Little Tavern – A Forgotten Icon
If you, like me, grew up in the Washington DC area in the 1960s and 70s you probably remember the ubiquitous Little Tavern Burger joints. “Buy ‘em by the bag” was the tag line used. A night of music and clubs in the Georgetown of old almost always culminated in a Little Tavern stop. I have fond, albeit vague, memories of the one in Georgetown by Key Bridge; long nights, hard drinkers, leftover hippies, and small, greasy but satisfying burgers. This one built in 1936 in the chains “cottage” style still stands at the same location but ceased to be a Little Tavern in 1991.
Original a Louisville, KY based operation, Little Tavern expanded into Washington DC in 1928 and Baltimore in 1930 and eventually moved the company headquarters to DC in 1941. Sold by founder Harry F. Duncan in 1980, the chain started a decline from which it never recovered, shrinking from 36 stores in 1980 to 22 in 1988. Finally closing in 1991 with a few stores purchased and operated by a former employee, Alfred Wroy, it limped along until the final location closed in 2008.
Oakridge Auction Gallery had several items from Little Tavern restaurants in our November Antiques, Collectibles, Advertising, Militaria, Toys & Dolls auction. These Little Tavern pieces were initially purchased from the company warehouse in Silver Spring, Maryland after the 1991 closing. They have been retained by the buyer since then and this is the first time they have been offered for sale.
The top spot goes to a new old stock three-piece porcelain rooftop sign measuring 14 feet long and 41 ½ inches tall. This sign was never installed on a building and dates to the 50s. The rare rooftop sign is lot 178 and carries a presale estimate of $3000.00 - $5000.00
Another porcelain sign in the sale from the warehouse is the 5-cent burger sign from the side of the building. These came in two sizes, the smaller one at 48” x 24” and this – much more difficult to find – larger example at 72” x 36”. This one was likely removed from one of the restaurants and replaced with a newer version then stored back in the company facility. This is lot 169 and is estimated at $1500.00 - $2000.00. Among some other, smaller pieces is a scarce Lucite toothpick holder in the shape of the Little Tavern cottage, lot 172 estimated at $80.00 - $100.00.
About the Author
Keith Spurgeon brings 35 years of experience in antiques to Oakridge Auction Gallery, 30 plus as a professional dealer, auction company co-owner, owner, and consultant for other auction houses. With several published articles to his credit he also did the appraisal of the contents of the historic Barbara Fritchie house in Frederick, MD