How many times have tourists bravely navigated to the nether-world confines of the original Billy Goat Tavern, descended the dark uneven stairs, took one look at the deteriorating decor and grease-coated light bulbs and thought to themselves: we’re actually going to eat here? At least six, and probably more. Happily, the Billy Goat Tavern Navy Pier provides a sunny and sanitized alternative to the subterranean original, perfect for the families who frequent the Midwest’s #1 tourist attraction.
The Navy Pier edition of Billy Goat Tavern is less than a mile from the famed “original” location, which technically isn’t the original location—but that’s a story better explained in Sean Parnell’s well-researched history on the subject. Just keep walking (and walking) down the pier and eventually you’ll come across the distinctive Billy Goat Tavern sign with its crude half-man, half-goat mascot, like some failed pitch for a DC Comics super-hero.
Step inside and you’ll find a modestly sized wood-paneled room, with the bar and grill set on opposite sides, similar to the original. The L-shaped bar has room for a dozen, with a variety of communal tables in-between to accommodate diners. An outdoor patio flanks the restaurant and offers a decent vantage point providing you don’t mind sharing the space with some tenacious and fearless pigeons. Inside, there are a pair of flatpanel TVs and a fair number of newspaper clippings and old photos which provide a hint of what the flagship location is like. The pseudo-surly countermen take care of the rest.
The countermen’s shtick, familiar to anyone who’s ever flipped past Nick at Nite and seen the Saturday Night Live sketch, has perhaps lost some of its luster, especially when removed from the gritty lower Michigan Avenue locale. So, rather than being funny and irreverent like a classic John Belushi sketch, it’s a bit forced and tired like a Jim Belushi episode of According to Jim. First-timers will get a moderate kick from the antics and a fast-food style burger, which gets better as you alter the burger/cheese ratio, i.e. a double or triple “cheezborger” increases the enjoyment exponentially.
Edited from the SNL sketch was the fact that the Billy Goat is as much a tavern as it is a grill. This is why you’ll often find long lines waiting for the grill and more than a few empty seats along the bar. If you’re looking for a quick drink along your way, the Billy Goat is usually a good option. They have a full bar, with house drinks like the Horny Goat, a limited number of bottled beers and two choices on tap: Billy Goat Lager and Dark. (My taste buds tell me the beer’s re-labeled Schlitz, but I have yet to track down definitive proof.) Specials are limited, but overall this is one of the more value-priced spots on the pier. Of note to night owls and early birds: Billy Goat at Navy Pier serves breakfast every morning starting at 7:30. I’m not saying you want to start your day with a whiskey and a fried egg sandwich, but it’s nice to have options.
If you like the Billy Goat Tavern Navy Pier, you probably owe it to yourself to visit the mother-ship location mentioned above. If burgers are your thing, you could do a lot worse than Hackney’s or Blackie’s on Printer’s Row or Moody’s on the North Side. Now if only the Cubs can figure out a way to break the Billy Goat curse… For more information, check out the Billy Goat Tavern website but enter at your own risk.