Nite Owl Drive-In
830 E. Layton Ave. Milwaukee WI 53207(map); 414-483-2524;
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Tiny, classic American joint that's been serving up deliciously greasy hand-pattied jumbo burgers since 1948
Want Fries With That? Crinkle fries were boring, but somehow that's ok in this atmosphere
Price: Jumbo cheeseburger, $3.85; Double jumbo bacon cheeseburger, $7.30; fries, $1.80; onion rings, $3.10
How has the Nite Owl Drive-In flown relatively under the radar of burgers lovers in Milwaukee for so long?
I have two theories for that. One being the odd hours. It is, in fact, closed more than it is open: It closes for winter and it's only open from 11 to whenever the burgers run out, usually around 6:15 (though it was just 6 during my visit). Second, there's nothing new or trendy about the place that would catch the eye of someone looking for the "hot new gourmet burger!"
And that is exactly what makes Nite Owl so, so good. This is the quintessential, blue-collar, American classic that your parents grew up with. It opened in 1948 right across from Mitchell airport, and I'd believe that not much has changed since then. There's faded photos and framed newspaper clippings all over—everything from Milwaukee Braves to politics (Hoover for President!). Sure, the name's a misnomer because they did end their car-hop service (and they're definitely not open late), but I can forgive them for that.
The focus of their concise menu is burgers, which they dub "jumbo," and they're not kidding. Lots of places claim they have jumbo burgers, but this is the first place where I was surprised when I lifted the wax paper-wrapped sandwich. Better still, it's not just about quantity: All the burgers are freshly hand pattied. They're coarse ground and packed loosely, so you get little bits and edges falling off that are beautifully crisp, and the cheese melts into nooks and cracks like a good ol' American cheese is supposed to.
The beef is cooked well done, and it's burgers like these that make me believe that well done is not something to be ashamed of. Sometimes, well-done is ok, and this is one of those rare times. They've been cooking burgers like this for longer than I've been alive, and that deserves some respect. There will not be any juice running down your arm, but the beef has just the right amount of flavorful grease to counteract the well-doneness. The buns are buttered, and if you add on their awesome fried onions and gooey cheese, the sandwich is far from dry. The aged, seasoned griddle imparts a deep caramelized flavor on the browned, crunchy bits on the edges of the patties.
If the single was jumbo enough, especially for the 1970s price of $3.85, you can imagine the sheer heft of the double. At least a pound of beef, this burger was a difficult one to eat with unruly patties and bottom bun that pretty much gave up, but I don't blame it. Each patty had two—possibly even three—slices of cheese, which really glued the components together. The bacon was on top of and in the middle of the two patties, about four slices total.
Both burgers were ordered with fried onions and pickles, which turned out to be the right decision. The fried onions were sliced thinly and were a mix of translucent and deep, dark, sweet, caramelized slices—some of the best fried onions I've had on a burger. Their richness permeated every bite, and the pickles helped cut through it all. The buns were standard white bread, but held up to the grease and cheese admirably.
Fries and onion rings were nothing special, but frankly, you don't come here for the sides anyway. The frozen crinkle cut fries were marginally better than the frozen onion rings, but only because the rings were undercooked to my liking. They're the kind of sides you want to slather in ketchup, but somehow they work when you consider the setting. If you'd rather save room for dessert, there's a number of ice cream sundaes, floats and shakes available, too.
Overall, I'm in love with this place. It's quirky and classic with some of the best burgers in the city. If you go, a few tips: They accept cash only; there is a small dining room and a walk-up take-out window with separate entrances; and to get your food, order at the counter, sit down (they will bring your food out), and then you pay whenever you're finished. Somehow they keep it straight who gets what check and what food, even when it's busy and there's people in and out constantly. And definitely be sure to get there well before 6 or you may be out of luck—and you really don't want to miss this place.