In search of...the first All-American burger

Louis' Lunch has grilled burgers for 110 years and still they can't get enough

"Choose employees for the window operation who make a good appearance, have an immediately likeable personality and are fast with their movements." So instructs a McDonald's operations manual on display at the Hamburger University in a suburb of Chicago. This year, the company celebrates half a century since the first franchised McDonald's opened, down the road at Des Plaines. But compared with the place where a fast food revolution began, the Big Mac is a newcomer.

"Choose employees for the window operation who make a good appearance, have an immediately likeable personality and are fast with their movements." So instructs a McDonald's operations manual on display at the Hamburger University in a suburb of Chicago. This year, the company celebrates half a century since the first franchised McDonald's opened, down the road at Des Plaines. But compared with the place where a fast food revolution began, the Big Mac is a newcomer.

Louis' Lunch has been going for 110 years. And even though most of the customers are from an even more respected academic institution, nearby Yale University, there is no operations manual - just four generations of experience in a family-run restaurant.

The location: a single-storey shack in New Haven's Crown Street - a shabby backstreet of Connecticut's finest town, well away from ivy-clad college buildings. The innovation: placing a grilled hamburger between pieces of bread so it could be eaten on the run.

"Janitors to presidents", is how Jeff Lassen describes his customers. He is the great-grandson of the founder of Louis' Lunch, the man who first devised the takeaway burger. Even on a supercool Tuesday in January, the kitchen and dining area of his cramped premises are hyperactive, and a queue of students stretches out of the rickety old door and halfway down the street.

The only dish to order: the "cheese works", a five-ounce burger of prime steak, flame-grilled in a 19th-century gas broiler and plainly dressed with tomato, onion and cheese. In a busy lunch hour, you could wait half-an-hour for your turn. But while waiting, you can enjoy a kitchen-sink drama set amid culinary antiques.

Louis' is more than a place to get a tasty, nutritious lunch: it is also a working museum. Some of the hardware, such as the grinder that minces the prime steak, has been in operation since Louis' Lunch opened in 1895. The ovens, which cook 27 burgers at a time, are gas-fired, because in New Haven mains gas preceded mains electricity.

In the 1970s, the city authorities apparently wanted to tear down the modest brick building to construct something more useful. Fortunately for the customers, the Lassen family fought closure and the place is now a tourist attraction - and firmly on the East Coast foodie circuit. People travel from all over the US to try the original burger-in-a-bun (actually white, sliced bread), and one hungry former academic even returned from Milan for a "cheese works".

"Staying small, staying simple" is the basic business plan, says Jeff Lassen. He has had dozens of offers to franchise Louis' Lunch, but has turned them all down rather than compromise the quality of the "cheese works". And he even takes time from broiling burgers to offer McDonald's some business advice: "They've gotten a little bit too big. They should go back to doing less things." Because, as they say at Louis' Lunch, "It's our way or no way - that's basically the way it is."

Louis' Lunch, 261-263 Crown Street, New Haven, Connecticut, www.louislunch.com

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