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In Dining Reviews

In a community known for frozen custard, Nite Owl offers old-fashioned ice cream. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska )

In Dining Reviews

Local legend says that Elvis once enjoyed a burger here -- his last meal in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska )

Burgers, ice cream and history make Nite Owl special


If there's another food item aside from beer, bratwurst and cheese that is truly indigenous to Milwaukee, it has to be frozen custard. Visitors and locals will often find themselves, side by side, gobbling down a dish of flavor of the day and a pre-made hamburger patty deliciously sandwiched in a buttery bun.

But, while frozen custard offerings are plentiful, old-fashioned ice cream and hand-formed burgers are still something of a rarity in the area.

Yet, right under our noses, The Nite Owl Drive-In, 830 E. Layton Ave., is a classic ice cream parlor and burger joint that has been serving up fine food and thick, juicy burgers for more than 62 years.

In fact, according to folklore, Elvis may have eaten his last Milwaukee meal at the drive-in (although a conflicting source says he merely intended to sink his teeth into one of the Nite Owl's great burgers, but never quite made it).

Legends and history aside, the Nite Owl brings its own breed of burger to the table.

Diners can walk up to the enclosed counter and order from a menu where $5 will buy you just about anything: jumbo burgers, jumbo cheeseburgers, fish sandwiches, hot dogs, steak sandwiches, French fries and onion rings. Tack on a few extra dollars for a double sandwich if you dare. I could hardly work my way through the jumbo cheeseburger and I hadn't eaten all day.

The parking lot is filled with counter customers happily chowing down in their vehicles (the Nite Owl no longer provides car hops), and a tiny dining room with a separate entrance was also packed at 6:15 on a Tuesday evening.

Closing hours at Nite Owl are somewhat sporadic, as the sign on the window states that they close some time around 6:30 p.m. -- so plan ahead to get there by 6:15 p.m. or so.

On our visit, we were the last to be served for the evening at 6:15, and got to take in the nostalgia that makes up the dining room. Old Coca Cola memorabilia and a black and white checkered laminate floor were joined with a sign from Cheaters Car Club, an apropos fan of the Nite Owl, given the genre of the drive-in.

Besides the throwback love that comes with just driving in here and wishing you were wearing a poodle skirt and bobby socks, or a deep leather jacket with your hair slicked back, what I adored about the Nite Owl was the thickness and irregularity of the burger.

Irregular in that this was not your typical burger-press created patty. It was thick, juicy and imperfect in the most perfect of ways. Mouth-watering, with a slightly dry bun, and just enough cheese to give it extra flavor without drowning out the meat, this is one of my new favorite burgers in Milwaukee and I'm shaking my head that it took me this long to discover it.

With your burger or other sandwich, don't forget to nab an old-fashioned malt or float. The latter comes in fun flavors like lime or cherry in addition to the expected root beer version, and for me there's little better than a float made with real ice cream, especially after a juicy burger and some crisp, semi-greasy onion rings.


Talkbacks

cayliffe | May 27, 2010 at 5:02 p.m. (report)

I love most all the suggestions made by onmilwaukee.com. But this place is awful. The burger had no salt and no flavor yet left me with a metalicky taste, the fries were frozen crinkle cuts, the chocolate shake was flavorless. The burger was sopping in greasy onions. The young teenage girls who served us from the counter were curt and not at all in the mood at all to talk about the interesting history of the place. and no one would get a t-shirt for me to look at, from the basement unless I was going to buy it. I passed on that and you should too. The vibe of the place was "tired indifference". Pass on this place and instead get a burger, a beer and a view at The Milwaukee Alehouse (or any other place but this one).

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duhawk05 | May 24, 2010 at 12:00 p.m. (report)

Superman shake! Oh yeah! Deeeeeelicious!

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sijan_heights | May 18, 2010 at 9:10 a.m. (report)

Great food and great people. I do wish they were open later, but really, I'm grateful. I don't need to be eating that "treat your self" kind of food after 6:30 anyway.

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preppiecurler | May 17, 2010 at 9:57 p.m. (report)

This was one of the first places I checked out when I moved here years ago. It never fails to disappoint and service is always pleasant. It was recently featured this past spring as commerical bump on Adult Swim.

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RZRBKS | May 17, 2010 at 9:13 p.m. (report)

Nite Owl is the best kept secret on the South Side of Milwaukee. Growing up by the airport, this was THE PLACE for Burgers, Fries, Malts, and Ice Cream. 40 years later it is still the best. I have no problem driving from Waukesha County down to Lenox & Layton for a step into Food Heaven. Milwaukee doesn't know what they have in this hidden treasure.

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