Memorable | One of the Best
Review by: Michael Stern
A small brick building with school-desk seats and an ancient wooden counter with years’ worth of initials carved into it, Louis Lunch cooks hamburgers in ancient metal broilers. A handful of freshly-ground steak is hand-flattened into a patty and placed inside a wire holder inside a vertical iron oven that holds the meat suspended between two heat sources. As the patty cooks, the grease drips off it and the meat sears. When it is done, the hamburger is removed from its wire holder and placed between two pieces of toasted white bread.
Hamburgers come on toast at Louis Lunch because when Louis Lassen began serving them in his little lunch wagon over a hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a hamburger bun. In fact, it is possible that there was no such thing as a hamburger. Some culinary historians believe that this is where the hamburger was invented. There are those who attribute it to the tartars or to the Earl of Salisbury or to sailors from Hamburg, Germany; but Louis Lunch devotees contend that it was born of Louis Lassen’s thrifty nature. The hamburger was his way of doing something useful with the leftover trimmings from the steak sandwiches he sold at his lunch wagon.
Whichever origin is true, Louis Lassen is an essential stop on America’s burger trail. The hamburgers are moist and crusty, available with a schmear of Cheeze Whiz, if desired; and the place itself, now run by a fourth generation of the Lassen family, is a vivid taste of culinary history.
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6 Responses to “Louis Lunch”
February 12th, 2013
Hello. Just came upon my review here of Louis’s from 2006. Want to update. Was there recently for the first time since and I must report that it seems they are no longer in the cardboard slump.
I said in my last review that they’d gone way downhill, that the burgers had become tasteless. The burger was not amazing this time, but it was way better than the last time and definitely decent. Still would not say it’s worth the crazy wait of a line out the door, but if you hit them when it’s not too crowded — I was there on a night they were open very late — it’s an experience, the experience the other reviewers talk about, which can be fun when the burgers are decent, but not so much when they aren’t.
Anyway, they appear to be back on track now and may have been for a while since I did not visit for so long.
May 17th, 2011
Louis Lunch has been an evolving experience (I’ve been coming here for 35 years). Up until a few years ago, the original founder’s grandson Ken Lassen was the maestro of this revered place.
He made it what it was best known for: the quintessential hamburger done medium rare. Yes, he used Cheez-Whiz, and damned if it wasn’t good. He was a kind man and never, ever was snooty in any way or gave a newbie a hard time if he asked for ketchup, which as anybody knows is tacitly forbidden in this shrine. He always got my order right and the portions were good.
His son Jeff took over a few years back and, while things remained the same initially, over time the quality of the hamburger and the experience has declined. There are many more employees there now, and Jeff was not the cook the last few times I was there, so it is obvious any change in quality has to do with the hired help, who recently got my takeout order wrong. It is unfortunate, but the run has ended in terms of consistency. I think you can still get the quintessential burger, but not every time. And they ARE putting less Cheez-Whiz on each burger.
Hope they find their way back for us old-timers. Otherwise, I don’t think it will matter any more, as those of us who were there when it was good will all be gone and the newbies won’t know what they’re missing. Time to take it up a notch, Jeff Lassen…
March 25th, 2009
What a letdown! We made a special trip to Louis Lunch just for the great burgers. We walked in and found it packed with first-timers like us, standing in a confused mob inside the door. The counterperson (owner?) and the cook, standing next to each other at the counter, neither acknowledged nor made eye contact with ANYONE in the line for an annoying 20 minutes or so. FINALLY the counterman said, “OK, who has to order?” Not, “how can I help?” or anything cordial. He then took orders for about a dozen or so burgers from six or eight people, and was surly at best during the entire process.
No menus, no explanation, not even a list on the wall to explain protocol. We ordered based on hearsay, and waited an excruciating 40 MORE minutes (for a total of ONE HOUR) to get a mediocre, dry burger; and the order was wrong! If it was supposed to be a cheeseburger, there was so little cheese it was a hint at best. “The works” were forgotten, and it was NOT the default medium-rare that is supposedly served unless otherwise requested. It was flavorless, dry, and boring, on white toast with not a drip of ketchup or other condiment, and NO SALT OR PEPPER either!
The icing on the cake was the FU attitude from the owner and the chef, who sighed and rolled their eyes at anyone who asked a question or made a special request. We are SO disappointed at this bum deal. Worst of all: it cost roughly $30 for four lousy, dry, overcooked burgers, a half-cup of potato salad, a bag of chips, and two sodas. What a RIPOFF!
November 9th, 2006
I grew up in New Haven and ate at Louis many times over the last thirty years. It was great for most of those years. But the last couple of times I’ve gone there, it’s been disappointing. I hate to be writing this about a place that should be so perfect in every way. But I’ve found the burgers increasingly tasteless the last three visits (which took place during the last two or three years).
The last time was just a couple of months ago and it was the worst. The burger was almost … I don’t know, ground cardboard-like. I’m not kidding. I don’t get it at all. When I was a kid I worked at a shoe repair shop that is right around the corner (1989-93). When my boss would send me to get us lunch at Louis’, it was such a treat. Now, I just don’t know what to say. This last time it was like, well, let’s give it another chance; those other times must have just been off days. But when the last time was the worst of all, well I had to face that something seems to have changed.
I wrote in my ratings that I would not return, but probably at some point I will want to check again. It’s mystifying; nothing seems to have changed. Except the taste. And my husband was with me all of these last times and knows the place too and had the same very disappointed reaction.
January 24th, 2005
After several years of wanting to eat at Lou’s I finally had the opportunity this weekend. The building itself, a national historic landmark, is like stepping back in time to the early 1900’s. The atmosphere is something to experience and something to behold.
I was extremely impressed with the burgers here. The 1/4 pound of beef was delicious with a rich taste without grease. One thing I was somewhat suprised about was the use of cheese wiz. I would have liked a cheese that was on par with the beef and history of the food the place serves. The burger, while medium rare inside had a wonderful curst thanks to the ancient broilers built around 1898 and still in use.
Additionally, Louis serves Foxon Park soda’s. For those who are unfamiliar this brand is indiginous to the New Haven area and is a local favorite with flavors like white birch beer.
Upon sampling my wife stated that it tastes no different than a burger you can make at home, especially with the use of white toast. I must admit that she is primarily correct in her statement. While there is a spice added just before cooking, I suspect its nothing more than salt, pepper and garlic, there is nothing earth shattering about the fare.
However, Louis Luch is a whole package…the history, the building, the atmosphere, not simply the sandwich. In my opinion all these elements put together are what makes this place special, the food taste better and a must stop when youre in the area.
July 23rd, 2004
I was disappointed. Having grown up just outside of New Haven, I’ve been hearing about Louis Lunch for 30+ years. I was a little ashamed to say I had never been there until recently. Now I’ve gone, and probably won’t go back. First impressions are everything. Not that the food was bad, but it didn’t live up to the reputation.
I ordered a burger with onions and cheese spread. A sign above the counter says that all burgers are cooked medium-rare. Mine came medium-well. It was a little dry, and the onion slice was not much bigger than a half-dollar. I’m guessing the burger itself is a 1/4 pound patty. I was there outside of the lunch rush, about 2PM, so it’s not like they were busy or didn’t have time to put proper attention into the cooking. And at $4.25 for the burger, I would expect a little more as far as quantity and quality.
Was the food bad? No, but it wasn’t everything I had heard. But, everything I had heard was either from the newspaper or on television. No one I know ever said anything about the place. I think most of the media reports are influenced by the fact that Louis Lunch is considered one the the possible birth-places of the hamburger. But history doesn’t do it for me. I’d much rather eat at Yankee Doodle, also in town, where the quality is consistently excellent, and the prices are much lower.