Few restaurants or bars are as famous, or as infamous, as Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern. It’s a tourist destination and a haven for local reporters. It’s blamed for the Cubs’ losing streak and is inspiration for one of Saturday Night Live’s funniest skits, and it all began with a bounced check.
A Bounced Check & A New Name
In 1934 a Greek immigrant named William Sianis bought a bar called Lincoln Tavern. It was at 1855 W. Madison and catered to sports fans from the Chicago Stadium, now the United Center, across the street. The purchase price was $205, paid for by a check, which bounced. Fortunately Sianis was able to pay it back with the proceeds from the first weekend’s sales.
Sianis changed the tavern’s name, and his own, when a billy goat fell off a truck and came into the bar. He changed his name to Billy Goat Sianis, grew a goatee, and changed the bar name to Billy Goat Tavern. This was just a hint of the marketing genius that would earn his bar world-wide fame.
No Republicans – Or Penants – Allowed
What’s a sure way to get a bunch of people into your bar? Tell them they’re not welcome. That’s exactly what Sianis did. In 1944 the Republican Convention came to Chicago, so Billy Goat put up a sign that said “No Republicans Allowed”. They filed into the tavern, filling it with people demanding to be served.
Probably his most famous publicity stunt is the Curse of the Billy Goat. Sianis took his beloved goat with him to see the Cubs in their 1945 World Series bout with the Detroit Tigers. Despite having a ticket for the goat, they were both ejected by P.K. Wrigley because the animal smelled. Sianis, as you might expect, was not happy. “Who stinks now?” he asked, when the Cubs lost the World Series. The Cubs haven’t been back since.
Billy Goat’s nephew Sam, who has owned the bar since Sianis passed away in 1970, tried to reverse the curse several times. The first time, in 1973, he arrived in a limo with a red carpet and a goat, only to be denied entrance again. They were invited back in 1984 and 1994, but were denied in 2003 – known as the “Bartman Game.” They keep trying, though, and this year they may be able to put that curse to bed once and for all.
The Skit That Made SNL Famous
Great comedy usually starts with a bit of truth, and that’s certainly the case with the famous Saturday Night Live skit, “The Olympia Restaurant.” Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Lorraine Newman modeled their outrageous characters after the real Billy Goat Sianis and Bill Charuchas. While patrons could, and can, order more than a “cheezborger”, they’re highly encouraged to “Try the double cheese! It’s the best! No fries, cheeps!” Ever the savvy marketers, the tavern now includes a sign that says “The World Famous Billy Goats Saturday Night Live Cheezborger Cheezborger Cheezborger No Pepsi…Coke”. They even post a clip of the skit on their website, saying it “Made SNL Famous”.
A New Location & The Wall Of Fame
In 1964 the Billy Goat Tavern moved from its original West Madison location to its current subterranean digs. Located below Michigan Avenue and in between the buildings that house the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune, it became a frequent haunt for reporters. Legendary writers Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Irv Kupcinet were regulars, and the tradition continues with journalists like Rick Kogan, John Kass and Richard Roeper.
Cheezborgers, Beer and Coke
In addition to all of the stories, the real reason for the tavern is so that people can eat and drink. The burgers are good; good enough that they’ve expanded to eight total locations in Chicago and the suburbs, as well as one in Washington, D.C. You can get egg sandwiches and eggs with a side of meat if you come in before 11am, and after that their selection includes Polish, Rib Eye Steak sandwiches, hot dogs, and grilled cheese. They’ve also got their own beer, both Dark and Light. Don’t try to order Pepsi, though; they’ve only got Coke.
Billy Goat Tavern is the stuff of which legends are made, with curses, famous people, infamous characters, and devoted fans that love all of it. If you’ve visiting Chicago or grew up in the Windy City, you’ll want to make a trip to this piece of history.
Just don’t order any fries.
The 2nd original Billy Goat Tavern is located on Lower Michigan Avenue at 430 N Michigan, with steps leading from The Magnificent Mile. Want to find more things to do on the Magnificent Mile? Get your copy of The Local Tourist’s Guide to North Michigan Avenue
Photo credit vxla