It currently resides at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was purchased soon after it was completed.
The work depicts a “cheap restaurant” (in Hopper's own words), clean and well lit in the darkness of a city at night. There are large, long windows, typical of an American diner, through which the viewer can peer at the patrons inside. There are four figures in the painting: two male customers, a female customer, and a man behind the counter who appears to be attending to the guests. The male patrons are dressed in dark suits, common for the time period during which the work was painted, and the female patron wears a striking red blouse. The man behind the counter wears the white smock that was commonly worn by a cook or soda jerk. On the counter, there are condiments and coffee mugs. The painting overall evokes a feeling of insomnia-specific to an American city late at night, the bright lights of the restaurant a seeming safe oasis in the darkness of the closed shops and vacated buildings that surround it. The painting is large, about 5 ft by 2 and 4/3 feet in dimension.
Hopper took notes about the painting (and many of his other works) in a journal that he shared with his wife. In his entries about the painting, he describes the elements of the work in minute detail, writing about the various figures in the painting—what they would be wearing, how they would roughly look, what they would be doing, and what kind of feeling they were meant to evoke—as well as very carefully describing the angles of the building, the counter, and how the light should strike certain elements in the painting. The lighting seems to have been a particularly complex aspect of the painting, and Hopper had to experiment with different paints to achieve the artificial glow of fluorescent light.
According to his wife's letters to her sister, the work took approximately a month and a half to complete. He wife also appears to have chosen the title of the piece, though the title may refer to the bird-like nose of one of the diner's patrons. The painting itself may have been inspired by Earnest Hemingway's story The Killers, which Hopper had read in a magazine and greatly enjoyed. It is also possible that Hopper may have been influenced by Van Gogh's painting Cafe Terrace at Night, a work with a similar theme of late-night patrons visiting a bright restaurant in the middle of the night.
Regardless of its source of inspiration, the work's most striking theme is that of a sense of isolation or alienation. Hopper himself would later admit that he was probably unconsciously depicting the “loneliness of a large city” in Nighthawk.