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Little has changed in the Nite Owl drive-in’s 70 years, including what it does best: Burgers.

This year’s weirdly inclement spring made things feel seasonally, even cosmically, unbalanced. But I’ll tell you what set things right: the reopening of that South Side burger refuge-from-all-that-ails, Nite Owl. Its return is so welcome that each day the place is mobbed and owner Chris Roepke can make only one guarantee – that they open at 11 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday and close when “we run out of meat,” he says. That could be mid-afternoon, making the business’ name, well, ironic.

Die-hards get it, while others just don’t understand why Nite Owl can’t stick to consistent hours. Roepke follows the rubric his grandfather started when he christened the place back in 1948. Chris’ father, John, 78, started cooking there in 1956 and is still doing it.

Each morning the Nite Owl receives a delivery of 250 pounds of ground beef. The beef is formed into patties by hand. Each patty is cooked to order, and if you’re a customer at the walk-up window, the clerk writes it down on a pad of paper and tells you to pay when it’s ready. Chris thinks the old-school ways are part of the reason the restaurant still thrives, 70 years after it opened. The vintage red and green sign sits on the building’s roof, making the modern Hondas and Harleys around it in the parking lot look out of place.

“It is a labor of love,” says Chris. “We normally sell out every day till mid-September.”

Folks who want their food ready for mobile consumption make up most of the business, says the owner. But the small dining room – checkerboard floor, booths, chrome chairs – has a nostalgic charm.

The menu is tasty, classic, throwback drive-in fare – hot dogs, grilled cheese, fish sandwich, chicken strips, shakes, malts, floats and sundaes.

The fish sandwich is a warm fast-food memory for me. Nite Owl’s version ($5), which adds American cheese, leads me to think nostalgia sweetened that remembrance. The bun holds two rectangle-shaped fish patties, tender but pedestrian.


Nite Owl

830 E. Layton Ave.
414-483-2524

HOURS:

Tues-Sat, 11 a.m. until sold out. Cash only.

PRICES:

$3-$10

SERVICE:

Friendly. There will be a wait at the walk-up counter.


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Photo by Chris Kessler

The burger here clearly outshines the other sandwiches. These are filling, generous halfinch patties cooked through, but not dry (get a double for $7!). Three slices of melted American is how they crown a single cheeseburger. Not my fave, but if you love American cheese, this will rock your world. The crinkle-cut fries are soft-crisp ($2), a better choice than the flaccid onion rings ($3.50).

Ice cream is obligatory, whether it’s a thick, smooth chocolate malt or a sundae such as the Dusty Road ($4.75), whose combo of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, crispy malt powder and whipped cream tastes like a Kit Kat. So good. And that’s not nostalgia talking.

Visits to Nite Owl require patience (you might wait 30 minutes for a carryout, making it a very slow take on fast food) and flexibility (come early!), but you will be rewarded.

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“Nite Time” appears in the June 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 28th, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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