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Day 126: Hamburger Hamlet

Hamburger Hamlet

Every business that’s been around a long while has a story, often a colorful one.  Hamburger Hamlet, located at 10400 Old Georgetown Road is no exception.  Her name was Marilyn Lewis.  Today we know her as a woman ahead of her time.  An entrepreneur who co-founded a successful chain of restaurants from L.A. to Washington, DC, fashion designer to the rich, famous, and powerful and a movie producer.  But in 1950, when she started the Hamburger Hamlet, she was just a budding business woman with a keen sense for design and taste.  At the time Harry Lewis, her future husband, was an aspiring actor.  He told her on their first date about an idea to start a restaurant called the Hamburger Hamlet.  “An actor serving actors kind of place,” as he described it to her.  Despite the fact that neither could cook, they took a chance on their concept and found the perfect spot on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles for the restaurant, which became an immediate success among the acting community and ultimately a Hollywood Landmark.  The couple’s business was also a pioneer, long before the civil rights movement was in full bloom, in the hiring of “blacks” (despite protests and threats).  The company ultimately went public and Marilyn and her husband sold their interest in the upscale hamburger chain for millions. Today just five of the dozens of outlets remain (3 in California and two in the D.C. area).

Photo Courtesy Hamburger Hamlet

Their winning formula was to offer food in an inviting comfortable atmosphere while offering great tasting burgers and “comfort” food that was affordable on a family budget.  From the beginning they strived to also have something extra on the menu to make a meal special –  this is nearly the same receipe for success that keeps patrons coming back today.  On the menu you will of course find hamburgers such as the Marilyn Burger, named in honor of the founder, that features avocado, jack cheese, tomato, onion, iceberg, pickle and Dijon mayonnaise.  The Maryland Crabcake Burger is also a favorite made with lump crab meat with egg, breadcrumbs, mustard, tabasco, mayonnaise, parsley and old bay seasoning served with a sweet chili aioli.  There’s also a wide range of appetizers.  Try the Zucchini Zircles which feature fried Italian herbed breadcrumbs served with tangy apricot sauce, chipotle salsa and ranch dressing .  There are sandwiches, salads, soups and chili.  The comfort food continues with the entrees which feature chicken, beef, pasta and fish.  Of course it would not be one of my favorites if there were not delicious desserts that include milkshakes, a hot fudge sundae and the Mudd Pie made with Kona coffee ice cream, Oreo cookies, whipped cream and fudge.  Here, let me loosen my belt.  Ah, now I’m feeling comfortable!

By the mid 1960’s, with restaurants expanding throughout L.A.,  Marilyn got restless and decided to begin her second act – clothing designer.  Just one problem.  She did not even know how to sew.  Undaunted and a little too confident, as any true entrepreneur is, she began her own design studio called Cardinali and later the Kate Mantilini line.  Her most famous client was Marlo Thomas where one of her outfits can be seen in the unforgettable umbrella twirling intro on the show “That Girl.”  Her last act was to become a motion pictures producer.  The New York Times described her film producing career this way, “Her documentary, ”Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol,” was critically acclaimed, and ”The Passion of Ayn Rand,” which starred Helen Mirren, was on Showtime in 1998; Mirren won an Emmy for her performance.”

This Mother’s Day, or sometime soon, honor your mother with a meal at the Hamburger Hamlet.  Tell her about Marilyn Lewis.  I took my mother to Hamburger Hamlet recently.  My mother was also very entrepreneurial and opened her own interior design store in the Village of Potomac, Persimmon Tree Designs, in the early 1980’s.  She was the quintessential super woman.  She was a mother of four (and the step-mother of 6 nearly adult step-children), she was also the owner of successful retail establishment, wife, and active in the civic and charitable organizations of Potomac.  Happy Mother’s Day mom and to you Marilyn Lewis.  Here’s to all of you “super women” who juggle all that you do and do it all so well.  ~Brian

  1. Alan Gross

    A restaurant ahead of it’s time. When I worked at Suburban Trust at Old Georgetown & Democracy Blvd. I use to eat there on Friday afternoons when the bank closed between 2:00 and 5:00. The people that own L & M Produce (wholesale produce), Jim McWhortor and Herb Lichenstein, worked there. When they first started in the wholesale business you could see there truck parked at night on Montauk Ave. They now have a fleet based out of Jessup, MD. Thanks for the memories.

  2. mary


    Today we ordered the Blue Cheese Hamburger & a Reuben. The hamburger only had 1/2 the condiments on it, was not hot, just lukewarm. The Reuben looked as tho it had been sitting for about an hour, was limp, & MINUS the sauerkraut, w/just a dab of dressing on it. My french fries were limp & luke warm. The lemonade was canned & tasted like it, too. I asked the waiter to remove the partially eaten Reuben & take it off my check, with explanation.

    Will NEVER eat there again. Server was in TOO BIG A HURRY to focus on us as a client & always quickly departing … our having to raise our voices to get him to come back.

    What happened to the good old Hamberger Hamlet that used to be there for years. Prices are out of sight, quality is terrible.

  3. Bethesda 365

    Mary, We are surprised to hear of your experience recently at Hamburger Hamlet. While we are not representing the store in any way, our experiences have always been positive – especially when it comes to the burgers and the service we have experienced. I once tried a pasta dish on the menu that didn’t really flip my skirt but the waiter was very kind and took it off teh bill and brought out a perfectly cooked burger for me instead on that occasion. I would suggest writing to the owners and let them know about your experience. perhaps it was just a bad day for them but maybe they would want to make it right – or even better – fix the problems. Good luck. Thanks so much for stopping by Bethesda365 and for leaving your comment.

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