Famed Burger Joint Hosts Rare Bar Mitzvah Bash

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.

CHICAGO — In a subterranean lair beneath the streets here is a dimly lit bar called the Billy Goat Tavern, a place with a storied past and a reputation for diverse characters. But one thing it had never seen before this week was the hora.

Last Saturday, though, guests danced in a circle while 13-year old William Taylor was lifted on a tattered chair and paraded around the short-order grill to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

While many of his friends went the traditional route of booking the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom, Taylor and his parents chose a crusty tavern most famous for its cheeseburgers — the ones immortalized in the “Saturday Night Live” skit in which John Belushi yelled, “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No fries, cheeps!”

This most unkosher of cultural symbols was emblazoned on the back of the T-shirts that Taylor’s guests received — though egg-and-cheese sandwiches on kaiser rolls were also served for those following dietary rules more strictly.

“Bar mitzvahs have became a matter of who can outdo who financially,” said Rick Kogan, a local radio personality and a friend of the family who attended the party and spoke about it the next morning on his show. “This is a regular kind of place, where I suspect that few of William’s contemporaries have been,” Kogan said. “I think it’s a remarkably healthy place for a young child.”

Aside from its cheeseburgers, the Billy Goat is famous as a hangout for writers from the Chicago Tribune, headquartered across the street. Mike Royko, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, used to occupy a table in the corner and talk politics with the regulars. The bar mitzvah boy’s mom, Elizabeth, who is the editor of the Tribune’s Sunday magazine, found the Billy Goat a natural spiritual home. “So much of my Jewish identity is being an outsider and a crusader, and that’s what journalism is about,” she said. “In a way, this is the ultimate underdog hangout.”

It was, after all, William “Billy Goat” Sianis — the original owner — who cursed the Chicago Cubs baseball team in 1945 after his goat was refused entry to Wrigley Field; since then the Cubs have never won the World Series.

For Taylor, the allure of the tavern came from all the days off from school when Kogan would take him to the Billy Goat for chess and a cheeseburger.

“Will’s become a real familiar face around here for such a young guy,” said Bill Sianis, son of the current owner.

Sianis said he did not remember hosting a bar mitzvah party before, but said he saw the logic. “This is the Jewish thing for becoming a man, right?” Sianis asked. “Well, this is where this kid has seen what it means to be an adult.”



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