“You’ve got to check out Louis’ Lunch,” my friend Adam said. “They’ve got the worst food in Gainesville.”
Adam’s advice is usually sane, so I took the bait. “And why would that make me want to check it out?”
“Well, you don’t go there for the food. You go for the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s been there for eighty years – they haven’t changed a thing since they opened. And they’re closing next month, so you’ve got to hurry.”
He was right: I had to go. And my husband, Glenn, knew it.
“So…what makes it the worst food in Gainesville?” he asked with trepidation.
“It’s just greasy-spoon diner food,” Adam said. “Their shakes and malts are good. But their burgers are weird. Hang on —“ Adam fiddled with his iPhone, “—here’s the article from the Sun: ‘After serving its unique hamburgers in downtown Gainesville for 82 years, Louis’ Lunch is closing around the first week of November.’ ‘Unique.’ That’s a good way of putting it.”
This settled it: We were going. I had to find out exactly what made those burgers, um, unique. And check out some old-timey architecture and restaurant design.
The drive to Louis’ Lunch was itself a trip through time. The place was only ten minutes from home, on a narrow side street a block away from the sprawling complex of the regional utility company – but the street itself was paved with cobblestones. Not “ooh look, we’re gentrifying an old part of town by making it all cute and quaint!” cobblestones. These were “well, nobody’s ever complained about the condition of Southeast Second Street” cobblestones. God knows no one in living memory had made the slightest effort to gentrify the area.
Inside the faded false-fronted building, Louis’ Lunch buzzed with what looked like a typical lunchtime crowd. A party of three slipped out from a table in the back corner of the room, and we grabbed it. It was dented and sticky, as were the squeeze bottles of ketchup and hot sauce and the empty napkin dispenser that graced it.
Then we waited. And waited. We read the yellowed newspaper clippings taped onto the walls surrounding our table. We watched a pair of old men at the counter paging through a coverless yearbook that had “GHS 1966” scrawled on its blank top page with a thick black marker. Then we marveled at the poor dude in a green pick-up at the drive-through window, who had been idling there for at least twenty minutes.
We suddenly became visible to the older of the two waitresses, who took our order. They were out of both malts and Coke, so Glenn ordered sweet tea and I ordered ice water. We also ordered a couple of burgers and two orders of fries.
While we waited (and waited and waited), I gazed out the window at the cobblestone-lined street shaded by mature oaks. I really wanted to like this place. There was only one cook – a skinny, slow older man –working the two well-seasoned cast-iron pots on the restaurant’s single stove, and the place was no doubt busier than usual with people coming by to pay their last respects. So I knew not to expect Five Guys levels of efficiency.
“It’s a shame this place is shutting down,” I said. “You’d think that with the utility company right over there, they’d have had a steady lunch crowd.”
“Yeah, but I doubt those guys get two-hour lunch breaks,” Glenn said.
Some time later, my ice water arrived. Only forty-five minutes after we did.
“HEY! We’re about to run out of ice!” the older of the two waitresses yelled.
“Well, go get some more!” yelled the old guy behind the stove.
“Go get some ice!” she yelled at the second waitress, who looked to be in her twenties.
And she did. In the middle of lunch service. Waitress #2 took off her apron, grabbed some cash from a money pouch, and headed out the door. I pictured her flagging down an ice man in a horse-drawn carriage and procuring a big block of hand-sawed frozen lake water to haul back to the restaurant. This wouldn’t make any less sense than a twenty-first century restaurant without its own ice machine.
This left Waitress #1 to handle the entire restaurant, which now held close to thirty diners. I noticed that almost none of the people who were already seated when we arrived had gotten their food yet. But nobody seemed to mind. When you’re stuck in a time warp, there’s no point in rushing.
Glenn’s sweet tea landed on our table with a triumphant thump! about five minutes after Server #2 returned with the ice. About ten minutes later, we got our fries: two tiny cardboard trays filled with respectable-enough crinkle fries. The orders were tiny: the number of fries in each tray barely grazed the double digits. Shortly after – by this time, I had fallen into a Zen-like state of acceptance of this weird place and had stopped thinking about how long we’d been sitting there – our burgers arrived, wrapped in wax paper. Plates and cutlery were unheard of here.
Even wrapped in multiple layers of paper, the burgers looked small. They were even smaller when we unwrapped them. The tiny patty, about four inches across, was microscopically thin – so much so that it was a wonder it held together.
I bit into it. There was the familiar squish of a cold industrial white bun, the mild crunch of shredded lettuce, the juicy tang of pickles and a thin tomato slice – and then things got strange.
Something else in there was crunchy, in an unexpected way. I took another bite: it was the burger itself – it had been fried so hard that it had a crisp crust. More precisely, the burger was equal parts crunchy crust and weird, starchy squishiness. Maybe there were mashed potatoes mixed into the burger – the crunchiness reminded me of that of well-made hash browns. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was just – weird. Just as Adam had said.
By time we got those burgers, we’d been waiting close to an hour-and-a-half, and we were ravenous. We demolished those strange, tiny things in five minutes flat. Then I was taken by an overwhelming urge to stop by Five Guys on the way home.
Normally, this kind of place sends me into fits of rage. Places like this tempt me to post angry screeds on Chowhound and Yelp and warn all near and dear to stay away at all costs. But somehow, I just couldn’t stay mad at Louis’ Lunch. My being there really wasn’t about lunch, after all. It was about going back in time – and as every science fiction fan knows, the first rule of recreational time travel is that visitors to the past are forbidden to change a thing.
After lunch (total elapsed time: one hour and forty-five minutes), I couldn’t stop thinking about that strange hamburger. What was in it? What was its appeal? Louis’ Lunch had been serving them for eighty-two years, so obviously, enough people have liked them over the years to keep the place going. A quick Web search revealed that fans praised them as “crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside,” while detractors noted the grime and slow service and were too polite to say much of anything else.
Then it occurred to me that the decor of the place wasn’t the only thing about Louis’ Lunch that recalled an earlier era. The food did, too. The tiny portion sizes harkened back to a time before it was socially acceptable to scarf a gallon bucket of fries in a single sitting. The little hamburgers were about the size of a regular – not quarter pound – McDonald’s burger – which once upon a time, was Mickey D’s flagship product rather than the bargain loss-leader it is now.
And what of the burgers themselves? According to the Gainesville Sun’s charming obituary of the place, the hamburgers at Louis’ Lunch are based on founder Louis Pennisi’s mother’s meatball recipe – this would confirm my suspicion that some kind of filler was involved. Other web postings, whose reliability I cannot confirm, claim they’re made from equal parts beef, pork, and breadcrumbs, along with a secret mix of spices (none of which I could taste the day I ate there). The crumbs would explain that unusual crunchy crust – the burgers were, in effect, breaded and fried.
From their very inception in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century – exactly when and where is a matter of debate – hamburgers as most people think of them (ground beef patties served between bread or buns) were intended to be snacky fast food. One hamburger genesis story credits their invention to a Wisconsin youth selling meatballs at a fair: he decided to flatten the meatballs and put them between bread to improve their portability. His new, portable meatball sandwich was a hit. Another story claims they were invented by a cook trying to find a use for beef scraps at his New Haven, Connecticut restaurant (coincidentally called Louis’ Lunch, and unrelated to the one in Gainesville). In almost all hamburger creation stories, burgers were designed to speed up meals or to use up less-than-optimal meat. In no case were early burgers designed to highlight Kobe beef or foie gras or organic grass-fed Angus sirloin. Early hamburgers were seen by some in polite society as unwholesome and dangerous, for good reason.
But for some early burger vendors and fans, even the ground-up leavings used for hamburgers were too dear. Creative cash-strapped cooks stretched their burger meat with potatoes, onions, or other cheap and readily available ingredients. Sometimes, these mongrel burgers developed an identity and following of their own: for instance, deep-fried cornmeal- or potato-enriched Slugburgers (‘slug’ referring to an old slang term for nickels, not the squishy mollusk) merit an annual festival in Corinth, Mississippi. (In a nod to modernity, the Slugburger filler of choice is now soy protein.) Louis’ Lunch burgers, whatever they have in them, fall clearly into this category.
And this makes perfect historical sense. Louis’ opened in 1928, the year before the Great Depression hit. To stay open in its early years, it must have had to cater to customers with thin wallets and a hunger for comfort. Bread-thickened burgers, just big enough to provide texture and a little flavor to a modest little sandwich, filled this need perfectly.
Louis’ Lunch burgers represent the exact opposite of everything modern food lovers believe burgers should be. They’re not thick. Nor meaty. Nor are they pure and juicy with the essence of beef (nor the essence of any other identifiable ingredient, for that matter). Their very existence is a radical rebuke to modern culinary sensibilities – which is both the most intriguing and the most ghastly thing about them.
I don’t think I’ll ever want to eat one of those things again. But the very fact of their continued existence (for the next couple of weeks, at least) warms my heart: for at least part of the early twenty-first century, it was possible to hold and taste the forgotten values and expectations of a long-vanished time.