Little Tavern shops, burgers retain charm of nostalgia

December 04, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

DURING A road trip down scenic Route 1 the other day, I looked up just long enough to notice a familiar white building with a green roof and rusty neon signs among the rug-remnant stores, old motels and car dealers in Laurel - a Little Tavern shop, neither vacant nor covered with graffiti.

That was worth a U-turn.

This Little Tavern was open for business.

It had not been transformed into a Swedish bookstore.

It had not been seized by a church group for Sunday meetings.

Nor had it been spruced up with new awnings and turned into a sub shop.

This Little Tavern appeared to be what it always was - the original American hamburger joint where the waitress still calls you "Hon" and a sign still suggests that you "Buy 'em by the bag." (Bag of 12 burgers now costs $7.79.)

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to, say, 1963!

Here we find dozens of Little Tavern shops throughout Maryland, from Baltimore to Silver Spring. They all look about the same, too - narrow structures with faux-cottage fronts, white brick or white metal trimmed in red or green, situated on odd-shaped lots, sometimes squeezed between larger buildings like Monopoly houses.

Inside, there's lots of stainless steel, but no grill. There's white tile on the floor. There are a few stools for customers, and a takeout counter. A sign above the work area says, "Please pay when served." College kids and late-shift workers crowd the place at midnight. Guys who suffered heavy losses at the racetrack stop in for a cheap supper. The windows are coated in steam on a winter night.

Little Tavern shops sprouted out of the Depression and represented the first phase of fast food in mid-20th century America. Customers could count on finding them - and other chain restaurants, White Castle and White Tower - when they traveled from city to city, and the burgers would taste the same everywhere.

There are thousands of baby boomers who remember visiting these places and eating the half-dollar-size Little Tavern hamburgers, steamy-warm inside a soft roll, with a pickle and a sprinkling of onion.

Little Taverns slowly disappeared, or new owners transformed them to suit their needs. You can still find some around Baltimore, in various states of transformation, and there are two still open for business here - one on Eastern Avenue, another on Holabird Avenue. There's a seasonal Little Tavern in Ocean City.

But only one, the Little Tavern on Route 1 in Laurel, apparently sticks to the simple formula that made LT famous to begin with - hamburgers ready to eat, cheap and genuine American comfort food.

"We wanted to keep what the founding fathers established," says Alfred Roy, who owns the two LTs in Baltimore and the one in Laurel, and speaks of the establishment of Little Taverns in the 1920s the way some patriots speak of the birth of the nation. "We're saving a piece of history."

The historic authenticity of the Laurel eatery derives, in part, from the fact that there is no deep fryer on the premises there. So you can't get french fries, and the place never has that gag-greasy McDonald's smell. And you won't find a waitress with plastic gloves fixing subs. There's no Vegetarian Delight on the menu, no salads.

It's just burgers. (OK, you can get a few other simple sandwiches, if you insist upon it, and a cookie, or a doughnut, but not much else.)

It's the burgers I saw being consumed in impressive quantities when I stopped in for lunch twice this week. Working men in winter overalls, men from vans with PVC pipe and ladders on their roofs, traveling salesmen in suits, men in biker duds and full-body tattoos, local businessmen and senior citizens for whom a stop at Little Tavern appeared to be daily ritual.

"I want one burger with one extra pickle and extra onions," said a man who had exact change for his snack in hand.

Most people seemed to buy at least three burgers at a time - for $1.99.

"The biggest order I ever had was for 240 little burgers," says Carol Mitchell, who runs the 24-hour shop during the day. "It was for a nostalgia party, a '60s party ... .

"I have customers from West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania who go out of their way to come here," says Mitchell, who has worked at the Laurel shop for 12 years and called me "Hon," "Honey" and "Darlin'" interchangeably.

Nostalgia without question is what drives some people to the Little Tavern. That's part of the comfort you get from this indulgence - the idea that a small, handmade hamburger can taste just as it did 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago, the years having added no pretense, or even french fries.

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