Columnist: The legend of Louis’ Lunch

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2016

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For anyone affiliated with the University of Georgia, there is the awareness of the institution’s close ties with Yale, historically. UGA’s founding fathers were Yale men, and both schools have the same mascot — the bulldog, although Georgia did not adopt the bulldog because Yale had done so.

That is a misconception, even among Georgia partisans. Same with some Eli aficionados. At dinner in New York recently with Calvin Hill, the Cowboy running back, who played collegiately at Yale, remarked, “I know all about your alma mater’s ties with my alma mater and that you chose the bulldog to be your mascot because of Yale’s mascot.”

He seemed unsure of my disclaimer that a sportswriter gets credit for the nickname because of writing about a Georgia team’s “Bulldog tenacity.”

It is fun to come here and browse Yale’s fabled Ivy League campus. Getting a table at Mory’s and humming the Whiffenpoofs’ song with images of Mitch Miller’s orchestra, in your mind’s eye, links you with a storied tradition that is rich and classic.

This trip, however, there was a mission to enjoy lunch at another landmark eatery, which dates back to the era of Walter Camp, often considered the “father of American football,” a legend whose name has been perpetuated with an annual award which goes to the “Football Player of the Year.”

At Louis’ Lunch on Crown street, you can order a meal garnished by history. This is where America’s first hamburger was served.

In conducting research for a book on college football tailgating, I bumped into the legend of Louis’ Lunch. That led to a commitment to find my way to New Haven and order lunch at New Haven’s most famous place to dine out.

According to legend, sometime during the year in 1900, “a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for quick meal that he could eat on the run.” The founder of the restaurant was named Louis Lassen, who instantly slapped a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread, and America had its first hamburger.

Louis Lassen’s great-grandson, Jeff, runs Louis’ Lunch today with little change having come about since that first hamburger was served. The charming brick building, which was established in 1895, was moved from another location and then its present site which is as much a part of the city’s landscape as the New Haven Green and the Five Mile Point Lighthouse.

If you venture here, don’t be shocked if you can’t find any mustard, mayonnaise or ketchup on the premises. You only can only order tomato or onion to accompany your burger. A neatly crafted sign on the wall informs you that, “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way or you don’t get the damn thing.”

Jeff uncompromisingly notes that if you are a real connoisseur of hamburger meat, you dare not mess with the flavor by adding ketchup or mustard. God forbid, mayonnaise.

Tea — or tee if you prefer Louis’ spelling — is as big with patrons here as it would be in Valdosta, Calhoun or Waycross. You can order iced tee, peech tee, diet peech tee, razz tee or pink-lemon-ade. Then there is root beer, birch beer, diet birch beer, Pepsi and Poland Springs water.

Bring cash when you come. Waving a credit card in Jeff’s direction would be as big of an insult as asking for ketchup for your hamburger. Louis’ Lunch seats 29.

There are winged booths where initials have been carved by patrons for well over a century. The lettering is embedded into the woodwork and varnished over, giving it a charm that is everlasting.

Wonder if Albie Booth — the Yale back with All America credentials, but who was shut out in the dedicatory game in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium in 1929 — carved his initials here, linked with a young lady who yelled sis-boom-bah cheers at the Yale Bowl on Saturday afternoons in a day when a horse and buggy was still in style.

The proprietor cuts and grinds Louis’ meat every day. Hamburgers are cooked in “upright boilers,” which date back to 1898. Jeff can cook nine hamburgers at a time. Everything is efficient and orderly in the cozy and attractive building, a well known and highly regarded landmark in New Haven that seems headed for survival into the next generation — and beyond.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.