February 12, 2015

Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern

Billy Goat Tavern exterior

photo by: Phigits, Flickr

The original Billy Goat Tavern moved to its current subterranean location just north of the Chicago River in 1964.

As if beer and cheeseburgers weren’t enough, Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern also boasts barnyard animals, baseball curses, an SNL skit, and -- best of all -- a wall of fame for writers.

OK, there’s a chance I have my priorities a little mixed up, but no matter what order you put the above in, this joint’s a winner.

Any bar worth its suds has its share of antics, and the Billy Goat’s started at the very beginning.

In 1934, Willy Sianis bought what was then the Lincoln Tavern on the city’s near west side with a check for $205. It bounced. Undeterred, Sianis paid off the debt with profits from opening weekend.

Not long after, a goat -- yep, a real, live one -- tumbled from a passing truck and walked in for a drink. Sianis took it as a sign. He named the goat Murphy, kept him around the bar, and grew a goatee. Sianis became known throughout the city as ‘Billy Goat’ and the bar’s name followed suit.

Billy Goat Tavern patron enjoying cheezborger

photo by: Jeremy Keith, Flickr

You won't find lettuce or tomatoes on your cheezborger at the Billy Goat.

When the Republican National Convention came to town in 1944, Billy Goat Sianis hung a sign in the window saying “No Republicans Allowed.” Naturally, the trick attracted half the convention-goers.

But the wackiness was about to move beyond the bar.

In October 1945, the Chicago Cubs were leading the Detroit Tigers two games to one in the World Series -- that is, until Billy Goat and Murphy showed up for game four. When management wouldn’t let the goat into Wrigley Field, Sianis reportedly threw up his arms and exclaimed, “The Cubs ain’t gonna’ win no more!”

He was right. The Cubs lost the series and haven’t so much as appeared in another one since (despite Sianis’ renunciation of the curse in 1969 and several other attempts to lift it). The Curse of the Billy Goat remains one of the most revered stories in the game of baseball.

Billy Goat Tavern's bar

photo by: Eric Allix Rogers, Flickr

Billy Goat Sianis' nephew Sam now runs the Billy Goat Tavern.

The bar moved to its current location on Michigan Avenue, just north of the Chicago River, in 1964, but despite the shift, the legend continued to grow.

In 1978, its image went national. Chicago natives John Belushi and Bill Murray, along with fellow Saturday Night Live cast members Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman, replicated Billy Goat’s nephew Sam, employee Bill Charuchas, and the Billy Goat Tavern in their infamous skit “Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger.” The piece documented the, uh, unique style of service the Billy Goat Tavern was already legendary for.

But despite the fame, and its expansion to eight additional locations, the original bar never lost its local Chicago romance. The spot was a favorite of some of the city’s best writers and newspapermen, not least of which was Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Mike Royko. He, and other media giants like Studs Terkel, are memorialized along one of the bar’s walls.

Location: 430 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60611

Hours: 6:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. daily.

You’re Having: Double cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!

Best Yelp Review: "This place is historic and full of Chi-town pride. This place keeps the spirit of what this city is all about. Ask about the curse of the billy goat when you come here! The location-tucked away downstairs in a cool part of the city. The decor-it's like being transported back in time. The food-rich and full of flavor with an old school charm. The service-fast and friendly. The prices-nice and inexpensive."

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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