Little Taverns sold hamburgers 'by the bagful'

September 29, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

A FEW DAYS AGO, I walked past one of Waverly's most unsung landmarks. There was a newish sign atop the green roof. It read, "Fisherman's Wharf."

If you are a certain age and from Baltimore, you identify this site, Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street, with the Little Tavern shops.

Then you recall its signature product -- a not very nutritious (but nevertheless addictive) 5-cent hamburger. They sold with the slogan, "Buy 'em by the bagful." After an LT lunch, your breath smelled of onions. We wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

I do not know when the Little Tavern stopped selling the nickel burger and raised its prices. But even in the 1950s, the cost was cheap. I remember the rolls as being five times the size of the meat, which was half the size of the pickle slice. I think some people bought them for the pickles rather than the beef. Some thought the mustard was the secret of the chain's success. Others voted for the strong onion taste and consumed the sandwiches with a carton of chocolate milk. Now that's a Baltimore thing.

I think one of my sisters had a birthday party lunch at the Waverly Little Tavern. The affair was a great success. The restaurant seemed to be forever filled with City College students and Colt fans.

Little Tavern habitues will recall the coffee. It bubbled away in large, nickel-plated urns, and was served in heavy, white crockery mugs. The name "Little Tavern" appeared on the side of the mug. It was printed in dark green ink, and the lettering was distinctive 1920s style. We might call it art deco today, but that's being too fussy. The LT was never fussy. That's why it was so popular.

The former Little Tavern building in Waverly sat vacant after its closing nearly four years ago. More recently, the Fisherman's Wharf sign went up.

Even when the seafood business moved in, I couldn't summon the courage to go in and ask the man behind the counter how many times a day someone came in and asked if he had any Death Balls, the irreverent name that Baltimoreans routinely used maybe 30 years ago to describe their Little Tavern hamburgers. The term wasn't entirely negative. It was an expression of endearment.

We might have knocked the product, but we certainly lined up for them, often late, late at night. It was a local article of faith that pregnant women often craved the taste of the LT recipe. The story followed that dutiful husbands were dispatched to buy a bagful at 3 in the morning. In their heyday, the lights never stopped burning -- 'round-the-clock and always open on the main holidays.

Local lore held that the LT 5-centsers were supposed to cure a nasty hangover. The inverse of this might have been invented by the LT's marketing director, if the chain ever had such a position: Before going on a bender, ingest five or six Little Tavern burgers. There was a theory that the grease coated the stomach and protected it against the effects of alcohol.

There was something about the LTs that reminded you of the Depression of the 1930s. The interiors resembled the set of Warner Bros. films in those tough economic times. If you sat at the counter, there were maybe six or eight stainless steel round stools embedded in ceramic tile floors. Each nickel hamburger arrived wrapped in a paper napkin. Dessert was a slice of apple pie. More than one person remarked that Little Taverns looked like Edward Hopper paintings.

The exteriors were cute. The sides were glazed white metal panels. The window glass was scored in an Olde English style diamond pattern. They had forest green roofs and neon signs. If they were reproduced in miniature today -- say the size of a paperweight -- they would sell well at Harborplace.

When the locally owned Little Tavern chain was still in robust financial health, there were green-roofed LTs all over Baltimore. Most of us never realized there were a good number of the outlets in Washington and its suburbs too.

The first Little Tavern to open in Baltimore arrived in 1930. It had the curious address of 1/2 East Mount Royal Ave. If you go there today, that site is a parking lot. The fraction address was typical of the geographic logic behind these food operations. They were tucked into tiny spots -- the Waverly one was typical. It sat on an irregular piece of property at Greenmount, 32nd and Merryman's Lane. The Towson branch was the same, smashed into some York Road frontage left over between two larger buildings.

The location was squarely in the heart of the old commercial strip there, which meant it was a handy address when you needed a cheap food fix. When the chain was at its peak, there were LTs from Columbia to Back River.

The chain suffered badly in the 1990s. The shops, which seemed to be everywhere, closed. Waverly's became the fish place; Towson's converted into Philly subs.

Today, only two Little Taverns remain locally. Both are in Southeast Baltimore, one on South Conkling Street and the other on Holabird Avenue. The last ones outside of Washington are in Laurel and Wheaton.

Now figure this out. The Baltimore hamburger is 67 cents. (The waitress told me its price just went up.) But in Wheaton, the LT burger goes for a midget 62 cents.

The onions and pickles are still active ingredients. And, from what one of the managers told me, there might even be some hope of new LT locations in the future.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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