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The Billy Goat is authentic Chicago

Dining and DrinkingNewspaper and MagazineBars and ClubsHotel and Accommodation IndustryChicago Tribune

#savethegoat

That's how people communicate now, particularly young people, what with their hashtags and their tweets.

And dads like me with social media-adept teenagers at home watch in wonder as Twitter wars among the young rage on various fronts, those pungent opinions flying.

I just love it when young people argue about what is truly authentic about Chicago, one-upping each other on the best dives in the city. This one has a late night tamale guy. Another one has a guy you better not talk to.

They rediscover old places, and some search for the city that was, before downtown was turned into a theme park.

If they're still looking, they might want to walk down the stairs off Michigan Avenue, into the shadows, to find a part of Chicago truly worth saving:

The Billy Goat Tavern.

The Goat is a real tavern, a working man's tavern, not a party place for climbers. You can drink there and not go broke. Drafts cost only $3.50, and the bartenders refuse to float fruit in your beer.

You can also get the best breakfast deal in the city, a giant grilled kaiser roll thick with bacon, egg and cheese and a cup of coffee, for around five bucks.

"You feed the people. You pour them a drink," said my friend, proprietor Sam Sianis. "I always like this."

Yes, it has history, Chicago history, newspaper history, and the bylines over the bar speak to newspaper nostalgia. Decades of cigar smoke are embedded into the walls, like memories, and the stories of all the goats Sam would bring down to entertain columnists.

Including the one that Chris the grill man washed with a hose out back one February, creating the first goat-Popsicle. End of goat.

But the Goat has been in the news lately, and the news is, well, unsettling.

A few days ago news reports began circulating that the owner of the building, the National Association of Realtors, was thinking about developing a new giant high-rise, and if it were any other development, it wouldn't mean much.

Yet this one threatens the Billy Goat. Sam and his sons have no plans to move. Sam says he has had a great relationship with the Realtors.

"I remember when a newspaper man and the Realtor president came for a drink, when the Billy Goat was on West Madison," Sam said. "I poured them a drink. And they looked at me and the man said, 'We want you to come downtown and open up on Lower Michigan.' And that's what we did. We opened the place. It was 1964."

And a few years ago, when the Realtors set up shop in Washington, they asked Sam to open a Billy Goat there. He did. There are several Billy Goat Taverns now.

The one on Lower Michigan Avenue is the one that I grew up in, back when I was a kid, when I foolishly thought that authentic Chicago meant passing tests and quizzes about trivia.

But there comes a time when being of Chicago — even if you now live in the suburbs — means knowing the eternal truth:

We're all screwed.

That's when you walk down into the Goat and have a beer and realize all your brothers and sisters are down there, too, drinking beer and eating the pickle slices off wax paper and telling stories.

I haven't been hitting it much in recent years. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. for the radio gig and coming home past 8 p.m. after the newspaper column is done can absolutely ruin your drinking life.

But I've known Sam Sianis and his family since I was a 19-year-old copy boy for the Chicago Tribune. For years when I wrote a Monday column, I'd write it on Sunday mornings there, at a quiet table, when smoking wasn't illegal.

I've been to his children's weddings. Sam and his wife were at my father's funeral. So on Thursday, I stopped to see an old friend.

We sat in the back, against a portrait of the Goat — the one that cried like some baseball icon when the Cubs fell out of yet another pennant race — and talked about what worried me.

Will the Billy Goat ever go upscale?

"No," said Sam. "If I move, I'm gonna be the same way. The walls are gonna be the same, The bar's gonna be the same. The tables are gonna be the same. The chairs are gonna be the same. I'll bring everything with me."

The grill was spitting behind us, grill men flipping the famous cheeseburgers, the perfume of sizzling meat on hot steel.

What about the special aroma? Sam said he'd find a way to bring that too.

And fancy beers? Beer with floating chunks of fruit?

"No," Sam said, rejecting the fruit idea. "Same beer."

You're not gonna have a beer that you put an orange in?

"No," said Sam. "I don't do that."

What about beer that you put honey in?

"No," he said, thinking I meant floating some honeydew melon. "Honeydew? No."

Lemon? Sometimes they put lemon in the fancy beer.

"Now if he wants to have a lemon, give him a slice," Sam said. "Let him do it himself."

Let's hope Sam and his sons can do this themselves. But they might need help.

So I ask you, not for me, not for memory, but for all those young people looking for what's real about downtown Chicago.

I've written it in the modern tongue, that language of thumbs on the keypad of a smartphone. It means what it says:

#savethegoat

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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