In the mid 1800s, the hamburger steak, invented by the people of that German city, immigrated to America. It was simply a hunk of cooked ground beef. Then, in 1900, culinary history was made. In New Haven, Conn., Louis Lassen, a Danish immigrant, placed a slice of toast on either side of the meat and called it a hamburger sandwich.
That legendary moment took place in Louis’ Lunch, a tiny restaurant on wheels. Sixteen years later, Lassen moved his restaurant into permanent quarters—a 12′ by 18′ building in the heart of downtown New Haven. Louis’ hamburger joint became an institution. There are even some younger Yalies who mistakenly believe it belonged to the Louis of the university’s Whiffenpoof song, which goes, “To the tables down at Mory’s, to the place where Louis dwells…” (That Louis, however, was the steward at Mory’s.)
Now, alas, after a 10-year battle, “the place where Louis dwells” is no longer where it used to be. Last month Louis’ Lunch was uprooted and relocated on a vacant lot three blocks away.
In 1965, Kenneth Lassen, grandson of the founder, was told by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency that Louis’ would have to make way for a new $6.5 million medical center. Lassen, who has worked at the restaurant since he was 4, did not give in easily. “You’d think the city would be proud of Louis’,” he lamented. “But I guess they figured it’s better to have the higher rents. You might say they sold history for cash.” He fought the city through rallies, petitions and court hearings.
When Lassen, 57, decided he couldn’t win, he resigned himself to closing the doors of Louis’ Lunch forever. Then some customers came up with an eleventh-hour solution: the nearby piece of ground. Lassen blew his life savings on it. And so, soon after, Louis’ Lunch was inched on a trailer through the streets of New Haven to its new location. “I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather and what he’d say if he could see this,” said Lassen happily. “I’m leaving my kids history, tradition, and maybe a mortgage.”