Special thanks to Lucie Paulsen and Tracy Hawkes for their contributions to this article!
There are many restaurants, cafes, diners and dives throughout the history of North Omaha. However, only one has stood strong at North 16th and Grand Avenue for almost 80 years. This is a history of the Nite Hawkes Cafe in East Omaha.
Before the Nite
After growing up in Illinois to English immigrant parents, Dan Hawkes Sr. (1886-1961) moved across the middle of the country to Colorado, Iowa, and then to Omaha. His uncle George Hawkes owned a restaurant called the Douglas Lunch at 17th and Douglas in downtown Omaha from around 1915 through the 1930s. Dan Hawkes served in World War I.
After the war though, Dan Sr. ran a pool hall at 17th and Douglas in the 1920s and 30s, in the same building as his uncle George’s restaurant. Dan Sr. was arrested more than once for selling alcohol during Prohibition. It was 1942 when he and his wife Alice (1908-1957) opened their cafe at 4825 North 16th Street.
Opening a Neighborhood Icon
The original two-story building on the southeast corner of North 16th and Grand Avenue featured a storefront on the first floor with an apartment above, and was originally home to a grocery store. The new restaurant was called the Nite Hawkes Cafe, and it has operated continuously at the same address since then.
After World War II, this stretch of North 16th Street was filled with businesses serving the working class families who lived along the way. Streetcar service would drop customers off outside the cafe, and the truck farms nearby had day workers who came into the diner for breakfast and lunch. When a late-night pool hall across the street from Nite Hawkes dumped its patrons out late at night, Dan Sr. would be waiting with .5 burgers and a Coke to sober them up. During this era, the neighborhood around Nite Hawkes also had a number of railroad workers, and they would come for coffee and breakfast.
During the 1950s, the road next to the cafe was a popular route to popular excursions at Levi Carter Park, especially the popular Kiddieland and Pleasure Pier, which packed families into the area until 1961. Dan Sr., also called Big Dan, was the patriarch of the cafe who shepherded his son into the business.
Dan Hawkes, Jr. (b 1933-2018) took over the restaurant when his father passed away in 1961. His wife Nadean (1936-2019) helped run the business for several years.
In 1966, Dan demolished the original two-story building that housed the cafe. He built a one-story modern building behind the original, opening up the rest of the area for parking. The new building offered the restaurant five-times the size of the original.
By this time, the restaurant was regularly packed at lunchtime by politicians, police officers, Hells Angels, and throngs of workers who worked in East Omaha.
In 1992, Dan Jr. and Nadean sold the Nite Hawkes Cafe to his son, Dan, III and his wife Tracy. After Dan retired in 2009, Tracy has continued running the iconic restaurant.
Nite Hawkes Now
Today, the Nite Hawkes Cafe continues operating and is the oldest continuously operating diner in North Omaha. It still serves its signature dish, the “Dan Special,” which is a grilled cheese with hamburger, tomatoes and French dressing. Dan, III, had a permit in May 2019 to remodel the restaurant.
Most importantly, the Hawkes plan to keep going.
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