T wo things New Haveners must know: one, Louis’ Lunch, established by Louis Lassen in 1895, served the first hamburger; two, don’t ask for ketchup at the small, squat brick sandwich shop, which reopens today after a monthlong recess.
Many who regularly sit at Louis’ Lunch’s wooden bar, carved with initials of diners past, will tell you that the spot—now owned and operated by Jeff Lassen, the founder’s great-grandson—still serves the best burger in town, and not just because of that historical sheen.
But the legend is there whether it affects diners’ perceptions or not. In 1900, when the business was still a modest lunch cart, a gentleman in a hurry approached, claiming he needed some grub on the go. Louis took some of the ground steak trimmings he had lying around, put them between two pieces of toast and sent the man on his way with the world’s very first hamburger.
As usual in the realm of “firsts,” there are a few challenges to the claim. Wisconsin swears that Charlie Nagreen invented the hamburger at the Seymour Country Fair in 1885, while Tulsa, Oklahoma, claims it’s the hamburger’s birthplace, citing the first occurrence to Oscar Weber Bilby, who allegedly concocted one at a Fourth of July picnic in 1891.
Louis’ Lunch, though, has an authoritative advocate on its side. The Library of Congress certified in 1995 that Louis Lassen was the first person to put ground steak between two pieces of bread. (Game over? Connecticut certainly thinks so.)
That very simple formula pretty much tracks with the Louis’ Lunch experience of today, at least relative to other burger offerings out there. At Louis’, patties are made from a proprietary blend of five different meat varieties and hand-rolled daily, then cooked to order in original cast-iron, upright broilers, which date back to 1898. They’re served medium rare (the way I like them) unless otherwise requested, with tomato, onion or cheese upon request. No condiments, though. Ever.
Two freshly toasted pieces of white bread (bar diners get a front row view of the Savory Radiant Gas Toasters, circa 1929, that still do the job perfectly) complete this ode to Americana. Orders are handed out to customers on small, no-nonsense paper plates with napkins.
Rounding out the menu are potato salad, Dirty brand potato chips, homemade pies—which change daily, and include cherry, peach, apple caramel and Boston cream—and local Foxon Park sodas, iced tea and coffee.
The interior of Louis’ Lunch has a character befitting the history of the place. That antique cookware is accompanied by vintage brickwork. Family portraits and quirky solitary dining stalls—almost like desks you’d see in an old-fashioned classroom—line one wall.
The family isn’t just in the portraits, though. Jeff Lassen is a hands-on owner who you’ll often catch behind the counter grilling burgers and toasting the bread.
During my visit, I met two road-trippers headed from Maryland to Boston, who, like many who walk through the doors at Louis’ Lunch, had driven into New Haven for the sole purpose of dining there. They said they’d be back on the road post-lunch. (Perhaps there should be a satellite INFO New Haven booth outside?)
Another diner, Peter Holschuh from Guilford, had been to Louis’ Lunch plenty of times. That day he’d brought his niece and nephew, who were visiting from their home in Barcelona, to the restaurant for a true taste of New Haven, and a bit of Connecticut history.
Others come for the company. “I love the people here. It’s a wonderful family,” says regular Faith Rosenthal, who was sitting at the counter with a friend, chatting with Jeff. She says she’s been eating at the restaurant since she was ten.
There’s more than familiarity, however, that keeps her coming back. “The hamburgers are the best ever.”
261-263 Crown Street, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 11:30am-3:45pm, Thurs-Sat 12pm-2am
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.