Places That Are Gone

Remembering Little Tavern Restaurants, D.C.’s Greasiest Greasy Spoons

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 inLaurel.)

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.”

But the real secret of the LT burger is storage. No heat lamps for the Little Tavern: Burgers are kept under a damp towel in deep drawers beneath the grill. Opening this meat humidifier releases an aromatic cloud of steam. Your order, warm and slightly moist, comes served on a tidy square of wax paper.

Condiment options are three: catsup, mustard, or a concoction of both—the latter generously squirted out of its own dispenser in a murky, bilious orange blend. Is it mutsup? Castard? Whatever—it’s the only way to eat a deathball.

Open 24 hours a day, LT used to be a night light for night owls. While the shops drew their share of ne’er-do-wells, deathballs probably saved as many lives as they ended. For hearty-partiers wobbling back to bed, a quick stop at LT was an effectively sobering experience.

But the good things in life never last. By the ’70s, stagflation had rendered the bag o’ beef concept impractical, and “large”—i.e., regular-size burgers—had been added. When the century and he had reached their early 80s, Duncan decided to concentrate on other businesses in retirement-friendly Florida. In 1981, he sold the 30-unit LT chain to GEW Inc., headed by lawyer Gerald Wedren. The barrister had big plans. A “dress code” was established. Over the institutional white shirt—so effective at showcasing grease stains and sweat—slipped a green, logo-imprinted, hardware-clerk-style apron. The staff also wore matching paper army-style garrison caps.

Other “improvements” included broadening the menu to include fries (never a culinary success) and a steak ‘n’ cheese sub, and adding lettuce and tomato to the topping options. The “buy ‘em by the bag” motto was resuscitated, but now the Tavern bag held only three burgers, and several dollars had to change hands.

Most misguidedly, the new management tried to get swanky. In 1987, they appropriated the “Club LT” nickname for a faux diner at The Shops at National Place. A more un-LT-like place would be hard to imagine. This sop to respectability predictably lured the Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman, who, in a March 1988 Weekend review, bemoaned the new diner’s burgers: “They miss the old LT’s minced onions and pickle slices which add a flavor punch.” “Sucker punch” would have been more precise.

Wedren threw in the spatula four months later. Atlantic Restaurant Ventures Inc. (ARV), a Clinton, Md.-based firm that also held the local Fuddruckers franchise, acquired the chain, which had shrunk to only 22 units. Profits fell, and in 1990, ARV sold the now-20-unit chain to ARV co-founder and former President Roger Kisiel for $1.6 million.

That wasn’t the end of the deal. In November 1991, ARV sued GEW for fraud, charging that Little Tavern’s worth had been misrepresented. In filing the lawsuit, it came to light that Wedren had a silent partner: Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). A teeny tempest swirled around the upscale, consumer-crusader Metzenbaum’s involvement in such a downscale endeavor, but the grease failed to stick. The case never went to court.

The Kisiel era continued, and so did the downward trend. By 1992, landlords were foreclosing on Little Taverns all over town. Before the wrecking balls arrived, Al Wroy, who had joined the Tavern team under Wedren, stepped in and renegotiated with landlords and vendors. In December of that year, Wroy took responsibility for the chain.

Wroy oversees his four-Tavern empire from his Bel Air, Md., bedroom. “You don’t need a fancy office when you have to paint stores, buy new ice machines,” he notes. “Every penny goes back into the business.”

Wroy is currently negotiating for a fifth store, and his business plan calls for 15 new taverns to open over the next 10 years. None in the District, however. “The District is too hard to run a business in. Too many laws, too many fees, too difficult for a small business to make a profit,” he says, adding, “Nothing against the public there, of course.”

Perhaps Wroy can restore Club LT to its former “glory.” Perhaps not. When even McDonald’s is offering carrot sticks, and a Twinkie can claim to be “low-fat,” the greasy spoon seems doomed.

The (near) death of the deathball also speaks to the bottom-line business chic of the late 20th century. Little Tavern began with a visionary entrepreneur—“Plop some cheese on that sucker!”—who built a successful enterprise with sweat equity. Duncan shepherded his modest shops for more than half a century, but once he was gone, it was less than a decade before his legacy was, too. (A sad commentary: Placing a call to the Silver Spring Boys Club that Duncan founded—a building that still carries his name in 10-inch-tall letters—yielded the response, “Never heard of him.”) Duncan’s chain had become a mere “investment opportunity.”

After taking control of LT in ‘88, Fuddruckee Kisiel was quoted in the Post thusly: “We can impart to the Little Taverns a knowledge of the hamburger business that hasn’t been imparted heretofore.”

As these pictures warn, knowledge is not to be confused with smarts. And a hamburger is sometimes more than just a hamburger.

FOLLOW THAT STORY: Read “Death to the Deathball?”, my followup to the sad tale of Little Tavern.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper