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Hungry? Swoop into Nite Hawk

'Nite Hawk?' asks the inquisitive Radio cabbie who arrives to transport us. 'What are you going there for?'

'We like the sign,' we tell him, echoing what many say when the Nite Hawk Cafe & Lounge comes up in conversation.

We arrive at the Nite Hawk moments later, where the hawk on the neon sign keeps a stern eye on the goings-on below. The bars on the cafe's windows indicate that the neighborhood hasn't turned all warm and fuzzy just yet.

None of this would have you believe that the Nite Hawk is a family place, but looks often are deceiving.

Owners Bill and Elaine Mildenberger had the entire cafe Ñ including the sign Ñ remodeled two years ago. They thought about changing the name but decided to stick with history: The Nite Hawk has been here, on the corner of North Portland Boulevard and North Interstate Avenue, since 1931.

The Nite Hawk once included car service. There was a time when a person could get a lube job for their automobile while they ate a slice of pie in the cafe. Interstate Avenue was the primary roadway for truckers and travelers driving between Oregon and Washington until Interstate 5 opened in the '60s. Fresh pie is still available in the cafe.

Times keep a'changing: In 2003, TriMet will open the 5.8-mile Interstate light-rail line. A recently minted MAX stop awaits just outside the Nite Hawk's doors, raising hopes that more visitors will discover it.

The cafe is a full-sized restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Here you'll find some of the neighborhood locals enjoying a dinner of chicken-fried steak ($6.25) or meat loaf ($6.25) on a Friday evening. The Nite Hawk is a union restaurant, and many of its employees, like a fellow named Israel, have worked here as many as 15 years. The service is great, and the atmosphere is timeless.

The Nite Hawk has been owned by the Mildenbergers since 1980, and son Bill Jr. has overseen much of the operation for the last six years. 'I do whatever needs to be done Ñ from personnel to marketing to washing dishes,' he says.

Parents Bill Sr. and Elaine still frequent the restaurant and lounge, though, and live in the same nearby house where they raised Bill Jr. The last few years, they'll tell you, haven't been easy. The business suffered a 20 percent drop in income. Elaine says she's learned not to to predict which days might be busy: 'Sometimes it's wall-to-wall people in here. Other times it's just kind of slow.'

You can reach the lounge either through the cafe or through the parking lot. A wall of smoke hits you once you pass from the restaurant to the lounge. (If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, as someone once said.) Video poker has a way of keeping the place fairly antisocial, but the regulars at the bar are convivial. A young man comes in to check on an elderly woman who has been pushing bills into the lottery machines at a steady clip for a solid hour. Another man drinking cans of Bud wears a cap that reads: 'Born to Fish. Forced to Work.'

'We've been hit pretty hard by the light-rail construction, September 11 and the economy,' Bill Mildenberger Jr. says from a seat at the immaculate counter, where fresh flowers sit in small vases. 'That's three strikes Ñ and we're still standing.'

Though car traffic has been significantly reduced since the light- rail construction started, he's hopeful that the Nite Hawk's proximity to the Adidas headquarters, in the former Bess Kaiser Medical Center, will keep the area chugging.

'The neighborhood's gotten a lot better,' he says. 'Fifteen years ago, I was scared for my parents' lives.'

You may have heard about the Oregon Historical Society's fruitless search for the missing Teddy Roosevelt time capsule over at the Lewis and Clark Monument. The Mildenbergers buried a time capsule of their own when they resurfaced the parking lot at the start of light-rail construction in 2001.

They know exactly where the time capsule is, too. Among the mementos inside are issues of Martha Stewart Living, CDs by Madonna and a reminder that no matter what year it is, love is the only thing that matters.