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Hometown U.S.A.: Chicago

Last call for landmark Billy Goat Tavern?

The subterranean hangout has been a fixture for almost 50 years, and nobody wants it to change. But a redevelopment project may displace it.

November 16, 2013|By Mary Ellen Podmolik
  • Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern was made famous in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch with John Belushi. The landmark may be displaced by a redevelopment project.
Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern was made famous in a "Saturday Night… (Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune )

No Coke. No fries. No desire to change things.

The Billy Goat Tavern has been a Chicago landmark for generations and a fixture under North Michigan Avenue for almost 50 years. And its owner wants to remain there, regardless of whatever redevelopment goes on above it.

Sam Sianis, who runs the tavern and is the nephew of the Billy Goat's original owner, William Sianis, said he knew nothing of potential plans for a massive redevelopment disclosed Monday that would involve replacing the Realtor Building, on property located above the Goat. That project would at least temporarily displace the tavern from the subterranean location it has called home since 1964.

"I want to stay here," Sianis said. "I've been here for almost 50 years. Like the Realtors, I'm part of Michigan Avenue."

During a recent lunch hour, patrons were at the well-worn tables and chairs as they always are, a mix of locals and tourists waiting for their orders and admiring the photos that line the walls.

"Nothing has changed since 1964," Sianis said. "Nothing has changed from the time we opened up to now."

Asked if he'd like a more modern, fancier home as part of a new development, Sianis fell back on the cadence — No fries! Chips! No Coke! Pepsi! — immortalized by John Belushi in the "Saturday Night Live" skit that made the place famous.

"No fancy," Sianis said. "I want it to be the same."

Staying put wouldn't be an option if the building above it is razed and redeveloped, but the National Assn. of Realtors thinks it has come up with the next best thing: Pick up the pieces of the tavern, picture frame by picture frame and chair by chair, and move the Goat across the street.

"The Wrigley Building has a basement area that would be a great transition," said Bill Armstrong, the Realtors' 2013 treasurer, who has been involved in the redevelopment discussions. "It would be seamless. Sam's got to agree, but they would be positioning themselves in the same environment.

"I think that would be where they would move and stay. They don't want something fancy. They want something humble."

For several months, the Realtors group has been talking with an unnamed partner about replacing the association's building, the one behind it that houses the restaurant, and the entire block to the west, with 1 million to 2 million square feet of building and plaza space that would include a high-end hotel, condominiums, offices and stores.

Because the redevelopment plan is in a preliminary stage, the details of the project might change.

The Goat's role in Chicago goes back generations. It has been a hangout for journalists for decades and earned headlines regularly through William Sianis, an impresario as well as barkeeper. He's the one who put a hex on the Chicago Cubs in 1945 after his pet goat was kicked out of Wrigley Field during the World Series.

At lunchtime, about 20 Billy Goat patrons were scattered around tables and at the bar, their conversations barely audible over the sizzling grill and the television. Among those customers, few seemed to welcome the idea of a degreased and sanitized replica of the World Famous Billy Goat.

"You've got to have the cigar smoke on the walls and see the sign and the door; this is what it looks like," said Jason Sheffer, 45, of Baxter Springs, Kan., who had also dined at the Goat 15 years ago and was in town for a basketball game.

He said he was first drawn to the tavern by its well-publicized history, as interpreted by Belushi and newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who wrote frequently about the tavern.

"Cheezborger, cheezborger — 'Saturday Night Live,'" Sheffer said. "I was also a big Royko fan, so I knew they used to come here with the guys from the Tribune and the Sun-Times and drink after work at this bar. Their pictures are on the wall."

Jerry Coleman, 50, of Glencoe, about 20 miles north of Chicago, is a regular visitor who has dined there with his children and his clients alike. He said he wouldn't return if the original tavern were redeveloped.

"There's nothing else like this in Chicago," Coleman said. "They have other locations, but not like this one, not like the original one."

ocations, but not like this one, not like the original one."

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