In the July issue of The Washington, Little Tavern hamburgers were rated by both the staff of the magazine and readers who participated in a best-and-worst poll as the worst in town.
There are three points I would make about the Little Tavern in response: 1) Decor .
In 1963, Clyde's opened its doors to the public in Georgetown; I was there for the opening-night party. It was an instant success because it filled a need in Washington, and today there must be a dozen sons of Clyde's in Georgetown alone.
Clyde's was patterned after thee Irish bars in New York City, such as P. J. Clarke's, which were taken over by the young, uptown WASP crowd in the late 1940s and '50s. You know the look. Dark Oak, mirrored bars. Red checked tablecloths. Dim lighting and amusing old pictures and posters. Bars that appear old, well worn, comfortable and inviting, pleasant joints to frequent after work and on rainy Sunday afternoons.
These bars have "atmosphere," but it's an artificial atmosphere. Even the new ones are painted, furnished and decorated to appear old and used. An interior decorator once told me he had even sprayed artificial cobwebs on the ceiling of one bar he decorated.
Now consider the 20 Little Taverns in the Washington area. What they are, they have become. Once, in the 1920s and '30s, they were shining and new, moderne . But now, time and wear have taken their toll.
The stacked soup cans with their faded labels. The small, vulnerable cans of Donald Duck orange juice. The bracing, reassuring smell of disinfectant. The Art Deco chrome and stainless steel.
The no-nonsense slogans on the walls. "The Aristocrat of Beef Comes to You in Our Hamburgers." "One Means More." "Easily Distinguished from the Ordinary Run." "Delicious. Rich in Color." These could only have been composed in 1935 by a hard-nosed businessman determined to sell hamburgers.
Edward Hopper's realistic oils of storefronts and street corners are on display in many museums today. I suggest that if Hopper could stroll through Georgetown in 1979, in search of a subject, he would not stop at Clyde's or the Third Edition. But he would stop cold at the corner of N and Wisconsin, frame the scene with his hands, and set up his easel to paint the Little Tavern there. The Little Tavern is authentic . 2) Personnel .
Kids staff the Irish bars, bartenders in Britches button-downs and waitresses in slogan T-shirts and designer jeans, most of them still in or just out of college.
I am not put off by these young people. Most work hard at their jobs, give good service and little lip. But they are so young that they are lacking in character.
It is different at the Little Tavern.
The Little Tavern's secret is the fact that the same indentical man and woman work behind the counter at all 20 Little Taverns !
The woman is dark skinned, perhaps Hispanic, well over 30, and somber. Something tragic has happened to this woman, or is about to. Perhaps her husband has just been caught by the feds in a hotel kitchen and shipped back to El Salvador. Or there is a sick child at home. Whatever, hers is not an easy life and never will be.
This woman does not talk, except to state the price of your purchase, and even then she uses as few words as possible. She never talks to the man behind the counter either, except to say, "Two with cream to go."
The man who works behind the counter has been there and back a couple of times. Age is catching up with him fast. His face is lined and creased. Watery eyes. He could use a haircut, and every morning when he shaves he nicks his chin. He has rough hands, but a frail, fading body, and a tattoo on his left arm.
This man appears disoreinted and out of place, as if he just taken the job the day before and has still to learn his way around. The white hat and jacket he wears do not fit him. At one Little Tavern the hat and jacket are too big, at another too small. He is a defeated man, but there was a time when you didn't mess around with him if your paths crossed in a saloon.
This man and woman have genuine character. 3) The hamburgers .
What people fail to realize is that a Little Tavern hamburger is not a hamburger ! This is a fact, even though one sign inside says, "The Little Tavern Uses U.S. Government Inspected Beef." What the sign says is true enough, but the end result is not a hamburger.
It is not a "clydeburger," let us say, a huge, mound of rare ground beef served on a sesame seed bun with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, a serving that must be cut in half and, even then, taken in both hands to be kept under control.
No. A Little Tavern "hamburger" is a small, gray patty of mysterious mixture that is thoroughly fried, then placed in a hot, moist roll taken from a steamer, squirted with catsup and mustard, adorned with a tissue-thin slice of dill pickle, and served on wax paper. I realize that doesn't sound like much.
The unstated question posed by The Washingtonian's condemination is this: If they are so bad, how do 20 Little Taverns continue to operate, year after year, persumably at a profit? The answer is that Washington is filled with Little Tavern freaks. And I am one.
It is not easy for me to admit this publicly because -- let's face it -- there is little social cachet attached to being a Little Tavern freak. It is rather a man admitting that, while a Chivas-and-soda tastes fine, what he really prefers is a shot of Four Roses with a-7Up on the side.
It is an acquired taste. I don't know anybody who eats LTs on a regular basis. They are like Chinese food, these little 'burgers. When that craving hits you, no other taste can satisfy.
The Little Tavern's motto is "Buy 'em by the bag." (For some reason, the word by recently has been covered over at all Little Taverns, leaving us to ponder what exactly is meant by "Buy 'em the bag," but this mystery is not the subject of this communication.) I eat mine on the premises; otherwise the steamed bun quickly dries and hardens. I also prefer the small, original LT to the new Jumbo.
Finally, it is my belief that Little Tavern hamburgers taste best very late at night or in the early hours of the morning. Further, I suspect that many LT freaks like me got hooked on them years ago when we went there late at night because in those days nothing else in town was open. I am suggesting, therefore, nothing less than the fact that becoming a Little Tavern addict is evidence of having become a true Washingtonian!
So join the club. The next time you find yourself up late after working, romancing, boogie-ing, or whatever, try the Little Tavern. That woman and that man will be waiting there to serve you.