Boomer Twilight

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Deathball Revival

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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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