Places That Are Gone
Remembering Little Tavern Restaurants, D.C.’s Greasiest Greasy Spoons
By Dave Nuttycombe (NutCo Enterprises, reprinted from Washington City Paper,
Club LT. The LT Lounge. Deathballs.
In 1928, Little Taverns began springing up on the Washington landscape like pimples at a Lisa Loeb concert. With their steep-pitched, green-tiled roofs, the restaurants resembled miniature Swiss chalets—or very large cuckoo clocks. Inside, a greasy grill and maybe a dozen stools invited customers to partake of a menu that was Henry Ford basic: any food you want as long as it’s a hamburger. By the mid-’40s, there were 50 Little Taverns, and Arthur Godfrey pitched their charms on the radio.
Today, D.C. diners in search of a high-fat diet have exactly one choice: The last tavern sits on a sloping lot in the “Wheaton Triangle,” down the street from Chuck Levin’s music store, across from Wheaton Plaza. (For the serious commuting gourmet, two LTs remain in Baltimore, and one in Laurel.)
Little Tavern was founded by Harry F. Duncan, who spent more than 60 of his 93 years in the Washington metro area. Duncan claimed that his was the nation’s second-oldest chain, after White Castle. (He also claimed to have invented the cheeseburger, in Louisville, Ky., during the ’20s. He died in 1992, so we can’t grill him for specifics.)
The burger baron had a gift for clever marketing. His slogan, “Buy ‘em by the bag,” was not a desperate threat, it was an exclamation of value. At a mere nickel a burger, a bagful of 20 Little Tavern patties could be had for a buck. Two bits got you a meal of three sandwiches and a cup o’ Joe. (And McDonald’s used to hype “change back from your dollar”!) My family’s picnics sometimes began with a stop at Club LT for a couple bags to go. This was, I hasten to point out, considered a treat and not child abuse.
And what burgers they are! The “famous” Little Tavern hamburger is about one-fourth the size of the average modern patty, barely larger than the paper-thin slice of pickle sitting on it. The grayish-looking meat is hand-packed, with chopped onions smushed in, and rolled into a ball to be set on the griddle. Flame, grease that cooked 1,000 other burgers, and a square little bun transform it into the affectionately christened “deathball.”
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