The Battle of the Big Boys

Between two incarnations of the iconic Big Boy Burger, which one prevails?

Photo by Tom Grimm

Those of us of a certain, ahem, age, may remember sliding into the booths at Big Boy restaurant and throwing waistline caution to the wind for a double-decker Big Boy Burger. When I was a small fry, my family frequented one of the Marcus Corp.-owned franchises in Milwaukee, and that burger was certifiably and deservedly famous.

A certain commercial jingle celebrates a different iconic burger, but while McDonald’s debuted the Big Mac in the 1960s, Big Boy was making more or less the same thing back in the ’30s. Big Boy restaurants in Wisconsin eventually died out, but the namesake burger never did, as local establishments have offered their renditions of the classic. One of them is Aria at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel, owned by none other than Marcus Corp.

And this summer, the Big Boy returned in earnest when the owners of Jerry’s Old Town opened the first Wisconsin Big Boy restaurant in 26 years, in Germantown. Naturally we wondered, if placed in head-to-head combat, which of the double-patty creations would prevail. Boys, commence fighting.

Wisconsin Big Boy ($9) 

Specs: 2 thin meat patties, 3 sesame seed buns, shredded iceberg lettuce, slice of American cheese , Big Boy Sauce

Impression: The components are nearly identical to Aria’s, and yet how different the execution. Served lukewarm, its slice of cheese still solid, this burger is dry – despite the generously applied Big Boy Sauce – and devoid of beef flavor. The lettuce lacks crunch. The saddest part is the sauce, which relies so much on pickle relish, it dominates the entire thing, and not in a good way. Where have you gone, Big Boy?

Verdict: Flat-lined


Aria’s Classic Big Boy ($16) 

Specs: 2 smash beef patties. 3 sesame seed buns, shredded iceberg lettuce, slice of American cheese, Big Boy Sauce (mayo, ketchup and pickle relish)

Impression: Pretty simple, this combination, but it’s a delicate balance. The patties, while not juicy, appear to be hand-formed, with a char-grilled flavor that mingles well with the fluffy toasted buns. The creamy, melted American, crisp lettuce and tangy-sweet sauce hit the right topping notes. This slightly elevated take on the original doesn’t soar like it used to. It also seems to have shrunk a little. But it’s still tasty

Verdict: Goes the distance


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.