Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Billy Goat

I was in Chicago this past weekend and had a chance to check out a couple of places I've never been to before. I wanted to take a minute to pay respects to what is surely a Chicago institution; The Billy Goat Tavern. There are many bars named the Billy Goat in Chicago, there is even one in Washington DC, but the original is located at 430 N. Michigan in the lower level.

For those of you who don't know the story you can find it here and here. And for those of you who don't understand what makes this place so important to fans of the Chicago Cubs, you might want to bone up on your history. Now personally, I don't believe in "the Curse of the Billy Goat", or simply the Curse, as the Chicago and national media have termed it. If there is any curse on the Cubs, it stems from the last time they won the Fall Classic, in 1908. In my mind, if there is a curse it is certainly centered around the events of that year's pennant race and especially the event known as Merkle's Boner.

Moving on from that, despite the fact that I don't believe in "the Curse of the Billy Goat", I still feel the need to pay homage to this classic American neighborhood tavern. The original Billy Goat, called the Billy Goat Inn, no longer exists. But, much of the atmosphere of the original was transferred to it's new location at lower Michigan and Hubbard streets. When this version of the Billy Goat was opened there was no lower or upper Michigan Ave. This soon changed though, and eventually the Billy Goat saw upper Michigan Ave. built right over it, shielding it from sunlight forever. This adds to the mystique of the place. It would be an easy thing to do to spend a couple of days in the Billy Goat and never know when it was night or day.

The Billy Goat was (I say was because it has become somewhat of a tourist trap) the quintessential neighborhood tavern. It was a haven for policemen, politicians, and especially newspapermen. It's walls are crowded with the names and pictures of these journalists as well as singers, actors, and a few presidents. But none of these people held the Billy Goat closer to their hearts than Chicago newspaper columnist, Mike Royko. He wasn't the only one who fell in love with this place. John Belushi and Bill Murray also frequented the tavern. They even turned Sam Sianis, nephew of the original owner, into a caricature for a skit on Saturday Night Live.

Anyone who has respect for the tradition of the neighborhood tavern should visit this place. Other than the history there's nothing really special about it. The burgers are nothing fancy (get a double because they're pretty thin) and the beers aren't especially cheap ($3 for a Schlitz on draft). But what the Billy Goat lacks in thrift, it makes up for in hospitality. As soon as you walk in you feel like you taking part in  history, even if only for short time.

The Billy Goat now is much different than it was 20, even 10 years ago. It's more of a tourist spot now. I spent an hour in there and the place was a revolving door of families and groups coming and going in 15 minute increments. Not to say though, that if you were to venture in on cold January night in the middle of the week, you wouldn't be able to find an old timer in there to tell you about the good old days. The days when Royko sat in the Wise Guys Corner and argued anything, when Sam Sianis would test his strength by lifting bar stools with his teeth, when a goat sat at the bar next to you and drank beer, when bars were second homes and not soulless nightclubs. Cheers to the neighborhood tavern and cheers to the Billy Goat.

And one more thing... Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger, no fries chip, no Pepsi Coke!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fox Pub and Cafe

The Fox Pub and Cafe is located at 7800 N. Sommer St. in north Peoria. It actually resides in the building that formerly housed Double A's Pizza in the shopping center adjacent to the old K's Merchandise, off of Pioneer Parkway. The Fox is a nice (classy, no belligerent drunks) place that caters mostly to a lunch and dinner crowd. Currently they are only open until 10 PM. I would think, however that this closing time is flexible depending on the crowd on a given night.

The Fox has good beers on draft (Guinness, Harp's, Smithwicks) as well as a small wine selection. The prices are reasonable, a Guinness and gin and tonic cost me only $7. The Fox has a pretty extensive menu that covers everything from a basic cheeseburger to more extravagant fare. There is a section on the menu called "Cock and Bull". Apparently this is an English term for sandwiches, meaning that one can substitute chicken for beef (hamburger) on any one of the sandwiches included in the section. I haven't eaten there yet but everything on the menu sounded good and I have no doubt that the food is fresh and well prepared.

Not surprisingly The Fox is an English themed bar. This is due to the fact that the owner is an Englishman, who many years ago made the unfortunate decision to leave his homeland and emigrate to the Midwest. Prior to opening The Fox, he owned and operated the River Beach Pub in Chillicothe.

Another aspect of The Fox worth mentioning is it's connection to hockey, especially the Peoria Youth Hockey Association. The PYHA holds some of their meetings at The Fox and the Cheesemans are extensively involved with youth hockey in the Peoria area. One of the sons, Bo spent 4 years in pro hockey playing for minor league NHL affiliates in various leagues, including a stint with the Peoria Rivermen back in the their ECHL days. So, not only can you expect to catch English Premier League football (that's right the original football that actually involves using one's feet) games there, you can also count on watching a variety of NHL games there on a given night. I am currently looking forward to the upcoming USA/England World Cup match, at which time I will go to The Fox and talk all kinds of shit to the Cheesemans, despite the fact that the US will probably get their collective asses handed to them. So mark your calendars for June 10, 2010. The US team will be taking on those imperial bastards from across the pond at 1:30 in the afternoon. Join me at The Fox for beers and many drunken chants of USA! USA! USA!

16th of August 2010 Update: First off, we won! Ok, we tied but that's better than losing, right? Secondly, I have finally eaten at the Fox and it was a good experience. I had the fish and chips which was fantastic. My guest had the brisket which was also good but left a little bit to be desired in the portions departments. It was fine for her but I would have liked it to be a little larger. There was however, plenty of "chips" (read: fries) to go around, both meals left us with leftovers. With two pints of London Pride and some chips and salsa, our bill was just over thirty dollars. Let me just say that, it might have been just me but London Pride is some strong shit. It tastes a little like Smithwick's but less bitter and despite stuffing myself with fish and chips, I still had a pretty good buzz going when we left. Yay London Pride!

So, if you work in the area go check out The Fox Pub and Cafe for lunch, dinner, or drinks after work, you won't be disappointed. I'm glad The Fox has opened and Peoria now has a refuge for those of us who appreciate hockey and football (soccer if you must), two sports that generally don't get the respect they deserve. Now I know where I'll go to watch the Blackhawks make their run for Lord Stanley's Cup and the occasional Premier League match on Saturday mornings (brunch anyone?). So, cheers to the Cheesemans and cheers to The Fox, a Peoria sanctuary for the world's games.

7th of July 2011 Update: The Fox seems like it's become a pretty popular place especially on Thursday "Trivia" nights.  That is all for now.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vonachen's Old Place; Peoria Institution no more

Beginning tomorrow the building at the corner of Knoxville and Prospect that was formerly VOP's will be razed, making way for a new development. VOP's closed on August 31, 2008 after nearly 52 years in business. For a short time it was known as Bud's Aged Steaks before reverting back to Vonachen's Old Place once again. There are many theories as to why the restaurant failed after so many years of success. I think the simplest of those would be that the novelty of dining in an old rail car finally wore off. Not to say that VOP's didn't have good food and a great atmosphere, I just don't think it had a customer base large enough to support the facility.
I remember eating there many times as a kid and I always made my parents request a table in the train car. It was a truly unique experience and it saddens me that someday if (god forbid) I have kids I won't be able to take them there. The train cars will be donated to the Wheels 'O' Time museum on N. Knoxville, just south of the Lake of the Woods shopping center.

For a short time in the fall of 2007 I worked at VOP's busing tables. I can say that it was a good experience. The staff was like family and the regular customers were very polite. I'm glad to say that I spent some amount of time in what will now be a part of history.

The positive side of this story is that now, the owners of Junction City can pursue other opportunities and bring in a business (or businesses) that might draw more people to the area. With the recent renovations taking place in the shopping center, I don't think anyone is surprised at this news but it is sad nonetheless. Whatever business occupies the lot where Vonachen's once stood I hope is a success. The owners of Junction City, Alexis and Elizabeth Kazzaam have done a great job in restoring the shopping center and attracting new businesses and this is undoubtedly a step in that direction.

While the majority of my memories of VOP's are good ones there is one that is not. I was working there until close on the night of Saturday October 6, 2007. Not ringing any bells? This was the night that, after an 85 win season (and the first of Lou Piniella's tenure as manager), the Chicago Cubs were swept out of the playoffs by the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks. Thus, crushing any hopes that the Northsiders would not go 100 years without a World Series Championship. It was not to be. I'll never forget standing in the bar with the cook, who was also a huge Cubs fan watching Jose Valverde pitch to Alfonso Soriano who promptly hit a pop fly to right field on an 0-2 pitch. I was crushed. But as a Cub fan that's a feeling one becomes accustomed to. Now when someone asks me where I was on that fateful night, I can say "a place that no longer exists". Cheers to Vonachen's Old Place and cheers to believing that someday we'll go all the way.