougaard / For The Times)

I stood in line for four hours to eat a chili dog last weekend.

You’re probably wondering whether it was wrapped in gold leaf or covered in rare-breed truffles or otherwise so extraordinary that I had to devote a whole afternoon to getting it.

In fact, it was a skinless frank covered in a tomato-rich chili and cradled in a fluffy commercial hot dog bun — a delicious but ordinary hot dog.

The chili dog came from Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, the modest, blue-and-white restaurant that’s been a landmark near the corner of Florence and Normandie in South L.A. since the mid-1940s.

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My husband and I were driving down Florence Avenue on Sunday afternoon when we saw a line of people spilling out the front door of the restaurant.

Art’s would be closing its doors for good by the end of the day, somebody told us.

We had driven by Art’s hundreds of times since we moved to Inglewood at the end of 2018, always meaning to stop in yet never getting around to it.

So we joined the line snaking from the tiny dining room decorated with black-and-white photographs, framed certificates and a letterboard menu that hasn’t changed much in substance since the first Bush administration.

Outside, the atmosphere was charged with music and emotion. Crowds of people milled around the small concrete patio behind the restaurant, everyone reminiscing about eating at Art’s.

Two chili dogs from Art’s Chili Dogs, which closed its doors on Sunday, March 8, 2020.
Two chili dogs from Art’s Chili Dogs, which closed its doors on Sunday, March 8, 2020.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

The restaurant was founded as a push-cart operation in 1939 by Art Elkind, an out-of-work chemical engineer from New York who turned to selling hot dogs during the Great Depression.

The bowtie-wearing Elkind claimed to have invented the chili dog in 1939.

Whether or not Elkind was the first to pour molten-hot chili over frankfurters is a mystery lost to time, but what I know for sure is this: The neighborhood loved Art.

They loved the steamer he invented so that his hot dog buns were always tender, and how his preference for uncased franks covered in brick-red chili and melted cheese produced a soft, oozy vessel whose pleasures were far bigger than the dish’s modest cost.

Most of all, they loved his grandfatherly demeanor and easygoing presence behind the counter every day.

“He was a very kind man. I loved that man so much,” Rosemary Priebe said.

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Rosemary has lived a few blocks from Art’s Famous Chili Dogs all her life. While we waited in line together, she shared stories about growing up on Art’s hot dogs.

“We used to race here every day after school to be the first in line for a chili dog,” she said. “I don’t want to see it close.”

It was a sentiment shared by many of the people I talked to that afternoon.

Many in the neighborhood have vivid memories of the spring of 1992, when a jury verdict acquitted four police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King.

The corner of Florence and Normandie, steps away from Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, exploded with violence. The hot dog stand survived the disturbances unscathed.

“Nobody touched Art’s,” Rosemary said. “There were too many good memories of this place.”

Francine Jones-Nelms, the current owner of Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, with Aaron Elkind, grandson of the restaurant’s original owner.
Francine Jones-Nelms, left, the current owner of Art’s Famous Chili Dogs, poses for a portrait with Aaron Elkind, grandson of the restaurant’s original owner.
(Patricia Escárcega / Los Angeles Times)

Late on Sunday afternoon, Rep. Maxine Waters dropped by to pay her respects to Art’s Famous Chili Dogs; Aaron Elkind, Art’s grandson, stopped by as well to say goodbye.

Art Elkind died in 1990 after more than 50 years of hot dog vending in South L.A. The building fell into disrepair but was eventually resurrected by the Nelms family, who purchased the business in 1994.

Francine Jones-Nelms, the current owner, inherited the restaurant from her husband, who died in 2018. She told me the business had not been getting enough foot traffic in recent years and that she was feeling overwhelmed. She is considering relaunching Art’s Famous Chili Dogs as a pop-up or food truck.

“I wish you all had come here two years ago to eat,” Jones-Nelms told the crowd with a bittersweet laugh.

“Then maybe we wouldn’t be closing.”

Ask the Critics

With the threat of coronavirus, are you wary of eating at restaurants with shareable plates?

This week, the ongoing threat of the coronavirus outbreak has captured headlines and reshaped the way many of us live our lives. Many people, my mother included, have asked me whether I feel safe dining out.

Many Los Angeles restaurants are taking extraordinary precautions to prevent the spread of the respiratory virus. Sichuan Impression, which has locations in Alhambra, Tustin and West Los Angeles, is using infrared thermometers to screen patrons.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 is thought to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Public health experts say it’s safe to dine out as long as you take precautions such as washing your hands frequently and staying at least three feet away from anyone with flu-like symptoms.

I still plan to visit restaurants with frequency and to share plates with my dinner companions. But I will follow the experts’ recommendations and dine with extra caution.

Our food editor Peter Meehan weighed in on the topic this week after a fellow editor at the paper posed the question about shared-plates restaurants. Check out his column here.

Have a question for the critics?

Our stories

Bill Addison and I ponder the all-day menus at two of the city’s most eagerly anticipated new restaurants: All Day Baby in Silver Lake and Onda in Santa Monica.

— In the age of coronavirus, cooking editor Genevieve Ko shares these recommendations for keeping a clean kitchen.

— On this week’s episode of “The Bucket List,” Jenn Harris explores the world of broasted chicken (with help from Genevieve). Jenn also shares with us her list of best places to get an Italian sub in and around Los Angeles.

Ben Mims offers this perfect early spring recipe: potato salad with green garlic dressing.

Garret Snyder reports on why pie queen Nicole Rucker is turning to Kickstarter for her new Grand Central Market bakery.

The ADB biscuit sandwich from All Day Baby. This week, critic Bill Addison reviewed the new Silver Lake restaurant.
The ADB biscuit sandwich from All Day Baby. This week, critic Bill Addison reviewed the new Silver Lake restaurant.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)


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Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more from critics Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega.

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