Now reading The Original Hamburger

The Original Hamburger

The history and magic of Louis' Lunch in New Haven.

It was the year 1900 when Louis Lassen changed culinary history by inventing the hamburger in New Haven, Connecticut—or at least claiming to. His restaurant, Louis’ Lunch, a small brick building a block from the Yale University campus, has served its own anachronistic take on the sandwich ever since.

I walked in on a cloudy June day to talk to Jeff Lassen, great-grandson of Louis. He wiped his hands on a red-stained apron, shook my hand, and gestured for me to sit at the counter and watch.

The magic lies in the unusual contraptions used to cook the burgers. Louis’s burgers don’t sizzle on a grill, but are secured—squashed, even—in a hinged double-sided grill rack that is inserted sideways into a vertical cast-iron broiler. The gas-powered machine is truly confusing to look at; you can’t help but wonder for what purpose they were invented. Jeff himself has no idea what they were originally used to cook. All he knows is that the burgers can’t be cooked any other way.

“We’ve been in business since 1895,” Jeff told me. “And in 1900 my great-grandfather made the first hamburger sandwich in the United States. He was doing steak dinners. Then he ended up putting it through the chopper and cooked it, put it between two slices of bread. That’s how the burger came about.” Steak dinners were “phased out fairly quickly after that. Burgers took over, and here we are today, fortunately.

“If you were to have one today, yours would be cooked in the same stove the very first one was made in. The date is cast in the side of each one: 1898. So even if I wanted to lie to you, I couldn’t. The original Louis’ started on a horse-drawn lunch wagon back in 1895. And it was that way ’til 1917. In 1917 my great-grandfather bought this part of the building, moved into it, and was in it until 1975.

“In ’75, we picked it up, brought it up here on the back of a flatbed, laid down a foundation, and then set this part down.” He gestures to the minuscule “kitchen” and area immediately surrounding him. “And then my dad built all this.”

Jeff motions to the brick walls that encircle a few wooden tables, with names and initials etched into every surface. Paintings and drawings from adoring customers paper the walls, along with crusty signs that proclaim: “At Louis’, All Our Food Is Cooked To Order. If It Takes A Little Longer, We Ask That You Please Be Patient.” Another reads: “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.”

All the wall space is a product of the existential crisis that Louis’ faced in 1975. Before then, Louis’ shared a wall with a tannery. After years of threats from wealthy developers, a concrete plan finally emerged to raze Louis’ and build Temple Medical Center, which is now a part of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Ken Lassen, Jeff’s father, mounted a heroic campaign to save his restaurant and emerged as a face of the local dismay at the city’s changing facade.

“My father was fighting the city for survival,” said Jeff. “Rumor has it that there was a national write-in by people to Washington. We actually came within a week of being torn down. It might have killed my dad. He took it deadly seriously. We all do.”

A new space was found only a couple of blocks away. Ken literally packed up shop and transported the bones of Louis’—its counter and stoves—to their new home in downtown New Haven, on a street now lined with bars.

“We started opening nights in 1992. It was the first time since the Depression that we went back to nights. And once we did that the clientele was drastically different. In some ways, it’s been good. In a lot of ways actually. You do have your occasional problems.” He’s very happy they don’t serve alcohol.

Instead, Louis’ serves soda from Foxon Park Beverages, another Connecticut institution that dates back to the early twentieth century. It’s only fitting that Louis’ should serve an old-fashioned drink with a stubbornly old-fashioned burger. Jeff takes a lot of pride in the quality of the meat, and I asked about the secret blend, which also dates back to his great-grandfather’s recipe.

“That’s our only secret. It’s five different blends,” Jeff said.  The beef is 92 percent lean and 8 percent fat, prior to cooking. “That’s why we’re condiment-less, why we don’t like condiments,” he said, alluding to the staunchly anti-ketchup stance of the restaurant, one that is trumpeted in signs around the dining room. “Same reason why we don’t give you a bun. We give you the best meat available, and we think it should be about the taste of the meat, not what you put on it or under it or in it. Too many decisions for people to make, too many different flavors. You don’t need all those flavors, you really don’t.

“On occasions—very rare—people have turned around and walked out because we don’t have it. It’s how much they like ketchup or want it. It’s their money. I don’t frown upon it, but we try and tell people to try it first, and see. And then make your own decision. But because we grind our own meat fresh every day, and it’s cooked the way it is, those are two of the main reasons we don’t have ketchup. We stay true to tradition. And it was made without it, that’s the way we do it. Everybody always thinks we hate ketchup or we got something against the company, or whoever. That’s not the case. We’re staying true to ourselves.”

Louis’ menu is four items long: The Original Burger ($6); Potato Salad ($4); Potato Chips ($2); and Homemade Pie ($4 and up). Should you desire more than meat on Pepperidge Farm toast, onion, tomato, and cheese are available. Onions are sliced to order and pressed into the raw meat patties before they go in the stove. Cheese treated to the same process would melt off of the burger into the abyss of the broiler, so the Lassens devised a “sharp cheddar spread” that coats one side of the toast like soft butter.

Jeff likes to eat a “cheese works” about once a day. In the parlance of the restaurant, that means a cheeseburger with tomato and onion.

“I think all the chefs try to outdo each other with burgers, what they can put on it or in it, who can top who, you know. You know what? Just do your thing, stick by what you know. Don’t worry what the guy’s doing down the block, across the street, or whatever. Do what you do and stop worrying about the other guy.”

It could be easy to worry about “the other guys” in a city like New Haven, which is home to storied pizza institutions like Pepe’s and Sally’s, and now boasts a Shake Shack, Chipotle, and Mario Batali’s Tarry Lodge. New Haven’s—and Louis’s—ascendancy hasn’t been easy, but the publicity has helped propel this family-owned business into the twenty-first century.

“We used to be New England-known, for the longest time, at best,” Jeff said. “Ever since the cooking channels, we’re known worldwide. And it’s really made a phenomenal difference. Night and day. Until you see it or go through it, it’s hard to believe. It really is. But it’s also—of course it’s a great thing—it’s a lot of work at times. If there’s an interview to be done, 99.9 percent of the time, it’s me.”

But there is pressure at times. “You try to keep it going, keep it up. It’s a lot of hard work. A lot of things people don’t see behind the scenes after you close. The cleanup—two to three to four hours of cleanup every day or night.

“If there’s a problem, if an alarm goes off in the middle of the night, you’ve got to get up. Or if something breaks, call the plumber or the electrician or this or that. There’s a lot of issues that arise on occasion, a lot of tests. You do what you can,” he said, before addressing the issue of how one keeps a storied family institution going for more than a century. “It was myself and my parents for the longest time. I’ve been here full time since ’79, and I officially took over in 2003. My father’s since passed; my mother is eighty-six. My brother’s back with us. And my wife, doing her thing. She’s making the pies, doing the books, some publicity. And then I have a son and a daughter. So if they—maybe, maybe not, we’ll see.”