When Will Kwon opened Laurel Tavern Donuts in 2008, he stepped, quite unaware, into one long shadow. "It's a doughnut shop," he insisted, referring to the business plan he had crafted. "But people kept asking for burgers!"
Message received. Within a week of opening the doors to the cozy, green-and-white, faux-Tudor space, Will and his wife, Jin, rolled out mini-burgers, pairing them with house-made doughnuts. That did the trick.
The burgers (three for $2.99) are still small, square and topped with the same blend of chopped onions and Montreal steak seasoning as those sold by the previous tenant: Little Tavern, part of a now-defunct chain. The Kwons got the recipe from a woman who was a longtime manager there, "but now we buy a better grade of beef," Will said.
They also make sure the burgers are uniformly cooked, unlike those I remember from the Georgetown outlet I frequented during my bar-hopping days. The flavorful meat is nestled in a soft bun.
"Club LT," which started up in 1927 in Louisville, popularized the slogan "Buy 'em by the bag," selling single burgers for a dime and coffee for a nickel. The company relocated to the Washington area in 1928. Opened in 1939, the Laurel shop was among the last few in the chain to shut down.
In its new incarnation under the Kwons, who owned a doughnut franchise in Memphis, the doughnuts are the headliners. And for good reason. The glazed doughnut (79 cents) is as light and fluffy as a Krispy Kreme, and it melts in your mouth. Ditto the angel creme, strawberry jelly and apple cinnamon.
Will, 49, begins making them from scratch starting at 3 a.m. "The first batch is ready at 5," he says. "We open at 5:30." During the next three hours or so, he will have turned out two giant batches (he won't divulge numbers) of assorted doughnuts displayed for public inspection in bright yellow trays.
The menu recently evolved to include a short list of traditional breakfast items. Eggs and cheese and ham and eggs ($2.49) come off Jin's tiny grill in perfect condition: no watery interior, no singed edges. And like everything on the menu, they're served from sunup to sundown. The eggs taste rich, but Jin, 46, insists she doesn't slather the grill with oil or butter when making them. "People don't like greasy," she says.
Other winners include the breakfast platter: two eggs with a generous helping of bacon, sausage or turkey, home fries and toast ($3.99); grilled cheese ($2.49); and grilled ham and cheese ($2.99).
The shop is all about takeout. Missing are the eight or 10 stools at the busy counter where the person who cooked your food was the same one who rang the register.
Laurel Tavern attracts a motley crew. Feds from Fort Meade and NSA grab and go. Washington-bound MARC train riders show up for their fix. And employees of the Laurel Park racecourse have a standing order of five dozen doughnuts each week, Jin reports.
It should be against the laws of nature to serve fine eggs and doughnuts without also pouring good coffee. Not to worry. The Kwons brew a Colombian blend that's bold and beautiful.
-Tony Glaros, September 15, 2010 (Goot to Go column)