Serving up burgers, with a side of nostalgia

Late at night, when the liquor stores and factories on Holabird Avenue are quiet, light still shines from a little restaurant with green-and-white awnings.

Inside, as a handful of customers watch from high stools, a burly man molds balls of pink ground beef, arranges them in neat rows on a grill and sprinkles on a crown of finely chopped onions. Then he presses the hissing burgers flat with a spatula until white steam rises from the meat.


"This is how it's always been done," says Steven Rich, 50, wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of one thick-fingered hand. Off and on for 13 years, he has cooked burgers for the truckers, dancers, drunks and lonely travelers who turn up late at this Little Tavern restaurant in Southeast Baltimore.

Once, the pint-sized restaurants seemed ubiquitous in this area, plopped down in the middle of city blocks. In the 1950s, about 40 of the restaurants were open in the Baltimore-Washington area, selling tiny burgers in white paper sacks.


But one by one, the Little Taverns have shut their doors. Now, only this one remains - for the time being. The property on which the restaurant sits recently changed hands, and the owner says problems with his health may force him to close.

For now though, the last Little Tavern stays open around the clock. Cooks serve up fried eggs and hash browns, coffee or sweet tea in foam cups and the famous burgers, which fit easily into a child's palm. Customers, many of whom remember the days when the burgers cost a dime, come to relive old memories as much as to satisfy a craving.

"Whenever we're over here, we make it a point to stop by," says Ed Adkins, 72, a retired financial adviser from Catonsville, clutching a sack of a dozen burgers to share with his wife. "The colors, the lighting, the name out front - it brings back pleasant memories."

Even younger customers say that nostalgia draws them. "It's historical," says Jessica Johnson, 23, of Sparrows Point, as she picks up a bag of six on her way back to work at Provident Bank. "My parents used to take me here when I was little. And I just like the taste of the meat better."

The burgers, served on rolls from H&S; Bakery, with a pickle, mustard and ketchup, sell for 85 cents each - a little extra for lettuce, tomato or cheese.

The cooks who work the day shift, Carolyn Sprecher, 51, and Pamela Locklear, 37, say that they put food on the grill for regular customers as soon as their cars pull into the parking lot.

"The people are more friendly here," says Locklear of Highlandtown, who has "Mike," her late husband's name, tattooed in Gothic letters on her neck. "Because it's such a small place, you can't help but talk to everybody."

On warm spring days, the doors of the restaurant are left open and the scents of gasoline and faint something from the water blow through the seating area, which holds about two dozen diners. Nearly everything in the restaurant - the pendant lights, the tiled floor, the counter with its faint lace of graffiti - is green or white or silver.


Outside, one sign is smashed, a few jags of white plastic left. But a smaller sign proclaims the chain's original motto: "Buy 'em by the bag."

The first Little Tavern was founded in Louisville, Ky., in 1926 by entrepreneur Harry Duncan, but the chain soon flourished in this area. Baltimore's first Little Tavern opened on Mount Royal Avenue in the summer of 1930. Soon the tidy, white restaurants with pine green-peaked roofs sprouted up in 10 other locations in the city, including Greenmount Avenue in Waverly, Belvedere Avenue in Park Heights and Conkling Street in Highlandtown. Others opened in Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Towson. A late-night scene at a Little Tavern is featured in Barry Levinson's Baltimore-based film, Diner.

Along with similar chains like White Castle, White Tower and White Coffee Pot, Little Taverns were designed to appeal to the country's first wave of automobile tourists, says Richard J.S. Gutman, who has written several books about diners.

The restaurants were meant to appear "clean, inviting and futuristic" to travelers unaccustomed to driving and dining far from home, he says.

Competition from the fast-food chains drove many of the small burger joints out of business. The Little Tavern chain has been sold several times over the past three decades - and the number of restaurants has declined steadily.

A Fuddruckers subsidiary bought it in the 1980s but sold it after suffering major losses that it blamed on prior owners, according to newspaper reports. In the early 1990s, employees bought the remaining restaurants.


Many have become other businesses, such as Kennedy Fried Chicken on Greenmount Avenue. Others have been demolished. The exception is the Holabird Avenue restaurant.

The owner, Al Roy of Abingdon, has shut down the other three Little Taverns he bought and two he opened in Ocean City. He shut down the second-to-last restaurant, on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, last fall.

"Everything boils down to I just didn't have the strength" to keep the other restaurants going, says Roy, 63, adding that he has had eight heart operations in the past three years.

A former Marine, Roy sits ramrod straight on a stool at the counter as he pores over the restaurant's books. He says that he is negotiating with the new owner of the property and should know in about two weeks whether the last Little Tavern, which dates to 1983, will stay open. He is considering turning over day-to-day operations. He says he would still like to see new locations open.

For James Stein, 69, who drives from West Baltimore to the Little Tavern late at night, the restaurant is a link to his past. "Some of us guys used to come here and talk about the old days all night," says Stein, a retired sanitation worker. He orders breakfast - two eggs sunny side up, hash browns and toast with butter - from Rich, the night cook.

Rich pokes at the yolks with his spatula. "Can't have them too runny," he says.


A tall man who measures his words carefully, Rich says that he has seen many odd sights during his shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There was the stripper who jumped on the counter and took off her clothes, the female bouncer who bashed a man's head against the window for stealing a french fry and the numerous people, often drug addicts, who have robbed the place for the scant funds in the till. And, from behind the counter, he has watched sunrises brighten the sky over East Baltimore.

Stein, who often stops by here after a night dancing at the VFW hall or the Polish Home Club, pulls out a card with his picture that says, "I have been told that I am a superb dancer." Like the big band music he loves, the Little Tavern reminds him of a bygone age. When he was growing up in Highlandtown, all the teenagers used to gather outside the restaurant to goof off and eat burgers.

As the men chat, the bright lights cast harsh shadows on their faces. They look frozen in time, much like the diners in the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks.

Stein points out that a band of neon lights that wrap around the ceiling has burned out.

"You should have seen it before," he says. "It was beautiful when it was all lit up."