It was the mid-‘90s. After parking my car on Crown Street in New Haven, Conn., I was nearing the red door of Louis’ Lunch when I found myself ambushed by a powerful mix of warmth, homesickness and hunger. It was disconcerting but not entirely unfamiliar. What was it that these feelings reminded me of? Oh, yeah, going home.
Normally, I do not get emotional when entering a restaurant. But this was a place that I had eaten in 300, maybe 400 times, in the ‘70s when I lived around the corner. Then I enjoyed the honored status of “regular,” with known preferences (two cheeseburgers with onion and tomato, black coffee) and, like most regulars, a nickname, “Junior.” Why? Let’s just say that my four years of college took me more than four years.
I knew the Louis’ terminology (“Gimme two cheese works!”). I knew the entire Lassen family, whose patriarch Ken ran the place, by name. Thanks to the way the restaurant is laid out, with the customers practically sitting in the kitchen, we regulars became something between neighbors and relatives – we knew who was in a good or bad mood and why, what part-time employee Digger (he also worked in the Grove Street Cemetery) was up to and how bent out of shape mom and dad were about daughter Laurie staying out too late on a date. Most important, we knew the two sacred commandments: Do not order your hamburger any more than medium and do not ever, under any circumstances, ask for condiments.
Now, many years later, I realize that I was also afraid that Louis’ Lunch and the Lassens might have changed and, I have to admit, afraid of how I would feel if they did not remember me. Of course, I asked myself, after 20-some years why would they? I opened the door, heard the familiar bells jingle and spotted Lee, Ken’s wife, behind the counter. “Hi, Junior,” she said, “where’ve you been?” I almost cried.
If you have heard of Louis’ Lunch and you are not from southern Connecticut, it is probably because Louis’ claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. There are rival claimants and any historian will tell you that it is almost impossible to be certain that anything happened anywhere first, mainly because this requires proving a gigantic negative – that the thing did not happen earlier anywhere else, ever. Louis’, however, makes a pretty strong circumstantial case.
First, thanks to the Lassen family’s almost pathological sense of tradition, almost nothing in their restaurant has changed in its century and a quarter of existence. Louis’ uses a trio of odd, cast-iron ovens that date from the 1890s. There do not seem to be any others anywhere in existence.
Because the hamburgers stand vertically, cooked by flames on both sides, they are a lot less greasy but at least as tasty as hamburgers cooked on a grill; this is also the reason that their cheeseburgers are made with cheese spread, put on after cooking, instead of actual melted cheese. They use toast instead of buns, which, of course, were invented after the hamburger became popular. One concession to modernity is the toaster – it was manufactured in 1928.
Louis’ uses a trio of odd, cast-iron ovens that date from the 1890s. There do not seem to be any others anywhere in existence.z
Instead of buying cheap hamburger meat or, God forbid, frozen patties, Louis’ has always used a (secret) blend of top-quality cuts, ground daily or more often. The family legend, which there is no reason to doubt, is that in the early 1900s the eponymous founder, Louis Lassen, was asked to whip up a snack for a customer who was in too much of a hurry to wait for a steak, so he ground up some sirloin, grilled it and served it with raw onion and tomato between two pieces of toast. For better, for worse and for everything in between, the American hamburger was born.
There is one more piece of contextual evidence. For some reason that I could not tell you – and I have spent a lot time pondering it — the humble port city of New Haven is the birthplace of a remarkable number of innovations that define American life. We could go through the list and tell the story behind each one, but to save time, ask yourself this: Would America be America without the cotton gin, football, the Colt .45, pizza or the Frisbee? The hamburger does complete this list nicely.
Recently, I went back again to Louis’ Lunch to talk about the old days with Jeff, who took over from his dad a few years back to become the fourth-generation Lassen male to run the place, and his ageless mom, Lee, who is semi-retired but still bakes the pies. I was curious about what else has changed at Louis’. The answer is: not much. Jeff has added potato salad to the menu. He started keeping the place open late a couple of nights a week, and he and his wife are raising Lassen number five.
The hamburgers are just as good as I remember them. They are wonderfully juicy and flavorful and the cheese spread still kind of works. Jeff remains devoted to a family food philosophy that you could sum up as: “The Customer is Always Wrong” or, as an actual sign hanging on the wall at Louis’ reads:
THIS IS NOT BURGER KING
YOU DO NOT GET IT YOUR WAY. YOU TAKE IT
MY WAY OR YOU DON’T GET THE DAMNED THING.
Do not get the wrong idea. Louis’ Lunch is a very friendly place as long as you get with the program, which always has been about serving quality beef and making sure that nothing ruins or upstages it. As Jeff will tell you, that means no puffy, sweet bun, no well-done meat and no ketchup, which Jeff calls, “sweet stuff that parents pour over their kids’ food to get them to eat it.”
We exchanged stories about his late father. For instance, if customers demanded a well-done hamburger, even after Ken had patiently explained that it was an insult to his meat and that the result would be about as tasty as a hockey puck, he would ask them “So, you want a hockey puck?” If they stuck to their guns, Ken would actually serve them a rubber hockey puck on toast, with cheese, tomato and onion.
My absolutely favorite moments came when people would come in thinking they were in a normal burger joint and get flustered when they found out that they couldn’t have ketchup. If they kept it up, a sense of amusement mixed with foreboding would spread among the regular customers. Once, a red-faced man and Ken got into a priceless shouting match that ended with the customer yelling: “This is America, damn it, and I want ketchup on my burger!” To which Ken replied, pointing at the door: “This is Louis’ Lunch. America is out there! Get out!” I asked Jeff and Lee what happens now when someone insists on ketchup. “It depends on the person’s attitude,” they told me. “It can go a number of ways.”