It has been a long month without Billy Goat Tavern. Back in December, they announced they’d be temporarily closing their doors on January 1st, so how’s everyone feeling after the first month?
The Michigan Avenue location is closing temporarily for infrastructure updates, according to an email management sent out on a December Friday afternoon. The letter read:
“We would like to inform you that starting January 2nd this location will be temporarily closed in order to perform necessary updates of the infrastructure, such as improving electrical, plumbing, and the restrooms. This work is necessary so that our customers can continue to enjoy the Tavern for many years to come! Due to the delicate nature of performing the work while preserving the historic Tavern`s look and decor we anticipate the work to be completed in 4-6 weeks by sometime in February. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you and we look forward to seeing you in a few weeks! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates.”
But do not worry- its smaller satellite locations all remain in operation. Some of you may not remember, but others of a certain age remember the Billy Goat Tavern as its fictional incarnation, Olympia Tavern. This was once the set of a segment that was recurring Saturday Night Live.
And because they are reopening very soon, we’d like to take a moment to admire the work of genius that is Billy Goat Tavern. In the famous skit, John Belushi and Bill Murray are in The Olympia, which was a three-item Greek café where the only options were “cheeburger,” chips and Pepsi, as in the famous gag line, “No Coke! Pepsi!”
The skit was actually based on how the real-life Billy Goat Tavern operates. Both Belushi and Murray were veterans of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe and were familiar with the joint.
John played the Greek Cafe owner where, out of frustration, everyone just went along with it and got the cheeseburger, chips and Pepsi. The Billy Goat Tavern was featured constantly on TV, the news, and the paper.
Given it’s location, it was hard for the newspapers not to write about them, the flagship is very close to both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times buildings and was a favorite watering hole of journalists, especially popular columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Royko, who often wrote about it.
The first location, at 1855 W. Madison St., was opened in 1934 when William “Billy Goat” Sianis bought the Lincoln Tavern, near Chicago Stadium. With a bounced check for $205 (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, which Sianis characteristically took advantage of. Then in 1964 the famous eatery moved to its current address at 430 N. Michigan Ave., which is actually below Michigan Avenue, made possible by Chicago’s network of multilevel streets in that vicinity.
The inside looks very much like a “dive tavern,” with dark windows adorned with neon beer signs, a heavy and slightly foreboding door, and a decidedly basement-like atmosphere inside. Immediately in front of you upon entering is a three-sided peninsula-shaped food counter in the middle, with a barroom to the right and dining room to the left.
The barroom has an L-shaped traditional tavern bar with red-topped chrome stools, and table seating between the bar and food counter. The tables do not have tablecloths, rather laminate tops with a red and white checkered print. The bar side is typically crowded and lively with a neighborhood pub atmosphere and sports on TV, while the other dining room is much quieter. The bar has full liquor and beer service, including the house signature draughts, you can order food at the counter.
The Billy Goat Tavern is a step back in time, and visiting the original is all about an experience that is quintessentially Chicago and for many brings back the old Belushi SNL skit, but the food is pretty average. The 1/8 of a pound burger patties are cooked to order on a flattop grill behind the counter, and the highlight is the standout roll, a Kaiser that is baked for the Billy Goats and delivered fresh daily, and toasted slightly on the flattop, a great touch.
The patties are very thin, cooked through and not especially flavorful, and even with the quarter-pound double, there is too much bread to meat. So a triple is not as odd of a choice as it might sound, and even the Home Run quad at half a pound is no bigger than many gourmet burgers out there today.
There is a self-serve fixings/condiments bar near the pickup counter and the pickles are very good, though like fries, lettuce and tomato are not served here, period. For that- you can go anywhere else.