The cheeseburger served at the Billy Goat Tavern is not a gourmet’s delight. Far from it. It is made of a beef patty so thin that it cannot be cooked rare; the cheese on top is impure, adulterated American. Side dishes? There are none, other than potato chips. If, like us, you are a devotee of hash house cuisine, it is a meal that will quicken your pulse.
You already may be familiar with this eatery, even if you’ve never been to it. Back in the early days of the TV show “Saturday Night Live,” the Not Ready For Prime Time Players regularly did a sketch about The Olympia Diner, a place where you can have any meal you want, just so long as it is a cheeseburger, a Pepsi, and chips. The comedy routine was based on The Billy Goat Tavern, where the TV show’s writers used to hang out late at night. To this day, the grill men continue to go through the same routine satirized on SNL: “Cheezborger, cheezborger; no fries, chips; no Pepsi, Coke.” (Somehow, the real-life Tavern’s preference for Coke got changed to Pepsi in the TV skit.)
The Billy Goat itself is a gas: a subterranean dive underneath Michigan Avenue, where you feel light years away from the fancy stores up above in the daylight. The interior is gauzy with smoke from the 7-day-a-week, 20-hour-per-day grill that fills the air with the scent of frying bacon in the morning and frying burgers in the afternoon.
Except in the morning when egg sandwiches are popular, cheeseburgers are the only thing to eat. Some other sandwiches are listed on the menu above the bar, but if you dare order ham or salami, the counterman will pause, scowl, and shoot back, “Cheezborger? Double cheese, that’s the best.” (Double cheese means two patties in one bun.) It takes only a minute or so for a burger to cook; and once it’s done and the cheese is melting on top, it is stacked in a Kaiser roll which is set on a sheet of wax paper. “Sir! Double cheese!” the man calls, picking you out from the crowd of people standing in wait at the counter. His eye contact with you is crucial at this point, since everyone is listening for nearly the same order to be called: “Double cheese,” “Two double cheese,” or possibly “Triple cheese.” By this time you will have pulled a bag of potato chips off the rack and received your Coke and paid for the meal. Add your own pickles and onions at the condiment bar, then carry the meal to an open table.
"The world's best-known cheeseburger: this one is a double. To our taste, just right!"
"The Billy Goat Tavern is located below street level. Ambience is so thick you'd need a steak knife to cut it."
"Founder 'Billy Goat' Sianis actually used to have a pet goat. It is said that when the Chicago Cubs banished the goat from Wrigley Field, Sianis put a curse on the team and they haven't won a pennant since."
"The walls of the Billy Goat tavern are a virtual museum of Chicago history."
"A subterranean diner with attitude to spare"