LAUREL – Little Tavern lives again at Laurel Tavern Donuts on 115 Washington Boulevard, South, in Laurel.
There was a time in Baltimore, Washington, and their respective suburbs when fast food hamburgers did not mean McDonald's or Burger King, but the ubiquitous Little Tavern Shops, in which staff cooked hamburgers while the customers drank coffee in an incredibly small space.
Eating hamburgers by the dozen? What made this possible was the small size of Little Tavern hamburgers. Once billed as “five cents a burger” and “buy them by the bag” in advertisements from the 1940's, these hamburgers were served at Little Tavern locations in Prince George’s County, including in College Park.
Most Little Tavern Restaurants famously combined green Art Deco streamlining on white-walled corners with “mock-Tudor cottage” design, as Hans Wirz and Richard Striner describe it lovingly in their book “Washington Deco.”
The College Park location on Route 1 was demolished in 2015; one of those in Georgetown survives in its original building form only, but now is ironically a vegetarian Sweet Pea there has replaced the venerable Greasy Spoon.
How does one review a restaurant chain which has been closed since 2008? Prince Georges County is fortunate to have one Little Tavern Shop survive in the incarnation of Laurel Tavern Donuts. This is a doughnut shop in a former Little Tavern location which preserves the small size of the restaurant, the curious Tudor building style, and Little Tavern-style hamburgers.
The small-sized hamburgers were thick, juicy, and well cooked. Chopped onions and small pickles top the hamburgers, a staple of Little Tavern, with mustard and ketchup as condiments. No longer five cents or purchased by the bag, three “mini-burgers” are $3.99, six for $7.19, and nine for a price not listed. Cheese and bacon toppings are extra. I purchased three, and these were rolled on in one wrap, rather like a submarine sandwich,
A sign on the door announces the establishment produces the Taverns famed “little burgers.” Comically, the word “gourmet” is crossed out of the phrase gourmet coffee. Yet who would expect gourmet coffee at a Little Tavern? Despite this, the coffee was very good.
Leaving Little Tavern tradition behind for a moment, I munched on a plain doughnut, as this is how the restaurant now bills itself. There are doughnuts in various flavors, from plain to glazed coconut. However, the ghost of Little Tavern lives on, the doughnut was hard and outdone by the traditional hamburgers.
Only one small criticism: The staff was not at all engaging. A customer pointed out that the two ladies working that day are busy in a small shop, but actually there were no customers when I entered, and it was hardly a peak hour for restaurants. Nostalgia for Little Tavern Shops goes only so far, and perhaps the staff should interact more with customers.
Finally, one element of Little Tavern tradition does not survive: Little Tavern Shops were once open very late at night, and as such were hangouts for college students and night-owls in a day when other restaurants were closed.
Laurel Tavern is open only until five p.m. and is closed entirely on Sunday. The hours seem to change slightly from time-to-time, so one would do well to call or look on the Internet before traveling to Laurel to remember the good times of Little Tavern hamburgers and coffee.