Like Hollywood and rock ‘n roll, the hamburger has come to represent American culture around the world – far more so, even, than baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. Fast food chains like McDonald’s have grown into giant global corporations on the strength of these simple sandwiches.
But the phenomenon – and the hamburger itself – got started almost by accident in New Haven, Connecticut over a century ago. Today, visitors to the area can get a burger at the same establishment that invented them, still operated by the family of the man who first served one up.
Louis’ Lunch in downtown New Haven was established in 1895. Owner Louis Lassen had a small place from which he sold steak sandwiches to local factory workers. Not wanting anything to go to waste, Louis would save the steak trimmings, grind them up and take them home for his family to eat. One day in 1900, legend has it, a man rushed into the sandwich stand looking for a meal in a hurry. Louis grilled some of the ground beef, wrapped it between two pieces of toast, and sent the man quickly out the door. In the process, Louis Lassen invented the first hamburger.
While the hamburger went on to worldwide fame and fortune, Louis’ Lunch is still a small family-run establishment in the heart of New Haven. Lassen moved from his original location to a new lunch wagon in 1907, then to a tiny but permanent building before World War I. In the 1970s, urban renewal plans in the city threatened the 18-by-20-foot structure with demolition. A public outcry to save the restaurant resulted in it being picked up and moved to its present location.
A fourth generation of Lassens runs the place these days. But you can still get an original burger served the way the inventor did it on that fateful day at the turn of the last century – broiled beef between slices of toast. They still use 19th-century cast iron gas stoves to cook the hamburgers. You can get your burger with cheese, tomato and onion – but don’t expect them to add a condiment like ketchup or mustard. That, they say, would “corrupt” the original recipe.
To be sure, others have claimed to be the true inventor of the hamburger. The Menches Brothers are said to have served them at a county fair in the upstate New York town of Hamburg. “Old Dave” Davis served them at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where they gained much acclaim. Those claims have their champions, but none can be positively proven. What is certain is that Louis’ Lunch has been grilling hamburgers and serving them as a sandwich for over 100 years.
Louis Lunch is located at 263 Crown Street in New Haven, and takes only cash. It is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11am to 4pm, and Thursdays through Saturdays from noon to 2am. The restaurant is closed for vacation at various times throughout the year – including the entire month of August.