Billy Goat’s Redemption!
Last week I wrote up my experience eating at the Billy Goat’s Tavern underneath Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I have included some of that original writeup, particularly the history of the tavern, the curse of the Chicago Cubs, and the iconic Saturday Night Live sketch that originated here.
But I also need to update the food experience…for Billy Goats has, in many ways, been redeemed!
CHEEZBORGER! CHEEZBORGER! CHEEZBORGER!
I stepped into cheeseburger history last week – a trip that took me under Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, past some classic SNL moments, and beyond the curse of the Cubs. I also ate the famed “Cheezborger!” and wrote about the DRY DRY bun…well, a week later, on the Navy Pier, Billy Goats Tavern redeemed itself. First, the history of this iconic establishment.
INTRODUCING THE BILLY GOAT TAVERN OF CHICAGO, ILLINOIS!
The original Billy Goat Tavern, located in Chicago, was founded in 1937 by Billy Sianis, a Greek immigrant. It is a Chicago icon for two reasons: a supposed curse on the Chicago Cubs, and the hilarious Olympia Cafe sketch on Saturday Night Live, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
TO FIND THE BILLY GOAT, JUST FOLLOW THE SIGNS UNDERNEATH MICHIGAN AVENUE!
One of the unique things about Chicago is the section of Michigan Avenue that rises above the main streets, allowing you to go underneath Michigan Avenue, and right to the Billy Goat Tavern, which NEVER sees daylight.
According to Wikipedia: The first location was opened in 1937 when William “Billy Goat” Sianis bought the Lincoln Tavern, near Chicago Stadium, for $205 with a bounced check (he made good on it with the proceeds from the first weekend they were open). When the 1944 Republican National Convention came to town, he posted a sign saying “No Republicans allowed” causing the place to be packed with Republicans demanding to be served. Of course, a great deal of publicity followed and Sianis took advantage of that fact
In 1964, it moved to its current location under Michigan Avenue, made possible by Chicago’s network of multilevel streets.
“Billy Goat” was quite the colorful character. In the 1970s, Sianis petitioned the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, to issue him the first liquor license for the moon. His hope, according to the letter that currently adorns the establishment’s wall, was to best serve his country by serving delicious cheeseburgers to wayfaring astronauts as well as raising moon-goats.
Here is what it looks like when you open the door and step down into history…
THE CURSE OF THE BILLY GOAT! THE “CUBS CURSE!”
The tavern is also known for its involvement in the Curse of the Billy Goat (also known as the “Cubs Curse”). Owner Sianis brought a pet goat, a tavern mascot, to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series, a home game at Wrigley Field against the Detroit Tigers.
Despite paid-for box seat tickets, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley allegedly ejected Sianis and goat due to the latter’s odor. Supposedly, Sianis placed a curse on the team that they would not win another pennant or play in a World Series again.
THE FAMOUS SLOGAN – BEWARE!
These are the words that greet you when you enter: “Enter At Your Own Risk!” Based on the level of role playing going on when I was there, there is a lot of attitude being thrown around, and you can expect to be ribbed a bit at some point during your meal – by a very sassy, self-aware staff having a good time at work.
Another sign reads: “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger. No Pepsi. Coke,” These words, with Pepsi and Coke in reverse order, were originally spoken and immortalized by John Belushi in, “Olympia Cafe,” an early Saturday Night Live sketch that was inspired by the tavern. Anytime anyone orders food, Belushi yelled out “CHEEZBORGER! CHEEZBORGER!” If they order fries, it was “NO FRIES. CHIPS!”
And finally, the sap who orders the Coke is yelled down with “NO COKE. PEPSI!” Belushi said later in an interview that he’d never set foot inside the Billy Goat. It was Bill Murray and sketch writer Don Novello who were the regulars at the Billy Goat.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE CHEEZBORGER?
Oh yeah, that’s right – you want to know how the cheeseburger tasted! Well, let’s get to the experience!
THE TINY GRILL!
Once you walk down the steps into the tavern, you wait in line and place your order with a Cashier – and yes, the Cashier yells “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” dramatically with every order. Also in fact, they do NOT have fries OR Pepsi, but they have a small number of other sandwiches – that said, the vast majority of those in line were ordering the double cheeseburger, and so I did the same…
The very small grill is covered with hamburger patties, plus slices of the occasional steak, thinly sliced for a steak sandwich – finally, you can see the buns on the grill as well…that’s really all there is, as you will see…
The grill is always full of meat, so your order only takes a minute to come up, and here is what you get: two meat patties with a slice of cheese between them – on a bun. Their job is now done, and your is just beginning…
INTRODUCING YOUR CONDIMENTS!
That’s right: now it’s up to you. This small condiment bar has all they have to offer you for your burger: sliced and chopped onions, pickles, mustard and ketchup. That’s it, knock yourself out!
PICKLES! PICKLES! PICKLES!
I love mayonaise, so I missed not having that available. However, the pickles were big, meaty, and nicely crisp dill slices that I piled on, and then I gave the burger a sprinkling of diced onions and a dash of mustard – and finally a colorful swirl of ketchup. That’s it, dinner is served!
As you can see, the pickles really help provide some bulk to the burger, as the two patties and cheese are fairly thin…but since I love pickles, I loaded it up and got some height going…
SURVEYING THE ROOM
When it’s busy, it can be hard to find an empty table, as you can see – but I found a seat at the bar and settled in to try my cheeseburger…
A BURGER AND A BEER AT THE BAR!
I would actually recommend sitting at the bar, as you get a good sense of the energy of the place, especially with the Bartender hitting the old-fashioned cash register over and over for every drink he makes…and even though it was only noon, he was making a lot of them…
A stuffed Billy Goats head is above the register, announcing a special drink with Rum for $6 – I passed and settled for a Schlitz draft – a beer with almost NO flavor…none whatsoever, but it was cold and helped with the meal for reasons I am about to explain…
PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH AND BITE DOWN HARD!
It becomes clear as soon as you take your first bite that this is ONE DRY BUN. There is more moisture in “Lawrence Of Arabia” than there is in this thing – a “kaiser” style roll in texture and flavor…
The meat itself tastes like thin hamburger patties with some average American cheese melted on top – which means I really control the flavor of this burger – since I added a lot of pickles, it tastes like a burger with a lot of pickles. The onions are exactly what you expect, so add a lot of those and your burger changes accordingly…
But back to the bun – they are on the grill near the meat as the burger is being cooked – see?
Even though they are on the grill surface, since they don’t have a toasted texture, they must be there just to get warm – and dry out. REALLY DRY OUT. You will drink a lot when you eat this burger, because the meat and toppings don’t compensate for what turns out to be a big, dry bun.
As you eat, you can gaze upon decades of newspaper articles, photos, and signs – you could spend hours looking at all of it – and the entire time you hear the constant shouts of “CHEEZBORGER! CHEEZBORGER!” ringing out behind you – and the Bartender hits the bell on the register with every single sale, and there is the consistent sound of “no fries, chips!” and “no Pepsi! Coke!” from the workers as well…and you realize the Billy Goats is as much performance art as it is a meal…
THE BILLY GOATS EXPERIENCE – AND THE CHEEZBORGER….
After all is said and done, the double cheeseburger with the BONE DRY BUN was $4.85, and the glass of flavorless Schlitz beer was $3.50…for $8.35, it was fun to eat in an iconic place with fun stories, tons of attitude, and a vibrant atmosphere…
The cheeseburger tasted like a cheeseburger – no more, no less – and the responsibility for that flavor is ultimately yours…next time I’m bringing three things: A feisty attitude, my own mayo and a willingness to fight for a moist bun!
AND NOW, REDEMPTION!
One week later, Alex and I are wandering the Navy Pier, and we come across the Billy Goats Tavern located there. Moments later we order a double cheezborger, and because it isn’t busy, they make the entire thing from scratch for me…fresh patties, a bun that is NOT left on the grill to dry out, and here is what we got:
We loaded up with BIG, THICK, JUICY pickles, a lot of diced onions, and a healthy dose of ketchup and mustard. And it delivered!
Say hello to my moist moist bun!
This time, instead of a bun left to dry out on the grill, this one was soft, flavorful, with a nice spongy texture and really elevated the burger. Alex loved it, and I learned to give someone a second chance to redeem themselves, which Billy Goats certainly did. Now, the key will be to find them slow enough to make me something fresh…we’ll see!