Waverly took a hard blow a few weeks ago. Its Little Tavern closed.
For as long as most Greenmount Avenue regulars can remember, devotees bought hamburgers "by the bagful" at the green-roofed cottage at 32nd Street and Merryman Lane.
A waitress named Iris, who worked at the Little Tavern until it closed last month, said the 24-hour-a-day operation just wasn't doing well. "The people would come in and order a cup of coffee and sit there for hours. They wouldn't order anything else. We couldn't stay open that way. And now that we're closed there, they don't like it," she said.
There was something about the presence of a Little Tavern in a Baltimore neighborhood. Here was basic food at basic prices. Never pretentious. Never obnoxious. No commercials. No special sauces. No ad campaigns aimed at gullible children. No gimmicks. Just cheap meat on cheap rolls.
For many years, the chain's specialty, a small hamburger, sold for a nickel apiece. They were served on heavy china plates. Coffee also came in heavy mugs. The plates were marked with the Little Tavern logo in art deco lettering. Carryout was encouraged -- "Buy 'em by the bagful," the signs read.
The classic Little Tavern hamburger has the taste of ground beef with a megadose of ground onion. The square patties are fairly small and sit on a spongy, gummy square roll. The roll is essential, along with the slice of dill pickle that goes on every burger.
There are larger and more expensive hamburgers in Baltimore, but Little Tavern has its fans.
One gentleman ingests several Little Tavern burgers before a night of heavy drinking. "There's a theory the grease coats the stomach," he said. They are also supposed to work as hangover curatives.
The desire for a Little Tavern hamburger is legendary among pregnant women. It's common for housewives to send their husbands out at 3 a.m. for a bag of these burgers.
"It's the mustard that makes them good. It's a special mustard, one you can't buy in grocery stores. I know it is," said James P. Gallagher, a Hamilton resident who grew up in Waverly and often bought a bag of hamburgers from the 32nd Street Little Tavern.
The coffee urns in the Little Taverns bubbled away night and day. The restaurants also sold carton after carton of chocolate milk. Chocolate milk and oniony hamburgers? It's a Baltimore thing.
The chain, which once had stores from Columbia to Back River, is now down to five locally -- on East Baltimore Street (The Block), South Conkling Street in Highlandtown), West 36th Street in Hampden, on Holabird Avenue and on Joppa Road. There are 12 stores in all, including those in College Park, Silver Spring and Laurel.
The first Little Tavern in Baltimore opened in 1930. It had the curious address of 1/2 E. Mount Royal Ave. Today, it's a parking lot.
The Waverly store opened in the early 1940s. It was a favorite of City College students, the Memorial Stadium crowd and area residents. The place was packed after a Colt game. But that was a long time ago, when the little hamburgers cost a nickel.