In an era of inventive food concepts and foodie culture, there’s still quite nothing like biting into a classic hamburger. The American staple is practically embedded into the fabric of our nation — although the modified German import (chopped cooked beef known as Frikadellen, later placed between two slices of white bread) — didn’t really catch on until after the Great Depression.
Following the World War, Americans began indulging their appetite for cars, and the two inventions collided, often on the side of the highway. Whether it was on family road trips down Route 66 or just a quick jaunt outside of the city, the roadside burger stand became just as synonymous with patriotism as it was pop culture. That was until a few of these roadside burger joints morphed into mega-franchise behemoths and the world was introduced to A&W, McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like.
In the Midwest, these roadside burger stands became famous for serving up their juicy hamburgers alongside creamy frozen custard — and really, is there a better pairing?
Though many of these iconic stands have disappeared into the bygone era, in Milwaukee the tradition of the roadside burger stand prevails. In fact, visitors to Cream City will find plenty of tasty options to indulge their nostalgia. Here are a few classic-style burger and frozen custard joints to try along the way.
Dairyland Old-Fashioned | 275 W. Wisconsin Avenue | 1037 W. Juneau Avenue
A new addition to the frozen custard and burger landscape, Dairyland Old Fashioned opened in 2020. The restaurant’s owners launched their old-fashioned burger and custard concept to “bring back the fond memories of the roadside burger stands we had growing up.” Now open in 3rd Street Market Hall, the food stand offers classic hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and a variety of specialty burgers, including “The Old Fashioned” and “The Whiz,” made with authentic Wisconsin cheese sauce. And if that’s not enough to satisfy your cravings for the good ol’ days, Dairyland also features housemade frozen custard — with a rotating flavor of the day. Many of their dairy and food items are sourced directly from America’s heartland.
Kopp’s Frozen Custard | 5373 N. Port Washington Road | 7631 W. Layton Avenue | 18880 W. Bluemound Road
The home of the jumbo burger has been serving up burgers and custard since it first opened its stand in 1950. The restaurant uses fresh patties topped with butter — and a full menu of hamburger options. While a classic hamburger topped with fried onions remains a popular pick, the restaurant has gained fans for its newest burger in 67 years: the KRK burger. Named for the custard guru, Karl Kopp, the burger features 12 layers of toppings on a toasted bun, including ketchup, mayo, fried onions, American cheese, bacon, and raw onions — and more cheese. It’s only appropriate here in Wisconsin.
Phone: (414) 961-3288
Shake Shack | 220 E. Buffalo Street
If you’re looking for a modern take on a traditional roadside burger, take a trip to the Historic Third Ward to the Shake Shack. This classic American success story started out as a small hot dog stand in New York City and evolved from a cart into a gourmet, fast-casual restaurant with locations all over the world — opening here in Milwaukee in 2017. While the fast-food chain serves up plenty of classic Angus burger options (and delectable milkshakes), it’s also home to fans with a broader burger palette: The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian choice topped with a generous, crisp-fried portobello mushroom “patty” heaped with muenster and cheddar; and it’s Bourbon Bacon Cheddar Burger, a white-cheddar cheeseburger drizzled in bourbon bacon jam, something many Wisconsinites can get behind.
Phone: (414) 509-1080
Culver’s | 575 W. Layton Avenue
The Wisconsin-bred burger chain spent years on any good Midwestern’s radar, but the homegrown fast-food restaurant has quickly gained a nation of fans after Culver’s graciously introduced its famous ButterBurgers to the masses. Burgers are cooked fresh to order and totally worth the wait. Though the restaurant rarely strays from its Sauk City supper club origins — always using 100% Midwest beef, Wisconsin cheeses, and toasted buttered buns — the Dairy State stays at the heart of the menu. Guests can call dibs on classic Midwestern fares, like “The Original'' and the “Wisconsin Swiss Melt,” or chomp on a Wisconsin Big Cheese Pub Burger with a cheddar cheese bun. There’s always more than enough to tamp your taste buds when a burger craving strikes.
Phone: (414) 489-7777