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Sep 8, 2010 06:22 PM

Louis' Lunch: No Bun, No Problem

In 1900, Louis Lassen, owner of Louis’ Lunch (est. 1895), invented the hamburger. Asked to make something to eat on the go, Lassen slapped some ground meat between two pieces of toast and inadvertently created an American icon. Although this piece of oral history could potentially be contested, the quality of Louis’ Lunch cannot.

Walking in, one immediately notices the size of the establishment; Louis’ Lunch is tiny, with a few wooden tables and a counter. Every wooden surface in the place teems with graffiti as old as the furniture itself. Layers upon layers of inscribed history give Louis’ Lunch historical legitimacy; if this burger joint was good enough to inspire deeply carved inscriptions in the seventies, then it must be good.

The menu is simple: Ham Works, or Cheese Works. There are simple ingredients: Hamburger and toast, and simple condiments: cheese, tomato, and onion. You can get any permutation of condiments… out of those three. Luckily, no more are needed.

The first thing to notice about the burger is the bun, or lack of bun. Rather, a patty sits between slices of toast, not crispy and crumbly, but a nice golden brown. The burger itself is juicy, fatty, and well, the essence of hamburger. The cheese melts nicely, and the onion and tomato complement the meat but do not make the toast soggy. The burger needs nothing else, no lettuce, or mushrooms or guacamole, just the sandwich on the paper plate. Not too big, one sandwich would seem skimpy for a hungry athlete. These are no white castle sliders though either, so one is plenty for a normal, casual lunch.

The only problem with Louis’ Lunch is space. At lunch hour, if you go with more than two people don’t expect to find seats, take the burger to go. Also, the line can get a bit long at peak times, but if you want a real burger, the wait is worth it. Go to Louis’ Lunch once for the experience of a New Haven landmark. Go again for the food.

Louis’ Lunch

261-263 Crown Street

New Haven, CT 06511-6611

Louis' Lunch
263 Crown St, New Haven, CT 06511

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  1. I've been there several times - years ago. The first time i went was because of the history and then again several times since I worked in the area. I wasn't impressed at all. Maybe the burger has gotten better, but I doubt if I'll be back to try it. There are other places with a better burger.

    1. The place is definitely something to see, but because of the lines, the crankiness of the staff, I haven't been for years, sorta like pepe's...Much preferred the burgers at the Doodle, anyway

      4 Replies
      1. re: BiscuitBoy

        I understand we are all entitled to our opinions, but I can't help but cringe a bit when I read negative comments about Louis', especially when it comes to the staff. I can see when they get really busy how they may come across as rude or crass. Again when comments about ketchup are brought up. For me, some of the charm of LL comes from those things. I started going to LL in high school and quickly my friends and I got to know everyone there. I don't make it back often, but when I do they always take time to say hi to me and my family and catch up quickly with each other. If you haven't had the opportunity, I highly recommend stopping in Tues.-Thurs. when it's not too busy.

        Another of my favorite things at Louis are the pies, and on Fridays when they, surprisingly enough, serve up one of the best tuna sandwiches I've ever eaten (on white toast of course).

        1. re: solargarlic

          I'm a townie, but I haven't been to Louis Lunch since, oh, about 1980 or thereabouts. I guess the burgers were okay. I didn't like the vibe. I tried. I saw someone ask for ketchup. Saw the reaction. Yeah, whatever. It felt like a Yale boy's club. Not my scene. But I like good food, so I tried. I guess the burgers were good. I always liked the Doodle better.

          But to justify going there for the pies? I had a piece of peach pie. As far as I could tell, the recipe for the filling went something like this. Take one peach, run it through a carrot grater. Mix sugar, water and corn syrup. Add the shredded peach. Pour into crust. Bake.

          I've had pies that tasted worse. I've had pies with worse crust. But I have never had fruit pie with such an absurd proportion, nay, LACK, of fruit.

          And the whole thing put me off Louis and I have not been back.

          1. re: Pipenta

            Ok then. (and I truly do not mean that with an ounce of sarcasm at all, just a smile on my face) But really, to each his/her own...amazing how each experience can be so completely different. I suppose I never saw an awful reaction to the ketchup thing...more joking. I started going in the mid-90's. I wonder if there are any differences between those two decades of what the place was like. This seems to be the same argument about New Haven pizza places as well. Some will put up with the lines and rude staff, others find it to be a waste of time.

            Never had the peach you got me there.

            1. re: solargarlic

              It has been a very long time. In fairness, I should give the place another shot. But, truth be told, I'm not a big burger fan. Ground beef, even top notch ground beef, leaves me with a "meh" reaction. Back in the day, I liked my burger rare. But nowadays, agricultural practices being what they are, ground beef is synonymous with infected feces. E. coli H7 0157 is no joke. So if burgers must be cooked to a fare-the-well, what distinguishes them is their toppings and more often than not I can enjoy said toppings and skip the damn burger. I'm a bad judge of burgers. I don't feel the burger love.

              But if the pies really are good, then I will go back and give them another try. Two decades is enough time, doncha think?

      2. And for a 21st century take on the bunless grilled toast hamburger, there's Burger Shake and Fries in Byram and soon Darien. Could be the best hamburger palace in all of Connecticut.

        1. Never liked Louis' Lunch. Hated the bread it was served on (much prefer buns) and the burger was nothing special. I especially hate their condiment police state (no ketchup!). Most places I have encountered that act as the condiment police (Louis', Blackies Hot Dogs) have proteins that aren't all that fantastic to begin with when served plain.

          Louis' Lunch
          263 Crown St, New Haven, CT 06511

          1. Although the Library of Congress cites LL as selling the first American hamburger sandwich, it also says that the title is disputed. As an ex-NewHavener I feel disloyal saying this, but prior claims from Texas and New York state do seem a bit more compelling.

            And by the way, recently CR rated InAndOut and Five Guys as the top burger buys in America. McD's? Last.

            2 Replies
            1. re: DonShirer

              CR did NOT rate anything, it reported a result of a survey of it's readers and if you look at the words in the survey it states "Differences of fewer than 0.5 points aren't meaningful" and 5G and I&O scored a 7.9 in the survey. Within the 0.5 points are fuddruckers, burgerville, back yard burgers and culver's frozen custard.

              Now MD was not within 0.5 of the next lowest rival Jack in the Box. Now that is something to think about, statistically worse in a survey to JITB, wow.

              1. re: jfood

                You're quite right, jf. I condensed the title too much, but it did say "...readers rate.." .