Connecticut has many reasons to celebrate National Hamburger Month – it's home to some of the most celebrated, iconic and unusual burgers in the country, including the restaurant recognized as the sandwich's inventor. Here are 10 noteworthy (and crave-worthy) Connecticut creations.
This list is not meant to be all-inclusive- would you add any more?
Though Louis Lassen's tiny
, has been widely credited with the invention of the hamburger in 1900, that didn't stop an ominous demolition threat in the 1970s, when the city wanted to turn the building into a high rise. But in 1975, Lassen's grandson, Ken, convinced officials to move the historic restaurant to its current location on Crown Street.
"We fought the city for survival for 10 years, plus. We came within a week of being torn down. But moving up here was probably one of the best things to happen to us, because of the location and the proximity to Yale," says Ken's son Jeff Lassen, the fourth-generation owner of his great-grandfather's business.
Louis Lassen is said to have invented the burger in 1900, when — to accommodate a rushed customer — he placed ground steak trimmings between two slices of bread. More than a century later, the burgers have remained the same, cooked on the original vertical cast-iron grills (stamped with "1898," the year they were made) and served on white toast.
Regulars know that the only "acceptable" burger toppings here are cheese, onion and tomato. Only the uninitiated will notice the lack of other condiments, and only the truly unaware will ask for them.
Jeff Lassen recognizes that the no-ketchup (or mustard, or mayonnaise) policy is unusual, but says it exists to showcase the quality of the meat. It is freshly ground daily, never frozen, he says.
Louis Lunch has been featured regularly on the
, and its legacy has been certified by the Library of Congress. This documentation is regularly referenced whenever the hamburger's birthplace is questioned.
"Number one, we're the only place that's still in business," Lassen says. "Number two, we can pretty much prove [our burger's origin] because of our [date-stamped] grills. Other places, basically all they have is a story."
>> 261-263 Crown St., New Haven. 203-562-5507, louislunch.com.
The Dramatic Presentation
burger, with its corona of fried cheese, is instantly recognizable. The cooks at this vintage Manchester diner create this classic by placing four slices of cheese atop the patty, extended so that the cheese melts and then crisps upon contact with the grill. (Some customers skip the burger altogether and just order plates of the brittle cheese.)
Last summer, the restaurant ran into a supply issue with its cheese, forcing the owners to look for another product. Customers weren't happy with the replacement, but Shady Glen worked quickly to remedy the problem. The issue is "long-since taken care of," says general manager Billy Hoch.
The unusual specialty, known as a "Bernice Original" after co-founder Bernice Reig, began when the dairy bar opened in 1948. Generations of customers have enjoyed it since. But every once in a while, the restaurant will still see some newbies, Hoch says.
"It's so much fun to see how they're going to decide to eat it," he says. "They just can't get the concept…they twirl the plate in a circle, and just look at it. Some take half the cheese off and save it, or fold the rest."
>>Two locations: 840 East Middle Turnpike, 860-649-4245; 360 West Middle Turnpike (Manchester Parkade), 860-643-0511.
The Regional Burger
The steamed cheeseburger is hyper-regional; it's hard to find it outside central Connecticut. Of the handful of places serving the specialty,
is the best-known, having been featured on the Travel Channel and the
. The original
restaurant opened in 1959; a Cromwell location debuted in March.
"By steaming the beef, you're really bringing out the taste of the meat," says Ted's Cromwell co-owner Christian Parisi.
Ted's burgers start with 5 ounces of ground beef, which are packed into small metal boxes and steam-cooked in a custom-made cabinet. Two-ounce blocks of cheese, steamed in a separate cabinet, come out molten and ready to pour over the patty. That's often the selling point for customers, Parisi says.
"We're giving you probably three times as much [cheese] as you're going to get on any other burger, and it's just falling all over the place. And that's what we're known by – the cheese takes over the whole sandwich."
>>1046 Broad St., Meriden. 203-237-6660; 43 Berlin Road (Route 372), Cromwell. 860-635-TEDS. tedsrestaurant.com.
The Eyebrow Raiser
, the burgers (beef, chicken, turkey, veggie, seafood) are served on sesame seed buns, brioche toast, potato rolls and…grilled cheese sandwiches.
The infamous Fatty Melt begins with 8 ounces of natural Niman Ranch Angus beef, which gets pressed between two grilled cheeses serving as a bun. The grilled cheeses are made with white bread and cheddar — one has bacon, the other has tomatoes.
"It's like a patty melt, but we took it one step further," says managing partner Douglas Kelly.
Max Burger, which opened in 2009, is the most recent addition to the local
empire. Kelly estimates that the casual eatery sells anywhere from 150 to 200 Fatty Melts each week, saying people gravitate to its decadence.
"It's not something you'll find [in] a lot of places," he says. "The idea of all the calories…it's got that notoriety. When people go out to a burger place, they know what they're getting themselves into."
>>124 Lasalle Road, West Hartford. 860-232-3300, maxburgerct.com.
The Seasonal Favorite
has been a summertime destination since 1920. It's only open seasonally – mid-March through the end of October.
"The one thing I hear over and over again is that when we open, it's like a sign of spring here in town," says manager John Garet, whose family has owned and operated Harry's since 1978.
Harry's flattop-cooked burgers start with beef from Noel's Grocery Store in Colchester, placed on freshly baked rolls from Nardi Bakery in
. Though the list of possible toppings is endless, Garet says Harry's signature burger has fried onions and salt and pepper.
With 91 years of business under its belt, Harry's is a "family tradition," says Garet. "You get a lot of generations. I hear all the time, 'I came here with my father, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, 60 years ago."
But no one is more dedicated to Harry's than one 96-year-old customer, who's been visiting the restaurant regularly since 1930. He brought his wife there on their first date, "in a Ford Model A," Garet says.
"As of a couple years ago, we gave him a lifetime pass," he says. "He eats here for free. We give him the VIP treatment."
>>104 Broadway St., Colchester. 860-537-2410, harrysplace.biz.
's loyal customers know that good things come in small packages. The casual-dining chain, with six locations across Connecticut, has become known for its adorable Bar Bites, sliders made with Black Angus beef. These babies are even the focus of the restaurant group's annual March "Munch Madness" event, scarfed by relay teams in a speed-eating contest.
"It's kind of simple. [They've] got mustard, cheese, pickles and beef. And those four things are awesome with a beer," says executive chef Bill Nemecek. "To have that in a bite-sized format, it's great. They're easy to share."
The popularity of the Bar Bites inspired other tiny spinoffs; the menu now has Turkey Bites (with cranberries and herb aioli) Bison Bites (bison meat topped with avocado aioli and onion strings) and Bar Chicks (miniature blackened chicken sandwiches with caramelized onions and chipotle sauce.)
Nemecek estimates that Wood-n-Tap has sold "hundreds of thousands" of the original Bites, a mainstay of the menu for eight years.
"Burgers, beers and friends," Nemecek says. "That's really what sells it all."
>> 99 Sisson Ave., Hartford. Other locations in Farmington,
The Neighborhood Joint
, the second of Manchester native Corey Wry's three town eateries, began as a casual hangout on Main Street in February 2008. But word of its fun atmosphere and unique eats spread, and the Food Network came calling in summer 2010. The restaurant was featured on the "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" program in February, as part of a "viewer's choice" segment.
Though the national exposure drew in out-of-towners, "we're still that [neighborhood] place," says partner Tyler Miller. "You'll see the same people in there every week, twice a week…we have a ton of repetitive business."
Among the most popular burgers: a red-hot number by the name of Oh Burger, You Devil, with a crushed red pepper-seared patty, jack cheese, jalapeno relish, bacon and sriracha mayonnaise.
The whimsical menu is changed up every three or four months, Miller says, crediting Wry's creativity. "He has a real knack for it, a talent…he just keeps coming up with clever stuff."
>>623 Main St., Manchester. 860-432-7755. catsupandmustard.com.
The Award Winner
Since the burger, beer and bourbon bar
opened its first restaurant in West Hartford in 2006, it's picked up consistent "Best Of Hartford" honors in the Hartford Advocate. Outposts in Glastonbury and
followed, and two more are planned for Milford and
later this year.
The burgers range from classic (lettuce, tomato, onion, special sauce) to fancy (topped with lobster, Gouda and corn spread) and all of the beef is cut and ground twice daily from fresh, "certified humane" whole chucks. That label ensures that the meat comes from animals that are raised in comfortable environments and given a nutritious diet free of hormones or antibiotics.
"It's a fundamental belief that…a low-stress life translates to quality," says Plan B owner Al Gamble. "That's what sets us apart; the difference is that freshness in the quality of the animal."
Though Plan B is serious about its food, its laid-back pub atmosphere is anything but staid.
"We just feel that you shouldn't have to be rich to eat quality food," he says. "And you shouldn't have to be confined to a stuffy environment. You should be able to have fun."
>>120 Hebron Ave., Glastonbury. 860- 430-9737; 4 Railroad St., Simsbury. 860-658-4477; 138 Park Road, West Hartford. 860- 231-1199. planbburger.com.
The Readers' Choice
asking them to share their favorite local burger spots yielded
name again and again – to the delight of owner Matt Crowley.
"We have more of a cult following than a [popular] following," he says. "A lot of people know about us, and we're really busy, but it's a well-kept secret, I think. And I sort of like that."
GoldBurgers opened in March 2009, serving a lineup of distinctive burgers, sandwiches and sides. Its signature eponymous burger has two beef patties, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, special sauce and potato chips, for texture.
"For the record, we opened before Bobby [Flay]," Crowley jokes, referencing the chip-topped "Crunchburger" served at the celebrity chef's burger joint at Mohegan Sun, Bobby's Burger Palace.
The beef burgers are made with a blend of select-cut meats, ground fresh daily at the
"There's no chuck in our burgers; it's basically a sirloin burger," Crowley say. "It's a little bit more expensive, but the difference is in the quality, and I think the customer can see that."
Many of the burgers have stories behind them: the "Schogger," with beef, chicken and sausage patties and a hot dog piled onto one roll, is inspired by Crowley's brother, who once worked a hot-dog cart in Hartford's Goodwin Park. "The Boss" (two beef patties with cheddar cheese sauce, jalapenos, spicy mustard and pepper jack cheese) honors a friend's father's nickname. "He's been known to man a mean grill," Crowley says.
>>1096 Main St., Newington. 860-665-0478.
How hungry are you? Could you eat 12 pounds of hamburger meat, toppings and sides in three hours' time, by yourself?
If you're the type that doesn't shy away from a challenge,
belly-buster awaits. The colossal burger starts with a 1-pound roll and a 5-pound beef patty, topped next with 1 pound of bacon, one pound of American cheese, one pound of frizzled onions, a whole head of lettuce, one sliced tomato and a half-cup of barbecue sauce. On the side: 2 pounds of fries.
To win, you — just you — have to take down the burger and all its ingredients in the allotted time. Prizes include a $100 Black Bear gift card, your picture and completion time on the restaurant's "Wall of Fame" and an extra-large "Grizzly Challenge" T-shirt, something you'll likely need after that much food.
Of the hundred or so people that have attempted Black Bear Saloon's Grizzly Burger Challenge, only one has succeeded, managers say. If you're feeling competitive, call first – the restaurants need 24 hours' advance notice to build the behemoth.
>>187 Allyn St., Hartford. Other locations in
>>Don't see your favorite burger here? Like our Features Buzz Facebook page and tell us about the beef you love to bite. Go to facebook.com/courantfeatures.