While staying at our daughter's place in Wallingford, Connecticut, we drove about a half-hour to New Haven to visit a place I had seen on one of those Diners, Dives, & Drive-ins shows on tv. It was Louis’ Lunch, a tiny brick building at 261-263 Crown Street, amidst the tall office buildings and condos of downtown New Haven.
In existence since 1898, it is supposedly the birthplace of the hamburger. The current owner is Jeff Lassen, grandson of the founder, Louis Lassen; he operates the place much as it’s been run for over a hundred years.
The menu is quite limited: a five-dollar burger, which is still cooked–vertically–in the same cast-iron gas grilles that date to the nineteenth century; potato salad, $4; a bag of chips, $2; piece of pie, $4; and soda, Snapple or water for $2 or 3. The only things available to put on your burger are cheese, tomato, and onion (no ketchup or mustard); the opinion being that if it’s a freshly made burger, using prime meat, you don’t need catchup or mustard to make it taste better. As a matter of fact, there’s a sign on the wall that says, “This isn’t Burger King. You can’t have it your way. You have it my way or you can’t have the damn thing.”
In spite of this attitude, the place has a huge following (plus crazy people like me who come from all over to check it out) and, in the 1970s–when the place was threatened with demolition–a new location was found and the building moved to preserve it. People from all over donated bricks to help rebuild what was lost in the move.
So, what’s my take on the place? Well, the burgers were very good, but overpriced considering the size. Your choices are limited, it’s extremely small inside with very little seating area, and very noisy with customers calling out their orders and Jeff shouting to the grille man. So, it’s not the best dining experience in the world.
But Louis’ Lunch is a landmark; it’s a part of New Haven folklore. And it’s certainly a unique experience.