The Billy Goat

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In 1978, the Saturday Night Live writer Don Novello created the “Olympic Cafe” sketch for John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Akyroyd. In the sketch, the trio play a family of short-order cooks at the busy cafe. As customers arrive, the cashier brothers and short-order cook cousins shout down the customer’s orders, by repeating the only three items that the cafe carried…

“I’ll have a grilled cheese, fries and a coke.”

“No grill cheese, Chee-borger!”

“A coke?”

“No coke! Pez-zi!”

“Fries”

“No fries! Cheeps!”

The Olympic Cafe is a real place. Novello based his sketch on the Billy Goat Tavern, the simple Chicago cafe and burger joint founded by Billy Sianis in the 1930’s. The original tavern relocated under the elevated Michigan Avenue in the 1950’s. Situated in the epicenter of the Chicago publishing complex, the pub was a frequent haunt of Tribune and Sun-Times newspapermen, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko and film critic Roger Ebert. The place probably hasn’t been renovated since the 1950’s.  Encased under years of grill smoke, grease and grit is the history of 20th century Chicago–newspapers, accoutrements, and photos of favorite sons. Royko, Sianis and many old Chicago personalities are all gone, but their ghosts linger in the old wood panels, Formica and linoleum of the grotto where the original Billy Goat Tavern thrives.

Over the years, the Billy Goat has become a required stop for aspiring politicos, hungry locals, and camera-happy tourists. Certainly the business has suffered from the “observer-expectancy” effect in psychology–when someone thinks they are being watched, they change their behavior. I say suffer in that, the cantor’s bellowing of “chee-borger, chee-borger” might just be for show now. After all, business is good. Billy Goat has franchised the original, opening locations in the tourist trap Navy Pier, and even as far afield as downtown Washington, DC for Chicago ex-patriots. I opted for the original venue on my last Chicago excursion. Does the original Billy Goat ham it up for the crowd, I wondered?

Taking the stairwell below street-level, I leave the bright sky and pantheon of Chicago’s sky scape for the dark Chicago netherworld, a complex, tiered roadway that keeps downtown Chicago moving beneath the sidewalks above. A flickering streetlight casts a harsh beam onto the sidewalks and the riveted steel trusses above me. It could be any time of day upstairs. Immediately off the stairwell, hanging over the sidewalk and the front door is the tell-tale sign. I’ve arrived. Time for my SNL debut.

Entering, the lights are dim. People wait in line, but it is moving, jogging almost. Aside from the sizzling of the beef, the next sound I hear is:

“Chee-Borger! No fries, chips! No Pepsi, Coke!”

Was this a tourist ruse? Or, was the admonishment authentic? Billy Goat always served Coke, unlike the SNL sketch.

The line has to be moving faster, as I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted, but again, there were only a handful of choices. It seems the Billy Goat now has a variety of chips, and Coke products. And Schlitz Beer!

“Double chee-borger! Fries! No Coke, Schlitz!” I proclaim.

“Schlitz at the bar!” comes the retort.

I hand over my credit card.

“No credit, cash!”

Yikes. I didn’t recall that rule from the comedy sketch. Fortunately the prices were low enough that I did have some cash and change on me. Who can beat a $3 beer on a July evening in a big city? My burger arrives, glistening and naked on an over-sized Kaiser. There is a modest toppings bar to the side. The cashier has met his responsibility. Cheeseburger. Chips. For the fixin’s, you are on your own. Onion. Pickle. Lettuce.

No tomato, ketchup.

I take my burger to the bar. There, Billy Goat has their own brew. But for me, I couldn’t dare pass up on a Schlitz–an old Midwestern classic. Many a brewery were started by the sons of German immigrants to the Midwest. While Budweiser and Miller grew into behemoths, a few smaller  breweries did survive intact. In the case of Schlitz, nostalgia and venture capitalism saved the brand, being bought out by Pabst in the 90’s. Like Pabst, Schlitz is not anything special. However, it is the beer of the heartland, and a fine, clean lager suitable for washing down a greasy-spoon legend.

Across the way, I catch a glimpse of a women, mid-30’s, who’s a bit embarrassed by her company. The midlife crisis she came in with is a little deep into his bar tab. He hyper-extended his presence into the room, and unleashed through his Gary Busey-esque maw of teeth the words:

“Ask Not! What your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Ignoring the grammar of the famous line, Busey’s utterance, unexpected by the crowd, was silently acknowledged. A slight nod came from some before they returned to their private conversations.

A bit later, Busey rises for another:

“Ask NOT!…”

The bartender sees my perplexions, and offers “He’s an old navy guy. Loves America.”

Of course he does. His presence was a reminder that the Billy Goat has always been a Democrat’s tavern. During the 1944 Republican National Convention, Billy Goat hung a sign proclaiming “NO REPUBLICANS ALLOWED.” Busey seemed to have taken up the role of unofficial town crier, or Kennedy Cuckoo Clock, with his timely:

“ASK NA-HT!”

What was patriotic has now turned embarrassing for everyone.

“No kidding,” I mutter, “Another Schlitz?”

If you ever wanted to actually be in a sketch off of Saturday Night Life, step into the Billy Goat Tavern. Of course, the Billy Goat offers up more entertainment than just television impersonation. The original is far-more rewarding than any comedic or franchised facsimile.

Billy Goat Photo credit: Frank Gruber / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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One thought on “The Billy Goat

  1. No trip to the Windy City is complete without a stop at Billy Goat! It is a great,greasy-spoon dive and the burgers are spectacular.

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