Built in 1963, Little Tavern Shop No. 27 prompts nostalgia for Washingtonians through its architecture. While the shop no longer serves the public in the fast food realm, it offers a fond memory to those who visited the chain of hamburger stands. Easily recognizable by its white walls and iconic green gable roof, Little Tavern Shop No. 27 is one of the few landmarks still standing that tells the story of not only its neighborhood, but Washington, DC’s impact on fast food history.
Developed by owner Harry Duncan and the StoneBrook Corporation, the exterior of Little Tavern Shop No. 27, which resembles a small cottage, is a reminder of the building and chain’s history, and the hamburger stand’s importance to DC’s fast food history. The first Little Tavern Shop opened at 814 E Street NW in 1927, and from there it grew into a well-loved regional chain. Within ten years of the opening of its first location, there would be 20 in Washington alone. Little Tavern Shops' fame would continue to grow and by 1963, with the addition of the last location, there would be over 50 in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area.
Prior to the widespread use of the automobile, Americans typically ate their meals at home, and it would not be until the population became more mobile in the 1920s that fast food would fully develop. After the First World War, the public turned to efficient and clean service, as they wanted a quick meal for a reasonable price closer to their workplace. Fast food chains, such as White Castle, which opened in 1921, would be one of the main inspirations for the Little Tavern Shop; and other chains, such as Blue Bell, White Tower, and Krystal, have also found their way into the history of DC’s restaurant landscape.
Restaurant and fast food chains, which were highly competitive, used design and marketing to draw in customers and make the individual businesses easily recognizable from the road. This is where the idea of “total design” or, more specifically, “place-product-packaging” stems from. This is when the design of a business is made uniform. Every location, from the exterior to the interior of the building and the food packaging, became standardized. This also included the continuous standardization of health and sanitation practices, and recipes between establishments of the same chain. One could enjoy the same hamburger in Washington that they could enjoy in Philadelphia or Boston. Additionally, this all links back to advertising and branding, and is something the American public now takes for granted when visiting their favorite fast food chain.
After the continuous growth of the chain, the restaurants became recognizable through their architecture. This specific location of the Little Tavern Shop illustrates the signature look: a Tudor Revival style, green and white hamburger cottage. It includes the hallmark gable roof, vertical board doors with metal straps, and elaborate gutter leaders, as well as the more modern signage in the dormer, which advertised tasty burgers and hot coffee, and a sign, which once buzzed with neon, mounted on the roof. Eventually, with the update of the design in 1937, which included streamlined porcelain enamel panels and curved corners in green and white to mimic quoining, these features would be found on all Little Tavern locations. With the help of Luther Reason Ray, who was the founder of the Structural Porcelain Enamel Company, the older shops of Little Tavern were also updated with the new materials, such as the white porcelain enamel steel panel walls that became intertwined with the company’s instantly recognizable facade.
Little Tavern Shop No. 27 was built in 1963, marking 35 years of the chain’s growth in Washington. It used the advantages of 24 hour activity in the surrounding Union Market neighborhood and the campus of Gallaudet University to the east to outlast all other Little Taverns in the city. It was built on a slightly larger lot that included eleven parking spaces, and included a sheltered carryout window on the west elevation that would eventually be the precursor to the standardized carryout window that is now ubiquitous in the fast food landscape.
It was the last Little Tavern Shop to remain in business in Washington, DC, as it closed its doors in 1999, and is one of five extant Little Tavern locations in the District. For a time, it was the location of Subway, another fast food chain. It was recently restored and is now part of the ten-story Morse Apartment Homes development. This new construction – a large, modern structure of black paneling and glass – resulted in the demolition of two of the original walls of Little Tavern Shop No. 27. Nonetheless, this Little Tavern Shop continues to stand and serves as a reminder of a once popular restaurant whose empty signpost continues to await future customers.
DC Inventory: September 28, 2023