27 October 2020
Of all the sweeping claims to make, Louis’ Lunch makes a grand one: “the birthplace of the hamburger sandwich.” I’ll admit, I was skeptical– after 18 years of being a Connecticut native, I knew New Haven had its hidden foodie gems (just a slice from the nearby Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria will tell you that), but I couldn’t quite believe that an institution of American cuisine could stem from southwestern CT. To the world, New Haven is the home to Yale University, and therefore the city must be as prestigious as the Ivy League school it houses. To Connecticut locals, New Haven is far from our favorite destination– it lacks Westport’s waterside views at Bar Taco and instead is ridden with poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. I could delve into the drawbacks of New Haven, but my skepticism is self-evident– how could New Haven claim the original hamburger?
It was my dad that finally convinced me to go. We were in the area already (on business, not a destination trip) and he was convinced that the few articles he had read and the testimonies he had heard were enough validation. I tagged along for his own benefit, but my hesitation amplified at the sight of the joint. Louis’ Lunch barely exceeded the size of my bedroom; its limited seating was composed of wood-stained nooks hollowed from the walls, all of which featured carvings from decades of satisfied diners. The customers were piled on top of each other– most of whom, I noticed, were drunken college students. By chance, we had stumbled into Louis’ Lunch on the eve of a highly-contested football match-up: Yale versus Harvard. Students from both of the Ivy League powerhouses had found their way into Louis’ that night– and somehow, my dad and I had become a part of the crazed, hungry college scene.
After seeing the scarcity of the menu, I followed my dad’s lead– only cheeseburgers and hamburgers were served, no condiments. Onions and tomatoes could be added, but all burgers– all– were served on classic, toasted white bread. No fancy brioche rolls or seeded buns, only white bread.
I remained skeptical until the first bite. The college drunkards stumbled over each other and would yell obnoxiously across the restaurant, but the 4th generation owners hardly batted an eye. That was part of the ambiance of Louis’ Lunch– a rough, authentic joint to compliment the simple, authetic hamburger.
But that first bite– the hype from The Travel Channel, The Food Network, and more made sense. Something was different– the five cuts of meat, the white bread, and the simplicity of the sandwich all added to an authenticity that made Louis’ Lunch about more than just a burger. It was the setting, the dim lighting, the paper plates upon which our meal was served; Louis’ Lunch was proud of its originality, and their efforts to retain this old-fashioned identity had coined a unique dining experience in the modern day. The hamburger looked far from the sandwich that America reveres today, but its taste embodied the institution; I was struck by how such a simple meal could create such a fulfilling dining experience.
They’ll tell you that they want you to experience the meat’s “true flavor,” hence the burger’s simplicity. But much of this flavor comes from the experience, and not just the cast-iron grills from 1898. In any other institution, one might be offended by brazen college drunks— in Louis’ Lunch, it simply shows the restaurant’s ties to the school and the city. The pride, the authenticity, the deliciousness that exudes from Louis’ Lunch is what gives it its renowned name– whether they can claim the “original hamburger” or not, they can claim a sandwich and an experience that stand alone.