By PAIGE E. WASSEL, Daily Journal of Johnson County staff writer

A 54-year-old Edinburgh restaurant famous for its foot-long hot dogs topped with chili has closed.

The Curly Dog Drive-In closed its doors in December, when Frances Johnson, who ran the restaurant with her daughter, fell and broke her hip.

When the restaurant’s owner, Betty Jean Heath, died in late February, her relatives decided not to reopen the restaurant.

Johnson and regular customers said they will miss the friendly conversation and good food that made the Curly Dog a popular eatery.

The restaurant got its name from its signature sandwich, the Curly Dog, which was a fried hot dog topped with cheese, lettuce and a secret chili sauce recipe. The dog was cut in a certain way before it was deep-fried so that it would curl in a circular, corkscrew shape, Johnson said.

Instead of frozen patties, the restaurant used fresh ground chuck to make slow-cooked burgers and cheeseburgers. The fresh fish was also popular.

Johnson, 61, started working at the restaurant in 1968, acting as cook, waitress and carhop, she said.

“I did a little bit of everything,” Johnson said. “I guess I was about the oldest carhop in Indiana.”

Her daughter, Laura Harding, joined her about 12 years ago, helping serve customers year-round at the small, 10-stool diner with curb-service parking spots and picnic tables.

Though the food brought newcomers to the Curly Dog, Harding and others said the family-like atmosphere kept people coming back.

Customers could eat from the comfort of their cars, but those who ate inside would soon become part of the friendly banter and jokes among the diners.

“It was pretty personal,” Harding said. “When you got in there, you were pretty much in everyone’s business.”

Edinburgh Fire Chief Allen Smith visited the no-frills restaurant a few times a week and every other weekend, coming mainly for the friendly conversation he’d get from Harding and her mother.

Everything from current events to customers’ favorite hobbies might be part of a lunchtime discussion.

But Harding and Johnson’s favorite topic to debate was basketball, and the hardcore Indiana University fans got into friendly arguments with customers who favored Purdue, Harding said.

“Everybody felt like they were part of it. We made an effort to talk to people about anything,” Harding said.

The women closed the restaurant early on game days.