The line outside Louis’ Lunch on a sunny Saturday is a rare Elm City cross-section: Yalies in rumpled oxfords; a pair of local girls, eyebrows red from the waxing salon; suburban families wrangling toddlers. As a trio of young men in Delta Chi shirts tumble out the red door of the tiny store- front, an older African American couple take their place inside.
The three fraternity brothers blink in day- light, Styrofoam cups of creamy, chive-studded potato salad in hand. “Yo, this is bangin’,” one says, digging in. But where’s his burger? “You gotta wait,” his buddy says. At Louis’, they cook the burgers, eight or nine at a time, in a trio of 1898 vertical broilers powered by a city gas line that ebbs and flows with demand from the rest of the street. Cooking times vary by time of day. So although you’ll be handed a drink and potato salad as soon as you ask for them, the burger may take up to 25 minutes longer. If you also order the excellent pie, which is made by owner Jeff Lassen’s wife, Kerry, and comes in flavors like peach, strawberry– rhubarb, and blueberry, good luck holding out.
But eating in New Haven—that is, in the old-school tradition, not in the farm-to-table- by-way-of-Manhattan sense—usually involves a wait. You can stand in line for pizza or stand in line for burgers. The coal-fired pies are famous: Sally’s, Modern, Frank Pepe’s. But Louis’ Lunch is equally so—because Louis’ is the birthplace of the hamburger sandwich. Or so says the Lassen family, which has owned the restaurant since the year those broilers were manufactured. Competing boosters in Athens, Texas, and Seymour, Wisconsin, may claim their own hamburger origin stories, but in 1995 the Library of Congress itself sided with the Lassens, and as far as they’re concerned, the rest is just commentary.
As the story goes, Louis Lassen, a Danish blacksmith turned food peddler, was selling lunch from his cart one day when a harried customer asked for something he could eat on the go. Lassen slapped a ground-steak patty between two slices of toast—and the burger was born. The year was 1900, and chopped steak was already a popular dish nationwide, so it was inevitable that someone eventually would sandwich it. Or perhaps several someones, at multiple sites, simultaneously?
Regardless, the Louis’ staff still serves their burgers on Pepperidge Farm white bread crisped in a 1929 conveyor toaster, and they still grind the meat daily. They also eschew all condiments: no ketchup, no mustard, no special sauce. Instead, there’s lettuce, tomato, and cheese spread, if you like. That’s called a “cheese works.” Order your burger rare or well-done, but ask for ketchup and Paul DeNegre, who mans the grill, will school you in the Louis’ tradition. He might pull out a red plastic bottle and give it a squeeze, sending a length of red string shooting out across your burger toward your favorite shirt. It always gets a laugh.
On the west wall of the wood- paneled interior, there’s a sign: “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.” Sounds gruff, but the mood is cheerful: People wait patiently for seats at tables and booths carved with a century’s worth of customers’ names.
Though he’s got a line of orders that won’t quit, DeNegre jokes with his customers. “Do you know why we serve Pepsi here?” he asks one. “Back in the Depression, Louis was allowed only so much Coke per week. One week, Popsi [Ken Lassen, grandson of Louis] found out that the distributor had sold his order on the black market. So he called Pepsi and they came right down.” He spreads cheese sauce on a burger, pausing for effect. “Coke has tried to sell us since then,” he says with a twinkle. “They hold grudges in that family.”
A young man named John comes up to the counter, eyes bright, a little eager. He stumbles on his order. “Sorry, guys, I’m just excited,” he says. “I live in Boston, but I grew up here. I just got off the highway.” There’s a meal wait- ing for him at home, but he had to stop here first. He looks around. “This is my favorite place,” he says.
Louis’ Lunch. 261 Crown Street, New Haven, CT. 203-562-5507; louislunch.comVIDEO:Watch the perfect Louis’ burger being made from start to finish.