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.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.