In 1895 Louis Lassen opened the steak sandwich food cart that would later become Louis’ Lunch restaurant. At the time, trolley tracks cut through the city streets and their wires webbed the air. Weaving between them were steam-powered cars and horse-drawn carriages. At the turn of the century, many trolley workers, chauffeurs and coachmen ate lunch at this cart.
According to Lassen family lore, beginning in 1900 these customers had the opportunity to eat a sandwich no human had ever tried. It was called the hamburger.
Lassen is said to have conceived of the sandwich after a customer in a hurry asked for something quick to eat on the go and he struck upon the idea of putting steak trimmings between two pieces of bread.
In Connecticut, many tend to take this version of history as gospel. But was that really how the first hamburger was made? The answer to that question is complicated.
The tale of Louis’ Lunch’s first hamburger has been passed down by generations of Lassens, but it went undocumented at the time and there are several counter claims. In Wisconsin, many swear that in 1885 Charlie Nagreen began selling a smashed meatball between two slices of bread at a country fair. In Texas, Fletcher Davis supposedly began making an early burger in the 1880s. While both claims predate the New Haven burger by at least a decade and a half, they are also based on local lore and oral tradition.
“The claim that Louis’ Lunch has is semi-legit,” says George Motz, an Emmy Award-winning freelance filmmaker and cheeseburger expert who has written two books on the sandwich. He adds that other claims “are equally valid and equally muddy. There really is no solid claim.”
Part of the problem is that, at the time, no one would have realized what a revolutionary moment in food history the “invention” of a burger was, and as such it wouldn’t have necessarily been mentioned even by the local press. “It wasn’t like the sinking of the Titanic,” Motz says. “It was lowly food for wage earners and blue-collar America.”
Another problem is that it’s possible and arguably likely that the hamburger sandwich emerged in many places independently. Humans had long eaten finely chopped and, later, mechanically ground beef and other meats. By the late 1800s German immigrants had spread a food called hamburger steak to many metropolitan areas. “You had small stands selling Hamburg steaks, steak in the style of Hamburg,” Motz says. “In New York City there were hamburg steaks available everywhere.”
This dish consisted of ground meat with various toppings served on a plate with a fork. Even without the benefit of hindsight we have today, it does not seem like it would have been a huge leap for a cook to start making a sandwich from that steak plate.
Despite many aspects of early burger history being lost to time, Motz says there is one area where there is no dispute. “Louis’ Lunch is the longest continually operating hamburger restaurant in America.”
Originally located on George Street in New Haven, the building itself was moved to its current location in the 1970s in order to save the historic spot from being razed as part of a development project.
Today the restaurant is owned and run by Jeff Lassen, Louis’ great-great-grandson. Jeff heard the story of the hamburger’s origins growing up. As for competing burger-origin claims, Lassen says, there’s “a little disbelief on my part, of course. [But] we’ve been in business since 1895. We have the original stoves from 1898 that first one was cooked in, and we still use it today. So I think that lends credence to our story.”
He notes that other claimants to the burger-origin throne “can’t come up positively with dates either.”
Louis’ Lunch is famous for its adherence to its burger-making traditions. Each burger is made from beef that is ground in house fresh daily and served between two slices of white toast without condiments, which lets the flavor of the meat carry the sandwich. There are no buns and absolutely no ketchup. “We just stay true to who we are, what our forefathers did and what they brought forth,” Lassen says.
The result of this philosophy is that Louis’ still offers a primordial burger. This is what burgers were like before they evolved or, some might argue, were corrupted by thicker buns and a grab bag of toppings and sauces. Diners who eat here experience food history and taste what New Haveners ate in the age of steam and the trolley. Just don’t ask for ketchup.