The legacy of Louis Lassen lives on in a downtown New Haven, Conn., luncheonette. For besides the jocular atmosphere (regulars are regularly razzed as the whole restaurant listens) and upright circa-1898 gas broilers (in which burgers are grilled vertically) that seal in the juices and drain out the fat, Louis Lunch is notable for its success story of a man and his meat against the forces of urban renewal. This is one historical monument where the kids won't get antsy.
Louis Lunch sits at 261-263 Crown St., the fourth location for the Lassen family, now in its fourth generation of ownership. As the story goes, Louis Lunch started in 1900 as a horse-drawn lunch wagon in which Lassen invented the hamburger from the ground trimmings from his steak sandwiches. He moved his wagon's regular location to another street corner in 1906, and then the maturing business moved into its own tiny, unassuming building in 1916.
In 1967, the fight started when the city wanted to build a medical facility on the lot where Louis Lunch stood. Kenneth Lassen, Louis' grandson, who now runs the place with his son Jeff, set out to save the luncheonette. His tactic: prove its historical significance.
His opponents, says Kenneth Lassen, contended that the burger was invented in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair. Lassen was out to prove grandpa was first. He blanketed the authorities with signed affidavits from second-generation friends and relatives stating that Louis Lassen was selling burgers and steak sandwiches in 1900.
Anyway, for whatever reasons, the Lassens won. In 1975, Louis' was lifted up and moved in one piece to its present location -- stools, high backed booths and all. And Kenneth Lassen, who grinds his own meat every day in the cellar, is still serving burgers (and only burgers) the way grandpa did: on white toast with onion or tomato or a little of each. No ketchup, no mustard, no relish in sight. All for $1.35. Grandpa Louis, watching from a framed photo on the wall, would be proud.