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Talking History With Billy Goat Tavern's Bill Sianis

Photo: Barry Brecheisen

Bill Sianis, 38, is the third generation to run the iconic Billy Goat Tavern restaurants, which were founded by his great uncle. Originally opened across from the old Chicago Stadium in 1934, the most famous location has stood on Michigan Avenue since 1964 and the most recent opened in Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect. Forever immortalized by the Saturday Night Live sketch starring John Belushi and Bill Murray, and the Billy Goat Curse placed on the Chicago Cubs during the 1945 World Series, the Billy Goat continues to be one of the most recognizable old-school burger restaurants in Chicago and the world. Bill Sianis took time to chat about the history, the present, and the future of the iconic Billy Goat Tavern.

How is business?
We are working on opening our new place (on 60 E. Lake), it'll be the ninth. They're all doing pretty good. They all have their time of year. The one by the United Center is good during the Bulls and Blackhawks seasons. Michigan Avenue (is good) throughout the year, but during tourist season (a lot more) people come in. People are shopping upstairs during the holidays. Navy Pier (is good) when the fireworks start. So they're all doing pretty good.

What's your customer base nowadays?
They're all pretty much similar customers, we get all ages. We get families that bring in their kids. We get workers every day from the city. Tourists from out of town—they've heard about Billy Goat, the Saturday Night Live skit or they've heard stories throughout the years with the goat. We still get people from the Tribune sometimes, or different media. It used to be Mike Nichols' hang-out. A lot of the journalists still come in, like Rick Kogan and Rick Pearson.

Do you get a lot of celebrities that come in when they're in town, too?
Every once and a while from Saturday Night Live still. Billy Murray comes in every so often. Andy Samberg, Will Ferrell, some of the other cast members like (Jim) Belushi. If there's any movies filmed throughout the year, some of the actors might stop by. We get sports figures. Whoever's in town. Don Novello wrote the skit. He's at the University of California now, but he comes in every so often.

How has Billy Goat changed over the years? Or has it changed at all?
Not so much. The original place started in 1934 by where the United Center is now. People know this one as the original one, but there was one before. When they moved here, we put the grill in. That's when the burgers came about. The original one was just a bar. From 1964 on this place has been the same; nothing other than fixing a few things here and there and more pictures. When people come back after 10-15 years of being away they see the same place, they feel like it's the same place. We've been yelling out the orders since the 1960s. We've got the same the same toppings since the 1960s: pickles, onions, ketchup, mustard.

Do you still not serve fries, only chips?
The other ones have fries but the one on Michigan Avenue still has no fries. We've tried to keep it the same way from the beginning. My dad added fries to the second one after we opened in 1984. One of the reasons why we didn't have fries was because the space was limited, we didn't have space to put a fryer in there. Back then my dad and some other relatives and other cooks were mostly from Greece and didn't know a lot of English. They knew the menu; they knew how to say a few things here and there. "What will you have?" "Cheeseburger." It sounded like you were getting yelled at, but they were just telling you there were no fries, just chips. Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd used to come here for lunch while they were in Chicago and they experienced the same thing with the orders.

You hand-make the burgers every day still?
We make our burgers at (the Madison) location and deliver them everyday to the other places. We order and make a few thousand pounds a week from separate purveyors. We've been using a Kaiser roll. The meat is pure 100 percent beef—we don't put any fillers or anything in the burgers. We try to do an 85 percent lean 15 percent fat ratio. The patties are thinner, but we make them thin in order for you to stack them. Because they're thin, you can make them in like a minute or two and you still get a nice crust on them, but they're still juicy on the inside.

What's the most you've ever seen somebody order?
Each patty is over two ounces. At the newer location one guy ordered 18 patties. We had to put them nine and nine patties on two buns, because of the cheese they would glide. But he finished them.

Being that you're so old-school Chicago, what do you think of the newer burger trends?
I eat burgers everywhere also and the different toppings and stuff like that. A lot of people come because we are the same, consistent from the beginning. We are kind of like the Chicago burger—just pickles, onions, ketchup, and mustard.

Do you feel like these old school Chicago burger and hot dog places are dying a little bit?
Everybody wants to try something a little bit different, but they always know that they want something they know is going to be good, so they'll go back to the older places. I think a lot of the older places, you go there cause you know what you're going to get.

Is the story about the Cubs and the curse all true?
Yeah. Even my great uncle was always a Chicago fan—Cubs, Sox, everything. We are still the same way, we don't have anything against the Cubs and he didn't either. We don't wish them bad, but if we show up with the goat, maybe they should let us in.
· All 2013 Burger Week Coverage [~ECHI~]

Billy Goat Tavern

1535 West Madison Street, , IL 60607 (312) 733-9132 Visit Website

Billy Goat Tavern

430 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL

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