In the past 24 years, the downtown D.C. lunch crowd has seen the ESPN Zone come and go, the rise of sleek $12 salad chains, and now the food truck revolution. But Ollie's Trolley, the old-school burger shop on the corner of the 12th and E Streets, has been through it all. With its bright, primary color paint job and carousel horses in the window, the diner stands out among all the chain restaurants nearby. But in fact, Ollie's Trolley is part of a national chain itself, D.C.'s diner being one of the few left in the country.
To learn more about the mystery that is Ollie's Trolley, Eater spoke via phone with current owner Boris Galitzin about the chain's history in the Washington area. And although the diner might look as retro as it gets, we discovered that there is a very modern focus on quality ingredients at Ollie's. Since buying the 12th Street restaurant from family members in 2007, the self-described "picky about everything" Galitzin has been adding new menu items like reuben sandwiches and fresh chocolate cake, and has set about improving the sourcing for the crabcakes and the beef that goes into the famed "Ollie burgers," invented by Ollie Gleichenhaus in the 1930s.
Galitzin is of the opinion that burgers on the grill shouldn't be pressed, in order to keep the juices inside. Occasionally, when he goes to Five Guys, he will give the employees a tip to cook his burger medium rare that way, provided the manager isn't around. Galitzin is both a hamburger and antiques afficionado, so he shed some light on what's going on with all those antiques in the Ollie's Trolley dining room and explained how the chain got its name in the first place — hint, there actually were trolleys!
Can you tell us about the history of Ollie's Trolley?
BG: It was started in the 1930s on North Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach by Oliver Gleichenhaus. He was the owner and chef. His girlfriend was a waitress. If anyone asked for ketchup, he would throw them out of the restaurant and use profanity. If anyone wanted their burger cooked any way other than medium rare, he would throw them out of the restaurant and use profanity.
The spices for the hamburger were invented by the chef Ollie Gleichenhaus, who started Ollie's back in the '30s, and he was the one who invented them for the fries as well. The fries have roughly 26 different seasonings. I'm not sure how many herbs and spices are in the burger.
After 50 years, it spread all over and made its way to D.C. in the early 1970's. They still have Ollie's Trolley franchises in Kentucky. They still exist.
It's been in my family for forever. Back in the '70s it was all over, in Alexandria and also in Crystal City and Pentagon City. It was in a different spots in D.C., on 13th and F streets, and G Streets.
Yellow and red are the standard colors. The only difference is Ollie Gleichenhaus's [original restaurant] was a little restaurant/diner type. You could eat at counter, or a table inside, but it was a small place. When he started expanding, they had this gimmick of putting them in parking lots, with little trolleys that looked like trolley cars. That was basically a gimmick to pay less rent. You say, "I'll rent four parking spots and have a nice hamburger place," and that's how they did it. You'd catch people driving down Columbia Pike.
My uncle actually used to have trolleys. He had one on 26th Street and Jefferson Davis Highway right there on the corner in Crystal City. A matter of fact, he lived on 23rd Street, so he would only walk three blocks to get to his restaurant. He had a Hungarian restaurant on the same street, and a car dealership.
[The current location on 425 12th Street NW] has been there since 1989, that's 24 years in that location. I bought it from my cousin in 2007. I had been managing it since 1993. Back when I was growing up as a teenager, I remember buying milkshakes and hamburgers at my Uncle's Ollie's Trolley.
How has Ollie's Trolley changed over the years?
BG: I'm always thinking of ways to make it better. I've now found a supplier who delivers fresh ground meat for us six days a week. When I took over, I went for 100% Angus beef. I had a charbroiler installed. We're located in the Hotel Harrington; it's the third oldest hotel in DC. We had to go through hoops to get the charbroiler installed in 2011. We really stepped it up in terms of the Angus beef and the charbroiler. We serve burgers rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, well done.
We always cook our burger fresh to order. Originally Oliver Gleichenhaus did it that way. Throughout the years, my uncle changed the concept. My aunt and uncle would make it well done, season it, then cover it with a hot au jus sauce seasoned with Ollie's burger spices to keep it warm. The problem was that the burger was overseasoned and really well done. It wasn't juicy and it didn't have that fresh taste. I stopped that before I took ownership, it took many years to be able to do that. It was a vast improvement.
Before, my aunt and uncle, just like most restaurants, would reuse the oil for the fries. There's a machine that supposedly cleans the oil, but it doesn't really work.
Basically, it costs me $20,000 a year just to change my oil, if we're changing it a minimum four times a week, and if we're real busy, five times a week. It costs me $100 each time to change the oil, but I do it because the fries taste so much better when you have the fresh oil.
We've actually had chefs — I probably shouldn't name names I don't want to get the chefs in trouble in the local restaurants — but we've had quite a few chefs from five-star, white tablecloth restaurants come eat our crabcakes as well. And they say our crabcakes are better than theirs. We had a local French restaurant nearby, they're no longer in business but they had really good food, they used to come to our restaurant and eat our medium rare burgers with the fries. I'm pretty proud of that. I sacrifice everything for quality to make sure I have the best product I can make. Profit is secondary.
Can you explain the decor?
BG: Those are all antiques that have been fully restored. When I opened the restaurant in 2007 I didn't have them. I started traveling around the country to scope out various antiques that I have. [Boris Galitzin's collection in the restaurant includes a 1950s-era pink Cadillac popcorn machine in the dining room facing E Street, an antique popcorn machine and peanut roaster from the 1800s, a coffee grinder from 1873, a 1950s-era kiddie carousel horse with 50,000 Swarovski crystals, a 100-year-old yellow Dentzel Carousel Company horse carved by the "Da Vinci" of carousel carvers Daniel Muller, a rare Coca Cola machine, a Lincoln pedal car, a kiddie barber chair designed to look like a plane from the 1930s, and a carousel pig hand-carved in the late 1800s by the French company Bayou.]
Are you ever worried about having the antiques in the restaurant?
BG:I really worry about it, but I have everything insured and I have a really good alarm system. I don't know of any other hamburger joint that has any antiques, or valuable antiques. I just don't know of any. There's always been a restaurant as long as the hotel has been open for almost 100 years. I wanted to keep up with the historical feel.
Do you have a lot of regular customers?
BG: We have a lot of regulars, downtown workers. Believe it or not, we have a lot of tourist regulars. There are a lot of families who come back to Washington every few years and they come and visit us.
How has the city changed over the years?
BG: In that one spot since 1989, it's changed a lot — 11th street from Metro Center was rundown, there were hardly any restaurants around. We used to be really busy, that was before I owned it, of course, my aunt and uncle owned it back then. Because they were like one of the only restaurants down there, and they were constantly busy. Since then, all the area has cleaned up. They tore down the rundown buildings and built new buildings. Now the area's become more affluent, you can feel comfortable walking in the area and not be scared. But when it was so rundown, the tourists were kind of scared of that area because it didn't look good. It's changed for the better. The restaurant business is a tough business, and we managed to stay afloat because we've been around for a long time and I keep the quality up, so we have a good following. The more restaurants that open, the more competition there is. A lot of our regular customers, their office buildings have moved out and gotten cheaper rent. This part of downtown, the rent is really expensive. It's terrible because we lose our customers when they more out."
When you order an Ollie burger, what toppings do you put on it?
BG: Medium rare. It's funny, since I'm a quality control freak, usually I will just get it with the bun so I can really just taste the quality of the meat. If I order it with everything, which a lot of times I do, with the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and the Ollie sauce, I will totally enjoy it as well, but half the times I just get it with the meat and the bun. That way I can just concentrate on the seasonings for the burger and the quality of the meat. When you get it with everything, it's just as good, but this way you don't get sidetracked, not even a little bit. — Adele Chapin
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