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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Memories of Edith's Bar-B-Q in Chicago, with a nod to Billy Goat's

Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to writer, actor and comedian Harold Ramis, who few people know left a promising newspaper career in Chicago to make me laugh. He also was close friends with people who introduced this budding journalist to the place where I met Mike Royko.
Eighty years ago, Greek immigrant William Sianis bought a downtown Chicago tavern for little more than $200, with a check that bounced but was repaid with proceeds from the first weekend. Better known as The Billy Goat, the bar became nationally famous through a classic 1978 “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray.

Many years later, I was in Chicago on business with a colleague who trusted the tourism literature more than the restaurant knowledge I’d gleaned from going into the city regularly with my parents while growing up in Northwest Indiana.

I convinced him that we had to go The Billy Goat.

For many years, it was a frequent end of the night stop for reporters and editors at the nearby Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, which certainly made it a draw for a couple of ex-reporters.  When I was a journalism student, I met the typically gruff columnist and Chicago institution Mike Royko there.

I had been arguing with my colleague, Richard, against going to popular hangouts such as Ed Debevic’s when, as good fortune would have it, the restaurant critic from the Sun-Times happened to sit next to us at the bar.

After exchanging opening pleasantries, he asked where we were planning to eat that night. We told him that we were looking for good barbecue.

He proceeded to tell us about the kind of place that doesn’t exist anymore. Old age and the wrecking ball have done away with the place where we ate that night, a simple but classy barbecue restaurant along the Clyborne corridor, west of Halstead Street on the near North Side.

Memories remain fresh of my 1993 visit to Edith’s Bar-B-Q, then located at 1863 N. Clybourn Ave. For more than a quarter century, the diminutive Edith Colston made barbecue ribs using recipes she brought with her from Alabama. 

The bright light coming through the windows of Edith’s provide great contrast to an otherwise then a dark and bleak street. Alone in the restaurant, she unlocked the door to let us in. Green and orange were the primary colors. We sat at the counter and she poured us water into old fashioned Dixie cups goblets.

By then, Edith was about 60 years old. She told us about growing up in the South and how as a young African American woman she moved to Chicago. But she turned quiet with a smile as she watched us sink into her tender, hickory-smoked barbecue ribs. She possessed great dignity and obvious satisfaction from bringing others such great pleasure.

"This is a good business if you are willing to work and watch the business," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. "And you've got to like people. Last night I closed the doors at 8:45, but there were customers in here until 11 just talking and having a good time. I could have shooed them out and gone to bed, but that's the business."

Chicago is the kind of city where a restaurant won’t survive unless it is good. Some of Edith’s contemporaries, such as Carson’s and Lem’s, may be better known, but Chicago Magazine said her sauce was the best. Others said it was heavenly.

It’s likely she took her sauce recipe with her to the grave. In a 1991 Business Week article also about Charlie Vergos of Memphis’ The Rendezvous, she told the writer, “Nobody gets that … That’s mine till I finally go.”

Unfortunately, the next time I tried to visit Edith’s, with my wife, it had closed. My research indicates that she died in 1994.

But by then the neighborhood had changed as well. Many of the storefronts were filling up with fancy burger joints delis, sports bars and other places gentrified by well-heeled entrepreneurs. Until last year, the Goose Island Brew Pub was just up the street.

“I first came to this neighborhood because it was quiet, no bars, not a lot of activity,” Colston told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “You see, my clientele is citywide and they always came to me.”

Today, it seems strange to think that Billy Goat’s has nine locations in the Chicago area. The original location I’ve always visited, at 430 N. Michigan Ave., has temporarily been displaced due to redevelopment. City officials promise that it will return.

It better return, because I need to find someone to tell me where to go for good barbecue in Chicago, now that Edith’s is gone.

Location we visited:
Edith's Bar-B-Q
1863 N. Clybourn Ave
Chicago, Ill.


  1. Everything i know about barbecue, i learned from her

  2. this was my Aunt by marriage...when I was a kid my family would go to the restaurant on a hot summer night . Play the juke box..and eat her so good bar-b que. I was always a fan of the thin french fries she served with the yummy sauce...those were the good ole days..

    1. I used to live nearby. Could smell the smoke when the wind was right, it would defiantly draw you in. Was her son, your nephew, named Floyd? That's the name I remember now. Anyway, a great spot with great, great ribs and rib tips. Your Aunt allowed us byob privileges. Watched the OJ slow speed chase there and plenty of bulls games on cold winter nights, great memories. And I had a side deal going with Floyd, when he started working regularly prior to Edith's passing: I would drop a whole chicken with him when he opened and he would hide it in the back of the smoker and I'd pick it up when I got home after work. I always had to do it "carry out", he told me his mom would kill him if she ever found out a chicken had passed through her smoker!

  3. hi there,

    I am niece by marriage..Not sure if you knew her husband.he is my mother's Uncle...Floyd the name is familiar..i'm the youngest girl in my family..i do remember my mother and brothers saying his name...I know Keith and Rodney...I used to love her french fries too... thanks for writing..

  4. and ooh yea...she did not like anybody messing around with her may have called the dogs...yup...those are good memories

  5. The last time I went to Edith's it was being run by a man who said he was her son. He was on electronic monitoring at the time. Had a great story about it. Super friendly and food was still outstanding.

    I still go to Billy Goats. Went the night the Cubs won the NLCS. Special moment