Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

A little piece of history revived

One of Laurel’s oldest restaurants is back in business under new name

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Debbie Gray prepares the hamburgers at the recently reopened Laurel Tavern Donuts. Laurel’s oldest restaurant, the Little Tavern, closed in December 2006 and was reopened this January by new owner Jin Kwon.
If John Warren, Jr. ever wanted to relive his childhood, he simply had to stop by Little Tavern in Laurel and buy a bag of mini-hamburgers.

The 69 year-old Laurel native now lives in Florida, but he always made a trip to the historic restaurant on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Main Street during his multiple visits to Laurel throughout each year.

That all changed in December 2006 when the restaurant closed.

But now Warren can look forward to his next trip to the city because since Jan. 2, the Little Tavern—now called Laurel Tavern Donuts—has been back in business, still serving the famous little burgers, in addition to doughnuuts that are baked in-house.

Owner Jin Kwon said she since bought the business last spring, she has renovated the interior.

The outside of the building hasn’t changed much since the restaurant opened in 1940, but the inside no longer has a counter with stools. A glass case greets customers with doughnuts, which are baked two times throughout the day.

Although the name has changed, there are still some familiar faces at the Tavern.

Carol Mitchell, who worked at the original Little Tavern for 14 years, now serves customers at the new restaurant. She said the old owner sold the business due to health problems.

The building is on the Maryland Historical Trust’s inventory of historical sites, which preserves notable properties from the past. The documentation that supports the building’s historical significance states that the property is ‘‘an excellent example of mid-twentieth century roadside commercial architecture.”

The restaurant was part of the Little Tavern Shops chain, based in Kentucky. There were other locations in the Washington-Baltimore area. When the Laurel shop closed, that left only two operating restaurants.

Warren still remembers the days when he and his brother would buy the little hamburgers, sold by the bag, and go to the movies to watch Roy Rogers’ cowboy films.

Their father, John Warren, Sr., who practiced medicine in Laurel, also loved the burgers and would buy them often. He would even come home after house calls and wake up Warren with a bag of the little hamburgers.

‘‘He would truly wake me up with Little Tavern burgers in my mouth,” he said. ‘‘It was a really important part of my upbringing, and the bag of 10 for $1 was truly something special.”

Mitchell said she had longtime customers calling her at home after the restaurant closed, asking when it would open back up. Some of them have stopped by the new establishment, telling her, ‘‘I’m glad to see you up and running,” she said.

And now that the restaurant is back with new owners, Warren says he can’t wait to find out if the hamburgers still have that taste that reminds him so much of his Laurel childhood.

‘‘I’m just tickled,” he said. ‘‘It’s nice that something, even that, is a nice reflection of the genteel nature of what Laurel was about years ago.