Very Special Burger

I work in New Haven, Connecticut. It is a smallish city – just a bit over 100,000 people. The downtown, though decimated by years of decay and neglect, is starting to show some bright spots, including restaurants and residents.

Yale University shares land with New Haven – not much else.

For a small city, New Haven has a lot of history. Our current president was born here (though he hides it well – claiming to be a Texan). He and his predecessor went to school here. The cotton gin, first assembly line using interchangeable parts, telephone switchboard and phonebook, Erector Set and Lionel trains all originated in New Haven.

However, if you were to ask a native New Havener which first was most important… it would be none of those. That’s because New Haven is the birthplace of the hamburger.

How weird is that?

There’s a legend… and it’s probably true… but I’ll leave that to the proprietors of the place where I had dinner tonight, Louis Lunch.

Louis’ (pronounced Louie’s) is a tiny place, so well hidden that I had driven by it hundreds of times over the last 20 years and had never seen it! The walls are brick. The booth I sat in was minuscule with carving on the wooden table (the same kind of carving often left by students on their schoolroom desks). Sitting against the outside wall I easily felt a cold draft against my legs.

The action at Louis’ takes place behind the counter, where burgers are broiled vertically, over an open flame, in three cast iron grills. The grills themselves are ancient – actually dating from the 1890’s!

You can have onions, cheese and tomato, but no ketchup! No French Fries either. At Louis’ it’s their way or no way, and that includes toast, not a bun.

There are two reasons Louis’ is still around. First, it’s the burger, of course. It is unbelievably tasty. Second, and more important, Louis’ is an anachronism. In this Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Amazon.com world, Louis’ operates without consultants and accountants and p.r. flacks. There aren’t rounding errors or spoilage. Each individual burger counts.

I’m amazed it took me 20 years to get there.

Blogger’s note: I have no clue where, when, or even whether to use an apostrophe when referring to Louis’. If you’re an etymologist, my apologies in advance.

4 thoughts on “Very Special Burger”

  1. I can tell you why it took 20 years – because that’s how long it takes you to get around all the other places. Since moving to the area in October of 2002, I’ve been only to Miya’s, Mom’s Indian, Tandoor, Mamoun’s, a couple of the multitudes of Thai restaurants around the downtown area (and one off on some side street I can’t recall,) Koffee Too, Annie Liffey’s (when the kitchen is open,) Cafe Bravo up on Willow street (my neighborhood now,) of course Archie Moore’s (the original!), Cafe Adulis (or something to that effect,) Cosi, Indochina… I think that about covers it for my visits in the Haven so far. I lived in Wallingford prior to that, and it has a fair number of decent restaurants – all seem to be Italian though, what’s the deal with that?

    In any event, New Haven is delightfully like a distilled New York City, thankfully without much of the hassles. It’s exactly the sort of place that Louis’ Lunch should be – quaint but not small, old but not obsolete.

    Now if we could just get a good used camera shop.

    Bill

  2. It’s on my list of places to go. We don’t live in the city, but my husband goes to school at Yale so we are visiting New Haven more often as he learns his way around.

    Wooster is where I have done most of my New Haven eating.

  3. Birthplace Of The Burger

    Geoff Fox writes about his first experience at Louis Lunch, New Haven institution, and alleged birthplace of the hamburger: The action at Louis’ takes place behind the counter, where burgers are broiled vertically, over an open flame, in three cast

  4. I have been there only once, a friend took me there about 13 years ago, and until I read your post, I couldn’t even begin to tell you where or what the place was called. So, I’ll have to take a trip there sometime soon….

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