Most bars are run by characters, but the Billy Goat might have had the quirkiest one of all. William “Billy Goat” Sianis acquired the Chicago bar in 1934 and soon changed the name to reflect his own nickname, Billy Goat. Why did people call him Billy Goat? Because he kept an actual goat that wandered into the bar. He even grew a goatee so he could look like his farmyard pet. He later put a curse on the Cubs when they wouldn’t let him bring the goat into Wrigley Field. The Cubbies haven’t won a Series since. The bar’s current owner was stubbornly not available for comment.
Los Angeles, CA
We know it started as a neighborhood bar in 1970. We know it switched to pole dancing in 1982. We know that they pour strong drinks and have pictures of modestly sad clowns on the walls, and allow the strippers to just pick songs they like on the jukebox. We’ve heard whispers that it was started by a former circus clown named “Jumbo Jack,” who just wanted a regular bar with pictures of clowns on the walls and ladies cavorting. But, despite six calls to the establishment, we couldn’t find one person who could get beyond: “Yeah, that sounds about right.” Though it kind of does, doesn’t it?
Taffer’s take: “One of my favorites. Great name. I love this one. It’s a nationally marketable name.”
New York, NY
Doug Thompson (bartender): “It comes from three things. The first part is from the original owner, Marie Dumont. The “Crisis” comes from Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, because he died on this spot. There’s a historical plaque outside and everything. And “Cafe” is what the place was when it opened in the ‘20s, before it became a piano bar in the ‘70s."
Taffer’s take: “It’s great, and I’ll tell you what’s great about it: everyone wants to be somewhere that’s relevant. And when you hear a story like that with a connection to society, you feel like you’re in a relevant place. And that matters.”
Don Kolp (general manager): “The bar opened in 1972, and the original owner, Arty Krause, was a gay thespian. In the ‘70s, I don’t think gay people were accepted anywhere, and Arty’s vision for the restaurant was not the norm, either. But the explanation for the name is on our menu: ‘The Brotherhood of Thieves, was taken from the title of an 1844 pamphlet written on Nantucket by Stephen S. Foster. The pamphlet vigorously attacked those who continued to support the institution of slavery, even as the tide of abolition rose. Diversity and strong opinion have always found a tolerant home on the island. During the Revolutionary War, Patriots, Tories, and Quaker pacifists coexisted here and pleaded, unsuccessfully, for neutrality. A unique spirit developed here, one based on uncompromising independence and strength of character. Today, on Nantucket, the idea of rugged individualism, personal liberty, and the fostering of eccentricity still exists and continues to thrive.’”
The kind of place Charles Dickens might name, if someone gave him a Texas bar instead of hundreds of bleak pages to fill. Hard Times, we understand, is a great bar for anyone who wants to shoot pool over some Bob Seger. It also features at least one very patient bartender, who took no less than 10 calls from us asking for the mysterious owner, who apparently has not been seen for days. If you spot him, please send help.
The Pitch & Roll
Formerly of Alaska
It is no longer with us, but having spent a great deal of time thinking about bar names, we feel The Pitch & Roll merits inclusion. When it ran, until its funding was cut recently by the Alaska Marine Highway System, it was a bar on the Tustumena, a ferry that carries people through the rough waters around the Aleutian chain to Dutch Harbor. It was reputed to be a great bar. And one with a great name. One that functions on a literal and figurative level, gets a laugh, and can't be forgotten. In other words, someone should revive it, pronto.
Additional research by Ellen Keohane.
Appendix: The most common bar names in America, according to Foursquare
Numbers are approximate and subject to change.
The Pour House: 40 bars
The Bar: 37
The Office: 26
On the Rocks: 25
Tiki Bar: 24
Moose Lodge: 18
R Bar: 18
The Pub: 18
The Spot: 17
The Tavern: 17
Corner Bar: 16
Jon Taffer, on common bar names: “As an owner, I think it’s all downside. First of all, I can’t get a trademark on it because it’s used all over the place. A name has to be unique enough that you can trademark it and own your brand. Otherwise, look: pull up a Pour House online, and there will be terrible write-ups from people all over the country reviewing the wrong Pour House. There are some shitty Pour Houses out there. Now you have baggage from other people. I’d rather the brand be established by me. Controlled by me. And not some bar on the other side of town that’s affecting my reputation.”
Us, on the upside: Hey, at least you know it’s a bar.