Boomer Twilight

Mostly Humorous Observations of Most Anything, with a Boomer Slant

Deathball Revival

with 5 comments

So, you’re sitting in the bar with your friends and you start to think about ordering food. A good steak usually satisfies, but you are not that hungry. Chicken tenders and wings have become old hat, and nachos or chili go in easy and exit violently. What to order? What? Then the hot waitress or waiter you’ve been ogling and hoping may find you appealing, suggests sliders.

It’s not surprising because they’ve been appearing in scores of bars, taverns and restaurants lately, and now’s your chance to check them out. Hell, even Burger King is advertising them these days, but theirs are called “Burger Shots.” As if you stuff one in a small glass and gulp it down with a beer.

They’re nothing new, even though they seem to be all the rage. The tiny burgers (sliders) originated with White Castle restaurants in 1921; the true beginning of the fast food hamburger trade. Then in 1928 Harry Duncan relocated from Louisville, KY to Washington, DC and opened the Little Tavern at 814 E Street, NW. The onslaught of “deathballs” in the Washington – Baltimore area began, and by 1939 there were 50 locations.

Devotees of Little Tavern affectionately called it “Club LT,” and referred to the mini-burgers as “deathballs,” which was a reference to how they were cooked. The “chef” would line the grill with little balls of meat, with chopped onions and fry a bunch, then place them on the small buns along with a pickle, and store them covered by a damp towel in a drawer under the grill.

I didn’t really frequent Club LT when I was a kid. As a teenager riding around in cars and drinking beer with my friends, we usually stopped at Eddie Leonard’s for a sub when the munchies set in. It wasn’t until about 1973, while driving a cab, that my gourmet habits developed. You see, I always worked the night shift and Little Tavern was open 24 hours. The only other place open was 7-11 and at that time their food just wasn’t very tasty. They carried the Stewart sandwiches that needed to be heated in their toaster ovens (microwaves weren’t available), so my late night meals were three LT deathballs and a cup of coffee. I’m not one who usually goes for coffee with anything other than breakfast. It just sort of says, “I’m an old fart and don’t care any more.” Coffee with dinner just doesn’t seem right. But, at Club LT the coffee was delicious, served in the thick mugs that somehow made it better. Not to mention, I needed the caffeine buzz to continue working.

After relocating from the Marlow Heights territory to the Hyattsville driving zone, my favorite cab stand was the College Park Little Tavern, referred to by the cab company as “The Ritz.” Since this location was right across the street from the Rendezvous Inn, I’m sure they had many visits by drunken U of MD students when the bar closed. Like all Little Taverns, this place had a few stools (a large LT had about a dozen). The sit-down crowd was certainly welcome, but “Buy ’em by the bag” was the slogan. When Harry started the business, burgers were a nickle, so walking out with a bag full was a pretty easy task. You could feed the whole family.

In 1981 at age 82, Harry sold the chain to an attorney, Gerald Wedren, and moved to Florida. The business had dwindled to 30 locations at this point, caused primarily by the proliferation of fast food burger chains in the area. McDonald’s, Burger King, Red Barn, Wendy’s and others had been tapping into the profits of LT for quite some time, and Harry decided to let go. The imminent demise was on the horizon, as Wedren tried to “class up” the joints and extract some profit by competing with the big guys. Dress codes were implemented, and the menu was changed by adding more items. They even opened a fancy diner named appropriately, “Club LT.” But, the flavor of Little Tavern was lost and in 1988 Wedren sold the enterprise to Atlantic Restaurant Ventures, Inc., a firm that held the local Fuddruckers franchise. The writing was on the wall.

After only three years, ARV sued Wedren for fraud, accusing him of misrepresenting the value of the business. Shortly thereafter foreclosures of the various properties began and four of them hung on, being temporarily rescued by Al Wroy of Belair, who had joined the company during the Wedren reign. He tried to keep it going, but the last Little Tavern, located in Dundalk, closed on April 29, 2008.

Well, that’s the story of the deathball; gone from our area forever, but living on in its evolved form. The next time you’re at the Green Turtle, Burger King, Chili’s or any place advertising sliders, think of Harry Duncan as you bite into your order. They’re no longer a nickle, and probably not as good, but three deathballs and coffee always hit the spot.

With Love,

Bake My Fish

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5 Responses

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  1. I can not tell you how ill I got one night with White Castle hamburgers (why is it that the littlest girls ca eat the most?)…Plus it was after a powder puff football game where I broke my big toe and then…………the next day we spent the day floating down the Hillsbrough River (Tampa, FL) in giant tubes.

    I never ate there again.

    Now, I don’t eat red meat at all…so my days going to burger barns are over.

    The rest of you guys out there…enjoy…you can have my share!

    Thanks for the memories, half baked…

    See ya’ in the funny papers,
    Sharon
    ~The Baby Boomer Queen~

    Sharon/The Baby Boomer Queen

    March 9, 2009 at 12:05 am

  2. Very cool! I visited the Little Tavern in Laurel back in ’06, and though it was an extremely greasy, grungy place, it was nice to enjoy a bag full of sliders. I wasn’t aware that the remaining two in Baltimore had closed. Sad, another old hang out gone by the wayside.

    Keep the memories alive.

    Chuck Fraley

    March 9, 2009 at 7:23 am

  3. I remember Little Tavern. There was one on Conklin Avenue, right off Eastern Avenue, in Highlandtowne. I went there with my parents when I was little and we went there as teenagers after the movies at the Grand Theater. It was a cool place.

    Tina

    March 9, 2009 at 9:23 am

  4. I remember several Little Taverns in the DC area growing up. One used to be right on Wisconsin Avenue not far from M Street. I guess that as Georgetown became a trendier location, Little Tavern no longer fit in. I recall another on Pennsylvania Avenue just past Mortons Department Store just south of 295 and I remember the College Park one mentioned in the story. Those 3 stick out in my memory since I had occasion to visit them from time to time due to proximity to home, work and school. I do remember them being in other locales.

    My father, Ed Tillett, who grew up in the Twining City area of DC quit school when he was 16 in 1932 and apprenticed in the Abe Stern Restaurant Equipment Company near Bladensburg Road and New york Avenue in NE D.C. He was trained in cabinet making and how to work with plastic laminates or formica. He learned to build metal edge counter tops and table tops with formica as the top surface. He essentially learned his trade in this field by building the booths, tables and counter tops in many of the Little Tavern Hamburger Shops being built in D.C., Baltimore and Richmond as referenced in the story. Stern Equipment Company had a contract with Little Tavern to provide this service. As a young man, my dad said he liked the job because he traveled about between the three cities. When he began his apprenticeship he said he was paid 12&1/2 cents an hour. After several months he received his first raise of 5 cents. This was in the midst of the depression and in spite of the seemingly low wages, he said he always managed to have an automobile and ample money to meet his needs. He worked for Mr. Stern for a number of years and became a skilled worker before venturing on his own and opening his own cabinet and counter business called Eds Cabinet Shop on Allentown Road in Camp Springs, MD. I used to help in the shop on weekends and during breaks from school in the late fifties and into the seventies. My dad still did business with Mr. Stern from time to time and I would on occasion make deliveries or pick up equipment from Stern Restaurant Equipment Company. My dads business thrived making counter tops, bars and back bars for many of the restaurant and gambling casinos that operated along US 301 near Waldorf. He also did custom kitchens, kitchen counters and bathroom vanities in the expanding suburbs of southern P.G. County. One of his preferred clients was a company called Young and Watson and their offices were above the delicatessen grocery at Fleischmans Village in Hillcrest Heights. They provided college library and laboratory furnishings and my dad and the crew of mechanics working for him made the wood and laminate book cases and shelves as well as cabinets and counters in many of the colleges and universities in DC during the sixties and early seventies. I can remember many a weekend helping my dad install the custom made fixtures and furnishings in these libraries and teaching laboratories at Georgetown, American and George Washington Universities. My dad sold his business in the late 70’s when he retired. The new owner kept the name and Eds is still open today. His apprentice experience working as a wood and plastics mechanic while building and installing the furnishings of the Little Tavern Hamburger Restaurants served him well in that he had a livlihood that helped him to prosper raise a family and to eventually retire comfortably.
    Martin Tillett

    Martin Tillett

    March 10, 2009 at 2:36 pm

  5. There was a super cool, trendy bar in SF called “Butter” (don’t know if it’s still alive) but their thing was selling deep fried Twinkies, White Castle burgers and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

    And people paid a lot of money for that meal….cuz it was “cool”

    SteamyKitchen

    March 22, 2009 at 7:02 am


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