In 1939, at the nadir of the Depression in America, Betty Pink bought a second-hand pushcart in downtown Los Angeles for $50 and wheeled it three miles up La Brea Avenue to a vacant lot on the corner of Melrose. The next day she and her husband Paul started selling hot dogs for 10 cents each. Thus was born the most heavenly eatery in the City of Angels.
As luck would have it, Paul and Betty opened their stand just as Paramount was expanding its nearby studio, and the Charlie Chaplin lot was only a few steps up the road. The neighbourhood was teeming with actors, technicians, and extras, and what better for a quick, cheap, hearty meal between takes than a juicy, thick-skin, 100 per cent beef, all-American hot dog? Pink's never looked back.
In a city where everything is transitory, Los Angeles restaurants come and go. Even the most glittering watering holes, where deals are struck, stars are born and glamour is a side dish, seem to surrender to fickle fashion. The Brown Derby checked out long ago and Chasen's has turned off the lights. Mocombo's disappeared with his matinees. If you want to order a milkshake at Schwab's, forget it. The legendary old drugstore at the corner of Hollywood and Vine was pulled down years ago. But Pink's endures; an island of culinary stability in turbulent nutritional seas.
In fact, this emporium of the dog hasn't changed much from its earliest days. In 1946 the City Board of Health said the pushcart had to go, so the Pinks put up a more permanent establishment of whitewashed cinder block with an open-air short-order counter facing on to the pavement. The queues often stretch to the kerb. Some neon lighting was added in the 1950s to give the place a little night-time flair, and there are now a dozen or so plastic tables at the back where customers can eat at their leisure. But otherwise, Pink's is Pink's, and if you haven't had a hot dog at Pink's, you haven't been to L.A.
The menu has expanded over the years. The 'chili dog' remains the specialty of the house, but there are 24 other varieties from which to choose including the kraut dog (slathered in sauerkraut), the bacon dog (lined with crisp strips of American bacon) and the jalapeno dog (topped with a dozen spicy ingredients). Purists can ask for the 12-inch mega-dog served neat. (As a concession to the weak and weary, hamburgers are also available, but asking for a hamburger at Pink's is like asking for a Marmite sandwich at Le Gavroche). Health freaks in search of supplementary vitamins can also order French Fries or onion rings. Whatever the embellishment, however, the snappy taste of the essential dog is never overwhelmed, and in one form or another, 2,000 succulent hot dogs are handed over the counter every day of the week.
Neither beer nor wine is offered at Pink's. It is a no-nonsense, stick-to-the-basics place. But when pressed on the question of what beverage goes best with a hot dog, the consensus seems to be Dr. Brown's Cream Soda, served cold in the bottle with glasses available on request.
The hands which receive these luscious dogs (the long split rolls come in cardboard boats with an undersheet of wax paper) provide much of the atmosphere and allure of Pink's. No Hollywood star can rise so high that Pink's fades from view. And to emphasize that fact, one interior wall is inevitably covered with the framed photographs of celebrities who have patronised the establishment over the years. Bill Cosby and Sandra Bullock are contemporary habitues, and the story is that the ever-romantic Bruce Willis proposed to Demi Moore over chili dogs, which in retrospect may have been a mistake (the marriage, not the chili dogs). Orson Welles found the place irresistible and once consumed 13 hot dogs at one sitting, a house record. When Keifer Sutherland was making a movie in Munich, he arranged for chili dogs from Pink's to be flown in once a week, and Diana Ross set up a regular fix when she was playing Las Vegas.
So on any given evening it is hardly unusual to see a block-long stretch limo pull up to the kerb outside Pink's and disgorge a what's-his-name celebrity or two, decked out in elegant black tie or shimmering sequinned gown, and looking every bit as if they were arriving at the Oscars. But they have stopped by for a midnight snack, a kind of post-prandial de-glitzing, which only the first-come-first-served, hot-mustard democracy of Pink's can provide.
Beneath this frothy cream of Hollywood society, however, the real clientele of Pink's is anybody who wants a superior hot dog. Customers line up at the counter as if they were waiting for tickets to Twickenham, and they are a demographic cross-section of Los Angeles: white, black, Hispanic, or Asian; estate agents, construction workers, brokers or truckers. The fashionable dress is T-shirt and shorts or sweatshirt and blue jeans, depending on the season, and the one thing everyone has in common is that they are all hot dog gourmands.
Betty Pink died in 1993 and Paul three years ago. His passing was front-page news in the Los Angeles Times ('Chili Dog Champ Dies'), but Pink's remains firmly in family hands. The founders stipulated in their wills that the stand could not be sold, and their two children, who inherited the landmark, have resisted numerous inducements to expand the business or franchise the name. Daughter-in-law Gloria Pink, a brisk, attractive, sensible woman, manages the operation today, and having seen the 60th anniversary of the indomitable Pink's, she is acutely sensitive to the historic legacy which is now her responsibility.
So the next time you're in Los Angeles, remember this: Pink's (00 1 323 931 4223, open 9:30 am-2am daily, 3am on Fridays and Saturday). 709 North La Brea; lunch for two under $10 including fries and sodas; no reservations.