The first name of artist Joseph Craig English was incorrect in the J Street section of the Magazine Sunday. (Published 11/24/87)
IT'S 1 A.M. OF A SUNDAY MORNING,
just an hour past midnight at the oasis, and the man on the third stool from the end in the Little Tavern on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring is in a foul mood.
He and the woman behind the counter have had a disagreement over his ashtray. The other five customers are studiously pretending there's nothing going on, chatting animatedly with one another or staring expressionlessly at the grill, where two cheeseburgers are sizzling.
"I've studied law. I know what my rights are," the man growls. The woman says nothing, turns to mash firmly on the cheeseburgers with her spatula.
The man growls a couple more times, but the tone is less ferocious. Then he orders another cup of coffee. Peace has returned to the oasis.
The Little Tavern oases are 60 years old this year, still offering snug havens day and especially night to a metropolis whose commercial spaces are ever more impersonal, alien and gigantic. Oh, sure, LT has updated a little. You can get breakfast now, 24 hours a day in fact. You can get french fries or a hot dog. Even the deep- fried fish and chicken sandwiches beloved of the red meat phobes have made their way onto the menu.
But there's no salad bar, and the hamburgers, stoutly saluted over the years by the management as "Easily Distinguished From the Ordinary Run," are made the same way they've always been made: pressed out from fresh, not frozen, ground beef, laced with chopped onions, grilled until thoroughly well done, inserted in buns and finally held in a steam drawer -- not under an infrared light -- until served. The price: 54 cents.
"I like them after they have been in the steamer about 20 minutes," Little Tavern founder Harry F. Duncan once said. He opened LT No. 1 in Louisville in 1927. It's long gone, but the building for No. 2, which introduced the chain to the Washington-Baltimore area, still stands at 3701 New Hampshire Ave. NW.
Gerald E. Wedren, an investor from Columbus, Ohio, bought the Little Taverns from Duncan and his partners in 1981 and moved to Washington, where he now works full time lovingly restoring the firm. Wedren has closed some shops, opened others and now presides over 28 of the steep-roofed LTs, 17 in metropolitan Washington and 11 in metropolitan Baltimore. He's also ventured into a modestly upscale "finer diner" called Club LT that offers full-service meals in downtown's National Place.
A big part of Wedren's heart is plainly fixed in nurturing a Washington landmark. These days you can plunk down $10 and buy a handsome anniversary poster featuring a silk-screen print of the Georgia Avenue Little Tavern, one of nine silk-screens of Little Taverns executed by local artist James Craig English over the last 15 years.
Nostalgia's not all, though. Profit matters too. So it is that historic No. 2 at the corner of New Hampshire and Georgia avenues NW closed its doors as this anniversary year opened. The building's architecture still says Little Tavern. But the sign over the door says Jamal's Pizza Hall & Subs.