Campus History

Lake Street’s Lost Golden Arches

We remember the one little McDonald’s that did its best to keep campus supersized.

Black and white photo of the McDonalds storefront on Lake Street

A photo taken circa 1973, when the McDonald’s was five years old. Today, it’s a post office. Wisconsin Historical Society

For almost four decades, the corner of State and Lake was home to a beloved institution where UW students could get a quick bite. No, not the lunch counter at Rennebohm Drug Store, though that had its fans. Across the street and one door down, at 441 N. Lake, stood McDonald’s, offering those in need a quick infusion of all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, and sesame-seed buns.

This McDonald’s franchise appeared on the campus scene in 1968, the same year that the Big Mac was added to the menu at all of the chain’s restaurants. Ray Kroc himself — the man who turned, ahem, Scottish cuisine into an American phenomenon — made an appearance at the opening of the company’s 1,031st outlet. Between then and 2006, the spot served the campus community with uncounted tons of beef, one quarter pound at a time, as well as McMuffins, McNuggets, and the famed french fries that were invented by Edwin Traisman, onetime administrator of the UW Food Research Institute.

By the 21st century, the Lake Street McDonald’s was showing its age, and its owners felt it was too expensive to renovate. They sold the site to the U.S. Postal Service, which has operated a post office there ever since.

The departure provoked mixed emotions. Then-alder Austin King ’03 told the Badger Herald that he wouldn’t shed any tears over the loss of McDonald’s. But Charlie Burns ’09 responded that losing it was upsetting. “That McDonald’s used to be my pre-football game meeting place … to get breakfast,” he said. The McD’s on Regent Street was too far away.

The post office still stands at 441 N. Lake, but the area around it is in flux. The city closed the Lake Street Campus Garage in December 2023, aiming to turn the lot into apartments, parking, retail space, and a bus station. The nearest McFlurry is still a mile away — 21 minutes by foot or seven minutes to the drive-thru.

Published in the Summer 2024 issue


  • Bill Folz June 7, 2024

    I enjoyed the article on the Lake Street McDonald’s restaurant. I worked there from 1971-73. It opened at 8:00AM but had no breakfast menu back then. People would come in for their morning coffee and hamburger. One thing that was not mentioned in the article was that this was the first sit-down McDonald’s in the country.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *