How the Burger Became An American Bar Icon

How did the hamburger brand itself as both a symbol of good, clean American fun and beer-soaked bar crawls? Regan Hofmann on the evolution of the burger's more debauched half.

No one can agree on the identity of the first person to take a ground beef patty, fry it up and stick it between two pieces of bread. Like the discovery of the DNA double helix or the invention of the airplane, it was most likely a case of spontaneous generation—the idea springing forth, fully formed, from the brains of cooks across the country like so many beefy Minervas, around the end of the 19th century.

It was inevitable: Beef as a commodity was gaining popularity and widespread distribution—thanks to Chicago and the birth of the industrial meat market—and ground beef was the poor man’s entry point to the world of bovine delights. Urbanization was fitting people to a scheduled, standardized nine-to-five mold, transforming what had once been the largest meal of the day into the lunch break as we know it today. And the hamburger steak, a fried beef-and onion patty eaten on its own with knife and fork (often known now as a Salisbury steak), had arrived on a wave of German immigration and was sweeping the nation alongside its elongated brother, the frankfurter.

Today, the hamburger’s reputation lives between two very different worlds: fast-food comfort— the Ronald McDonald dream that pairs burgers, apple pie and baseball in a holy trinity of good clean American fun—and the late-night, beer-sodden tavern, where a greasy burger is just the ticket to soak up the suds after a few too many rounds. Equally iconic, the two are almost diametrically opposed. How did this happen?

Though we don’t know who to thank for the hamburger’s first hand-held flight, there are two clear culprits in the case of its split personality: the Germans and Prohibition.

Who better to understand the pairing of meat and lager than the Oktoberfesting, biergartening Germans? Between 1820 and 1910, nearly 5.5 million German immigrants landed in North America. With them they brought the Christmas tree, a love of grilled meats and a peculiarly light lager that was cheaper and easier to produce and store than English-style ales.

As servicemen and women returned from the war, bars and taverns were fully revived, but they didn’t quite lose the illicit mark left by temperance organizations like the Anti-Saloon league. Drinking became strictly an evening activity, a small indulgence earned after the responsibilities of the day were over. Loyal as ever, the hamburger was still there, in many places being made on the very same flattop grills installed for the lunch crowd decades before. And while the shifted schedule may have taken the beer and burger underground for a few years, it didn’t make them any less beloved.

Schaefer beer, first produced by a pair of Prussian brothers in New York City in 1842, ushered in the era of German-style light, low-ABV American brews that quickly took over the market and persist to this day. In 1872, the New York Times painted a new beer-clanking, hamburger-eating scene in a story about cheap lunches that lauded German restaurants: “Boys bear lager in foaming glasses” to customers of all backgrounds who lunch on lentil soup, smoked sausage and “Hamburger steak, which is simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mince-meat and then formed into a conglomerated mass.”

Once in its bread-based carrying case, the hamburger steak became a lunchtime powerhouse, a quick and easy protein-packed gut bomb that sold for a reasonable nickel. It was readily available at lunch counters, diners and neighborhood restaurants that all bore a suspicious resemblance to the colonial tavern, with its mugs of beer and lively conversation among working men. The question, it turns out, is not how the hamburger got into bars: for centuries in the U.S., everything was a bar.

But as the temperance movement gained steam and led, ultimately, to Prohibition, the beer hall went from wholesome Jeffersonian tradition to scourge of a nation. At the start of World War I, temperance propaganda used the German connection to beer to brand drinking as unpatriotic. As the tavern was wiped out, the hamburger was led down the fast-food path, with its economical ingredients and universal appeal helping it to withstand the Depression and lean times of World War II.

As servicemen and women returned from the war, bars and taverns were fully revived, but they didn’t quite lose the illicit mark left by temperance organizations like the Anti-Saloon league. Drinking became strictly an evening activity, a small indulgence earned after the responsibilities of the day were over. Loyal as ever, the hamburger was still there, in many places being made on the very same flattop grills installed for the lunch crowd decades before. And while the shifted schedule may have taken the beer and burger underground for a few years, it didn’t make them any less beloved. Claiming “best burger” status for your neighborhood bar was a way of claiming membership in a community, just as in the original taverns.

Restaurants caught on, too. As fine dining mores shifted from classic French cuisine to modern American, the burger left its fast-food confines and headed for the tablecloths. To make the iconic sandwich their own, ambitious chefs swapped in new, creative condiments, buns, even patties. By the 1990s, the burger had become so decked out that it was necessary to distinguish the “pub burger” as its own distinct style, typified by a no-frills presentation (no truffled fries or kobe short rib blend here) and a generous portion size. Today, as a burger-eating society, it’s this pared-down version of the burger that we’ve swung back around to embrace.

So, was the gluten-bearing genius who invented the hamburger Louis Lassen, at his (still operational, still family-owned) lunch counter in Connecticut? Or was it created at a Wisconsin state fair, at the hands of one “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen? Or do we have Texan Fletcher Davis at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis to thank? It was all of them and still other, nameless innovators lost to the ages; the urge to pick up our food and take it with us is uniquely, universally American. Left alone with the component parts, each one of us would have invented the hamburger, too. And we would have washed it down with a beer.