In 22 years, Bruce Karlin waged three campaigns to get this publication to write about his Largo restaurant — three successful campaigns. In 2000, 2010 and 2022, our food critics wrote about everything they found at Bruce’s Chicago Grill & Dog House — the food, the decor and Karlin himself.
Each time, Karlin harnessed his loyal customers to reach out, first through nominations, then stacks and stacks of postcards. And each time, it worked.
In 2000, former St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman wrote about “the Honorable Bruce M. Karlin, mayor of the tiniest precinct here on the farthest south side. He works the register and the grill like an alderman pumping hands in a tough election, while keeping an eye on the public works crew on the side. He’s got a joke or a challenge for everyone in line (a dozen at a time at noon), sounding big-city tough but with a big grin on a red-cheeked face.”
In 2010, former Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley: “The decor is pure Windy City, with photos of Al Capone, da Bears and other local luminaries, dog-eared menus from Chicago greats and pictures of Mrs. O’Leary’s house (pyromaniac cow not visible), all haphazardly staple-gunned.”
And in 2022, Times food critic Helen Freund: “People come for the natural casing hot dogs (Karlin sources both Vienna Beef and Red Hot Chicago), with mustard (never ketchup) and relish, lots of onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot sport peppers and celery salt.”
Karlin was known for his Chicago dogs, his restaurant’s decor and the gruff delight he took in his work.
“Anybody who can keep a hot dog place going in a ho-hum Largo shopping center for decades has got to be relying on more than the Vienna dogs,” Reiley said recently. “It’s sheer personality and moxie.”
But when he died, his obituary read, simply: “Karlin, Bruce, 76, of Pinellas Park, died August 3, 2023. Trying to locate family.”
The Times did.
Karlin’s Midwest family, who didn’t talk with him often, got a call when he went into the hospital, but somewhere between that call, hospice and death, the family’s number was lost, said nephew Craig Goldsmith. News of Karlin’s death was a shock.
The restaurant went through the ups and downs that restaurants face, and another set due to Karlin’s health. It closed in 2020 for nine months as he recovered from four major brain infections that, frankly, no one expected him to recover from.
Karlin did, and he reopened his restaurant. Goldsmith came down to visit twice after that.
Karlin was proud that he had customers who’d started coming as children, Goldsmith said, and “now those adult children came in with their kids.”
The Times wrote about Bruce’s in March 2022. It’s now closed; his nephew is unsure when that happened. The restaurant’s last Facebook post was in October 2022.
For a place that generations of people visited to enjoy a Chicago dog “dragged through the garden,” it was a quiet end. And for a wily entrepreneur who harnessed his loyal customers three separate times to get the local paper to write about his restaurant, it’s an entirely unfitting one.
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So here’s what we’re going to do.
We’re going to pull a Karlin.
If you knew the man behind those delicious dogs, if you were a customer or a friend, fill out this form and tell us about him. You can also email email@example.com.
Next week, we’ll give him the remembrance he deserves.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.