It could take an out-of-towner two passes down New Haven's Crown Street to find the improbably situated Louis' Lunch: smack in the middle of a parking lot, rather than among the restaurant cohort lining the opposite side of the street. The ancient, gnome-scaled brick edifice's location is, however, a testament to the burger joint's devoted following. City redevelopment plans had called for razing this diminutive landmark (a former tannery) to make way for a high-rise building. But in 1975, following years of wrangling between the owner and the city, public outcry saved the venerable luncheonette at the last moment. Dodging the wrecking ball by a matter of hours, the home of the hamburger was deracinated from its foundation at 202 George Street and moved to its present location—its fourth—about a block away.
It would be difficult to find a story more steeped in tradition than that of the Lassen family and the birth of the hamburger as we know it. The legend begins in 1895 with a lunch wagon on Meadow Street—near Union Station—from which Louis Lassen served steak sandwiches to factory workers. Not wanting to waste the trimmings, he ground and broiled the leftover meat. Initially, he served it as a patty, on a platter, together with a slice of onion and home fries. One day, however, a customer rushed in and requested a fast meal to go. Lassen responded by sandwiching one of his broiled patties between two slices of white bread, and with that, according to local lore, served the first hamburger. While this may be an interesting origins story, there must be another reason that Louis' Lunch, now in its fourth generation of family operation, is still in business after more than a century.
Indeed. Why didn't the denizens of the Elm City allow this family-run establishment to go the way of so many others during urban renewal? The answer is found between those two thin slices of white toast: a generous, top-quality ground beef patty, cooked in much the same way it was over a hundred years ago. Add onion and tomato ("the works"), cheese spread, or any combination thereof, if you must. But ultimately, it's all about the beef. Louis' Lunch takes this premise to an extreme by offering no other accompaniments or condiments (with the exception of salt and pepper packets, upon request). Please don't even think of asking for ketchup. The Lassens believe that such additions are unnecessary, and serve only to cover up mistakes. The enduring ban on condiments also honors the legacy of the founder. The point is, if they are going through the trouble of cutting and grinding their own fresh meat daily, you should taste the beef! (To those unfamiliar with Louis' credo, various signage offers a guide to their dogmatic service protocol.)
Returning to how deeply in tradition the food is steeped, Jeff Lassen rightly points out that his hamburgers owe part of their flavor to the original 1898 apparatus in which they're cooked. The gas-powered stoves from Bridge, Beach & Company afford a healthful side benefit, so to speak, by broiling the patties vertically to reduce excess grease. Over the years, the grills initiated by Jeff's great grandfather have been seasoned with the essence of burgers prepared for Charles Lindbergh, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, and countless others. That's a quality for which there is no shortcut; it can only be earned with time.
The toaster tells a similar tale, nearly as old: it has been preparing the "bun"—two slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread—since 1929. As we waited for our burgers, we watched these antiques in action, marveling at how they continue to operate flawlessly after all these years—a testament to superior workmanship and caring ownership.
The verdict: the hamburger is good, honest food. Its flavor is fresh, clean, and lean. With onion and tomato options, Louis was astute in serving his mission—the additions complement the beef without masking anything. We found that a touch of salt was necessary to bring out all the succulence this fine burger has to offer. In an age of industrial fast food, this is (reasonably) fast food that tastes like real food. Simple, satisfying.
For the lunch crowd, the menu consists of exactly two choices: a hamburger or cheeseburger for $5. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, however, the menu often expands to include a hot dog and a steak sandwich.
If the bread is not enough, you can augment your carbs with potato salad, a wide selection of good-quality chips, and one or two homemade pie offerings. In addition, Louis' Lunch offers an impressive assortment of soft drinks, many of which are local and off-beat. But you will never, ever, enjoy a Coke here, because, as Jeff says, "we can carry a grudge." Jeff's grandfather Ervin Lassen (Louis' son) severed relations with Coca Cola during the Great Depression. Purportedly, an unscrupulous distributor decided that Louis' share of the soft drink could fetch a higher price on the black market. The Pepsi salesman, on the other hand, was eager to deal legitimately—his product was welcomed in and remains on the menu some 70 years later.
Nostalgia is one thing, but Louis' Lunch is sensitive to the current climate as well. Mindful of the economy, Jeff has held his prices down since 2006. Within the past year, he's even enlarged the burger by nearly an ounce as a way of giving his customers a little extra during tough times. (Though he doesn't specifically measure the patties, Jeff approximates the weight of each to be about six ounces.)
Decent people, decent food. That's a recipe worth saving.
261-263 Crown Street (between College & High Sts)
New Haven, CT 06511-6611 (map)
Closed Sundays and Mondays.