By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
By the time John Belushi was elected Wheaton (Ill.) Central High homecoming king, Bill Charuchas had already made his reputation at Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern & Grill parroting owner Sam Sianis’s orders: “Cheezborger, cheezborger. No fries, chips. No Pepsi, Coke.” Charuchas had a fan club in Chicago, especially among Sun-Times and Tribune staffers who made the Billy Goat their hangout for lunch and after-midnight drinks, but it was Belushi who introduced the hash slinger’s refrain to the rest of America in a Saturday Night Live sketch about a Greek diner with a ridiculously limited menu.
“Don Novello did it,” says Sam Sianis, nephew of founder William “Billy Goat” Sianis. “He and the Second City people came in all the time. They were here for lunch one day, and I heard him say, ‘Boys, let’s do the cheeseburger.’” Novello wrote the “Olympia Restaurant” sketch: Dan Aykroyd as short-order cook, Laraine Newman as unsmiling waitress, Bill Murray as happy-go-lucky counterman, and John Belushi as the boss who delights in letting people know exactly what they can and cannot eat. (Who changed the phrase to “No Coke, Pepsi” is not known.) The bit became a signature of SNL’s halcyon days, its humor stemming from the diner’s blithe disregard for customers’ wants.
Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman Mike Royko regretted the popularity of the routine, fearing that it would attract yuppies to his favorite drinking place and ruin the hard-boiled character of what he called “a tavern, pure and simple and honest.” Royko was such a friend of the house that Sam Sianis once posted bail for him when he was jailed for fighting after getting drunk…in a different bar.
Royko can rest in peace. Apart from some tourists who wander in for the thrill of quoting John Belushi, and the fact that you can buy a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Cheezborger Cheezborger,” we see little evidence that television exposure has softened the Billy Goat. The location is beyond fashion’s redemption. Lower Michigan Avenue, where a flight of stairs leads down to the subterranean watering hole’s entrance, is a shadowy realm completely unlike the Magnificent Mile above. The interior is gauzy with smoke from the 7-days-a-week, 20-hours-a-day grill that fills the air with the scent of bacon in the morning and burgers in the afternoon.
One Tuesday at 9 A.M., two reporters who have pulled an all-nighter sit at a table with bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches and beers, griping to each other about all the good autopsy details that an editor cut from a crime story. A hitchhiker with a knapsack on his back and a bottle of Schlitz in his hand keeps walking from his stool to the window and looking up, waiting for it to get light so he can hit the road. “No sun, no sun,” a counterman keeps telling him, but the traveler has had too much beer to realize that, down here, it is always dark.
The Billy Goat’s walls are covered with photographs dating back to the 1930s, when William Sianis opened The Lincoln Tavern on West Madison Street. (He moved to the current location in 1964.) In a nine-table annex even more cluttered than the rest of the place but sarcastically named the VIP Room, you see pictures of the goateed Sianis hamming it up with women wearing stylish minks and with Chicago baseball stars from midcentury. Above the bar are yellowing, blown-up bylines of much-loved writers who have imbibed here: Herb Lyon, Jeff Lyon, George Murray, David Condon, Mort Edelstein, Irv Kupcinet (Kup’s Column), Roger Ebert. A Wall of Fame includes portraits of Chicago reporters, the deceased ones captioned “-30-” (the way correspondents indicated a story’s end in the old days). Signs asking pressmen with inky clothing not to sit on the seats are ancient enough to be authentic. Newspaper clippings tell of the time Billy Goat Sianis put a hex on the Chicago Cubs because the team’s management banned his pet goat from Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series. Despite Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley’s personal apology and Sianis’s formal lifting of the curse, the Cubs have not played in a World Series since.
Strangely, among the thousands of pieces of ephemera documenting this place and its famous clientele, there is nothing celebrating SNL on the walls; the only picture of John Belushi shows him as a Blues Brother. You get the feeling that although the guys here appreciate their TV notoriety, and willingly go into the Greek-diner hash slinger routine as naturally as an actor who has played a role a thousand times, SNL’s recognition is not such a big deal. Life goes on at the Billy Goat as it was before Belushi did the cheezborger bit.
The menu remains ruthlessly limited. There are a few sandwiches listed on the board above the counter, but if anyone orders ham or salami, the counterman will pause, scowl, and shoot back, “Cheezborger? Double cheese, that’s the best.” (Double cheese means two in one bun.) Everyone relents, and except in the morning, when egg sandwiches are popular, cheeseburgers are the only thing to eat. They are made from patties so thin they cannot be cooked rare. (Besides, these hurried cooks wouldn’t have the patience to ask about the desired degree of doneness.) As soon as a patty on the grill is flipped, it is topped with a slice of bright orange cheese that quickly softens and melts, and then it’s 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 for lunch. 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.”
“May I have a slice of tomato?” an out-of-towner asks.
“No tomato!” a counterman barks back.
“Well-done?” asks her friend, also a neophyte.
“No well-done,” the counterman replies. “All the same. Double cheese, double’s the best.”