My burger tastings continue, this time with a visit to the famous Billy Goat Tavern on the lower level of Michigan Avenue.
Most everyone that’s even vaguely close to me in age knows the Billy Goat Tavern, if only by reputation, since it’s the inspiration for the “cheezeborger cheezeborger” SNL skit. It’s also a chronic inhabitant of online “top 10 burger” lists, so it’s definitely one of those places I had to review for completeness (this wasn’t my first visit, I’ve been there several times before, albeit without camera.
The Billy Goat is definitely one of those places where ambiance is an important part of the experience. It’s somewhat hidden in its subterranean location. The interior is dark, the decor still reeking of the 1960s when they moved into this location, and the staff is entertainingly surly (although mostly playing to the crowds when busy, when quiet, they are pretty friendly, actually). There’s a bit of a soup nazi air to the place: the line forms here, you order here, and you wait for your burgers here. No exceptions. And I don’t mind that, I like joints with just a hint of surliness (if I didn’t, half the places I’ve given good reviews too wouldn’t be here).)
Burgerwise, I rather like the burgers at the Billy Goat. Mind you, the burgers themselves aren’t all that special: thin, machine-formed patties. Indeed, they are thin enough that if you don’t get a double, the whole meat-to-bun ratio is going to be way off. But the burgers are well cooked (I’m not sure they clean the grill often, which probably is part of where that je-ne-sais-quoi comes from), with a pleasant sear. The condiments are self-serve, with nice whole onion slices and nice dill pickles to make the burger. However, I think it’s the bun that actually makes the burger here. Served on a nice, crusty, substantial kaiser roll (and not just a regular bun with a kaiser roll pattern on it), the good substance to this roll is what makes this burger.
All-in-all, the Billy Goat Tavern is a good experience, although if someone claimed the burgers were over-rated, I’d have to agree with them, begrudgingly. They are good, but they just aren’t in the same class as one of my other favorites (a Great Big One from the Chuck Box in Tempe, AZ, circa 1991, or a cheeseburger from Miller’s Bar in Dearborn, MI). But certainly not disappointing, and one of the better burgers I’ve had recently.