Every year, I make the long journey back to my hometown of Hamden, Connecticut from wherever I’m living abroad. Coming back to this sleepy suburb from exotic foreign destinations like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cambodia, or, now, the Philippines can be…well, anticlimactic. In fact, Hamden is so quiet and conservative that it feels like no time at all passes by in the approximately 365 days since I was there last. Still, it gives me a chance to see family, catch up shopping for the year (since it’s super hard to find my grown-ass-man sizes in Asia, and eat a whole lot of home cooking.
But, that’s not to say Hamden and the surrounding area is completely devoid of culture, fun, or notable happenings. In fact, New Haven – the city adjoining Hamden – is actually a minor-league cultural mecca, with Yale University, incredible art, music and theater scene, and some pretty amazing restaurants.
But you’ll find none more humble and yet more iconic that Louis’ Lunch, the home of the hamburger.
That honor is no small feat, nor is it some marketing gimmick. The Library of Congress even has Louis’ Lunch on file as the Birthplace of the Hamburger Sandwich. For that reason, it’s been featured on plenty of food shows and specials on the Food Network, Travel Channel and other media all over the world.
However, walking up to the storied establishment, you might miss it. It sits on Crown Street across from a much bigger and more dynamic bar/pizza restaurant/nightclub, simply called “Bar.”
Louis’ is a tiny square building made of red bricks, so small that you may mistake it for the structure where you’re supposed to pay for parking on the lot that sits behind it. But just walk inside, and you’ll know that you’re in for a special experience.
Established in 1895, Louis’ is still family owned and operated (they’re on their 4th generation now!), making it one of the oldest continuous businesses in the country.
But back then, Louis’ was just another diner/café, until (as the story goes) in 1900, a man walked in and told the proprietor, Louis Lassen, to make him something quick because he was in a hurry to eat. To accommodate the man, Lassen quickly grabbed some of the trimmings from a ground steak and put them in between two pieces of toast before handing the new creation to the man – the first hamburger. A legend was born.
Not much has changed in the last 118 years at Louis’, as they still serve the same family recipe, a combination of freshly-ground cuts of five different types of meat, cooked on the same exact cast-iron grills that have been in operation sine 1898! They only serve it one grilled white toast, and the Spartan extras include only cheese, onions, and tomato. Ask for ketchup or mustard, and you’ll likely be given a dirty look or asked to leave.
The prices are a throw-back, too, with The Original Burger only at $6.25. You can add potato salad or chips, homemade pie, and enjoy soft drinks or a local Foxon Park Soda like Birch Beer, too.
For that reason, there’s usually a line out the door at Louis’ for lunch and dinner, which is even more notable because the quarters are so cramped that you’ll be nose-to-nose with the other patrons.
But that’s part of the charm, and to sample the first and original hamburger is a rare treat that shouldn’t be missed if you find yourself near New Haven!