Death for the Deathball?

The area’s last Little Tavern may not make it to the millennium.

[FOLLOW THAT STORY]

The sign reads “Lease or Build to Suit.” No big deal on a fast-changing corner in suburban Maryland. Unless, that is, you like your burgers greasy, cheesy, and little. That’s because this ominous notice of real estate transition hangs from the last Little Tavern near D.C., an outpost on busy Viers Mill Road in Wheaton. Has the eatery that has stood for decades along the suburb’s original commercial district slung its last greaseball?

Inside, Tony the cook dismisses the huge banner with a laconic “Just negotiating the lease, just scare tactics.” His full attention is turned to starting a run of the large-sized burgers. But if you turn your gaze past Tony and out the window, you’ll see that what until very recently was a half-block of low-rent office buildings is now rubble—bulldozed, the cook says, to extend a parking lot. The rubble heralds a future much friendlier to T.G.I. Friday’s than to the venerable local burger joint.

Up and down Viers Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the ‘burb that was once described as “a funky ethnic enclave” is in danger of defunkifying. Wheaton Plaza is planning an expansive “revitalization.” Not long ago, a bright new car dealership went up across from the aging Little Tavern, which still boasts a Ms. Pac-Man in one corner and a Street Fighter II machine by the door.

Defunkification is also a pretty good way to describe what’s happened to the rest of the region’s string of Little Taverns. What had once been a mighty chain of more than 50 locations had dwindled to fewer than five when former Tavern employee Al Wroy bought the business in 1992 (”Places That Are Gone,” 11/10/95). Although a new tavern opened in Ocean City this summer, and there are two shops remaining in Baltimore and one in Laurel, the Wheaton shop is the last option for most D.C. epicureans in search of distinctive dining.

Wroy won’t say much about the sign that obstructs half of his view. “That’s just standard,” he says. “They will put a sign up on your building to force you to come to the table on their terms. It’s just a standard thing that landlords do.”

But he won’t comment further about his last local franchise’s future. “When you’re in negotiations, you don’t say anything about it,” Wroy explains softly over the phone. “I don’t own the property, the landlady has sold the property, and the new owners…I feel they have other plans for the property, but I really can’t tell you what. They always try to make you feel like they have other tenants for the property.”

“I wish I could answer you more,” says the understanding Wroy. The landlord’s real estate agent did not return a phone call by press time.

Sitting at the Wheaton restaurant’s empty counter, manager Cynthia Johnson Brown isn’t talking about Little Tavern’s birth way back in 1928, or about how Arthur Godfrey used to pitch its burgers on the radio, or about the “Buy ‘Em by the Bag” slogan that was the chain’s claim to fame.

Maybe that’s because Brown is spending a weekend afternoon watching cars drive up and down the hill outside, toward Rockville or Silver Spring—or to the Shoney’s up the block. Shoney’s just went 24-hour, adding competition in what had been Little Tavern’s exclusive niche. “To make a long story short, we would like for more people to come visit us,” says Brown. “I’m trying to save a part of our history. I need all the customers I can get my hands on. And then some.”

With Godfrey’s ads long gone from the airwaves, Brown appears to be Little Tavern’s only weapon against an endless stream of competing burger advertisements. This afternoon, she’s giving Ronald McDonald and Dave Thomas a run for their PR money.

“It’s still a family place,” Brown announces. “I get a lot of couples, this is where they met. Right here in this Tavern. There’s this one man—I don’t know his name, but I know him by face. And he said he remembered when they built this. And he’s like 86, 87 years old. He comes in, gets two burgers, nothing but onions only. Last time I saw him was last year—I thought he might have expired. But he came in last week. And I was really glad to see him. I was really glad to see him. He said he was under the weather and all that. But he came in, ‘Got to have my two—onions!’ He said, ‘You still here?’ I said, ‘You still here?’”

“And then this one man who had had open-heart surgery…” Brown adds. “Believe it or not, this is where his wife had brought him, because he really had a taste for it. She said, ‘If that’s what it takes…’ and he came twice. And that made me feel good, so I made him a little something special. I threw in a few extra burgers. He don’t get out of the car, but he’s like this—thumbs up!—so everybody was happy.”

Brown agrees with me that Little Tavern hamburgers are the best in the world.

“Yes they are. Yes, they are. You can’t beat ‘em. You cannot really beat ‘em. And one thing, over 30 years and still—fresh meat. Our meat is not frozen. You’re getting fresh meat. We’re giving you the best service we can. We hand-roll our patties, our balls. We’re still the old-fashioned way.”

The old-fashioned way is quickly becoming older-fashioned: Soon we will be referring to recent events as occurring “in the last century.” But perhaps history can save the Wheaton Little Tavern. Brown suggests that her shop has been submitted for landmark status. But a call to Gwen Wright, historic preservation coordinator for Montgomery County, proves this statement wrong.

“The Wheaton Little Tavern has never been evaluated for historic preservation status,” says Wright. Four Tavern structures in the county were looked at in the early ’90s. The Bethesda location, now a Chinese carryout, got the nod.

“My sense is—although I don’t really know this—my sense is that the County Council that designates, that makes the final decision, it was a little bit of a leap of faith for them to designate the Little Tavern, so they said, ‘We’ll do one,’ and it was the one in Bethesda,” says Wright, adding, “The one in Wheaton was never brought up.”

A glance at the Montgomery County Code suggests that the last Little Tavern might be a shoo-in if anyone were to nominate it. The code has nine criteria for determining a structure or area to be historic. Among them is whether the site “is identified with a person or a group of persons who influenced society.” Of course, Little Tavern is the country’s second-oldest restaurant chain, after White Castle. Founder Harry F. Duncan once claimed to have invented the cheeseburger. Consider the history of America without the cheeseburger.

Another criterion is whether the building “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction.” The application for the Bethesda Little Tavern, built in 1939, makes much of the “symbolic nature of the design,” noting that “all of the Little Tavern Shops were built in a style reminiscent of an Old English tavern as a way of conveying a pleasant, familiar environment. However, in order to evoke the notions of speed and efficiency associated with fast, inexpensive meals, the design utilized the newer technology and materials of the ‘moderne’ era—neon lighting, tile, formica, metal alloys, and vitrolite.”

Do Starbucks use vitrolite?

And according to the regulations, a site may become historic if it “represents the work of a master” [pass] or “possesses high artistic values” [pass]. Also, if it “represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community, or county due to its singular physical characteristics or landscape.”

Well, Wheaton without Little Tavern would be like D.C. without baseball or congressional representation. Or, er, uh…

Anyone may nominate the Tavern for landmark status, says Wright. “That would mean filling out the appropriate forms and submitting them to the county. And certainly that could happen. I think I had a call last week from someone with historic preservation in Silver Spring, asking about the process regarding the Wheaton Little Tavern.”

“But just because it’s designated doesn’t mean that it will stay a Little Tavern,” Wright warns. “Historic designation does not control use—it just controls the facade. Historic designation cannot force a landlord to grant the existing current Little Tavern a lease. It could be designated historic and still become a Chinese restaurant.”

Coincidentally, the day after speaking with Brown, I run into Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan at one of those typical MoCo dedication ceremonies. I ambush him with questions about the Little Tavern, pointing out that Silver Spring’s Tastee Diner was saved from the wrecking ball. There is a proud county history of supporting good bad food.

Duncan—no relation to the chain’s founder—chuckles and says he’ll look into it.

Back in Wheaton, Brown smiles and shakes her head. “For all the old customers, or the ones who don’t believe we still exist, we’re here, we’re here—11143 Viers Mill Road. Please come and visit. Please come and visit.”

Reprinted from Washington City Paper