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Consider the Bartender

You won’t find the Billy Goat Tavern’s Jeff Magill making flashy pours or mixing exotic cocktails. It’s not those things that make a great bartender.

Above: Magill at the Michigan Avenue outpost of the Billy Goat Tavern  Photo: Taylor Castle

A real bartender remembers you. He uses your name. A real bartender makes it seem as if he’s been standing there all along, waiting for you. Ready for you. The bartender inhabits certain roles in the room: captain and commander, steward of arrival and departure, calm eye of a stormy night, willing servant of want, interpreter of need. He sets the tone, keeps the peace, gives a recommendation or two, makes sure the pours are fair, watches the door and the clock, monitors the most distant tables—all in service of establishing the tenor and efficiency of the joint. That’s a real bartender. He elbows open the bar’s hours to talk with you. He listens to you. He hears you. He studies a bit. He might come to tell you what’s what or dole out advice. If he does, you remember it. And you always remember a real bartender.

Consider this one:

It’s 3:45 p.m. on a Thursday, and Jeff Magill is whipping through answers on Jeopardy! as he works behind the bar at the Billy Goat Tavern: “What is Luxor?” “What is a hippo?” “Who is Hammurabi?” Like that. He’s uttering them over his shoulder, up toward the chin of the television. He’s not particularly prideful about it. Not showing off. He just seems to know some things about Egypt. It’s an everyday ritual. No one else is even trying. Eight or nine people, tourists and a couple of regulars, look at their phones, read newspapers, poke around in a Nordstrom bag. It’s hard to say whether they don’t know much or don’t care much. The fact that they are drinking in a bar on a weekday afternoon might be proof of either. Jeff Magill, however, knows, and he cares.


Eventually, he blanks on an entire category, and then Jeopardy! goes to commercial. Magill leans forward against the bar. “I’ll tell you what bothers me, Tom,” he says. He’s good at that first-name thing. Really good. “I think Chicago has to be the only market in America where they don’t show Jeopardy! after the evening news, at 7 or 7:30, when people can watch it. When it can do the most people the most good.” His voice is smooth, pneumatic, and soft. He’s often wary of holding forth, but he says a great deal in a small space. He pulls three glasses, checks for spots, jingles them with ice, pours gin without a wasted drop, gives them a knock of tonic, picks the limes with care. He is quiet and precise with the business of the bar. “It’s like the people running this station think Chicago can’t handle Jeopardy! Which is simply and utterly . . . that’s just anti-intellectual. Isn’t it, Tom? I really feel that. It’s a kind of gradual lowering of expectation.” He pours some more gin. “I’ve said it for years. It concerns me.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. He is not overly obsessed with whacked-out theories about game-show airtimes. This is just two guys shooting the shit about something that sticks in the craw. It’s a bar, after all. Then Magill asks, as he is wont: “What do you think?”

And he listens for the answer, on an empty afternoon. Because he is a bartender.


Jeff Magill is not prone to the flash that some people associate with tending bar. He doesn’t flip bottles, raise up for elaborate long pours, or float pomegranate seeds atop obscure Brazilian cocktails. He stays small. Not a small guy. Magill is of average height, lean and athletic. He plays golf nearly every day. Nine holes in Downers Grove, where he lives with his wife, where he raised three grown children. Nine holes every morning, with his friends the dew sweepers, before he commutes to work. It leaves some muscle on his bones.

It’s a smallness of aspect, a kind of humbleness of position. Magill doesn’t dominate the room, doesn’t recycle stories for easy laughs. He prefers dialogue to monologue. He does his prep work without calling attention to his speed. He recommends beers without a sales pitch. He looks like a librarian. No uniform. Solid colors in a muted spectrum, shirt unfailingly tucked in. And over it, a sensible icon of male humility: the cashmere sweater vest.

Magill has worked the same bar for 34 years: the oldest Billy Goat Tavern, sitting in the darkness beneath the Mag Mile like a bug in the amber of the 1960s. No mahogany, no hip lighting, no unifying postmodern design. It’s just a bar. When empty, it looks a little like a diner in a Toledo bus station. When it’s full, really jammed, it’s 1984 again: loud, littered with newspaper reporters, retail clerks, ex-cops, jewelry saleswomen, out-of-towners, commodities traders, South Siders, former priests—the opinionated and the unemployed, wounded men and the men who wound them. All of them dealing with Jeff Magill, who runs the bar inimitably, personally, and without apology.


The entire city knows the place—or one of its franchised approximations, anyway. Many of the details are iconic, legendary, familiar, and maybe a little tired: the Saturday Night Live skit, cheezborgers, Belushi, Murray, Royko, Banks, several mayors, the infamy of a curse, the occasional appearance of an actual goat, the cantankerous original owner shouting obscenities in a Greek accent, the forests of mustard bottles, the signs warning customers to take what they get, and the walls lined with tributes from a generation of journalists who once lined the bar here. Stories, man. The place holds a lot of stories.

Why, then, focus on the guy in the sweater vest?

There comes a time to remark on a career, even an unexpected one. Jeff Magill is 64 now. He has been working the bar at the Billy Goat since 1981, having left a job in psychology for a job in bartending, which of course might not be considered a career change at all. “That gets remarked upon a fair bit,” he admits. “It’s a fact that a bartender uses psychology as much or more than a treatment specialist. That’s a condition of the job.” He squints behind his glasses, scans the bar for anyone in need of a pour. “But my learning to tend bar, that was a condition of me being a married guy with a new family. I needed the dough. But I stayed on in great part because of the psychology used in the job.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Magill graduated from Taft High School in Norwood Park and attended what’s now North Park University. “I wanted to be a doctor. I planned on it,” he says. “But freshman year of college, I ran smack into two lab classes. That was it. I was overmatched.” He moved on to study psychology and eventually went to work as a clinical specialist for the inpatient psychiatric departments of Illinois Masonic and Evanston hospitals. “I had contact with the patients every day, I made contributions to their treatment plan, I led group therapy sessions,” he says. “But I wasn’t really making the decisions. That was left to physicians, whether they deserved it or not.” Frustrated, he quit. He’d been to bartending school and taken some moonlighting gigs, so in March 1981, he put on a tie and went to apply for a full-time job at the Billy Goat, a dive already famous among journalists and infamous among Cubs fans.

“At first, my former teachers, mentors, professors seemed a little shocked. I assumed I’d let them down. But I came to see I was taking their reactions to my choices too seriously. This is an excellent job.” A woman steps up, leans on the bar, and asks Magill for a wine list. He guides her toward beers instead. “I could show you the wine list,” he says. “But it’s a red-or-white thing, basically. Two choices. This is not the place to get wine. It just has to be said.” He gives her a taste of a dark lager, and she is oddly happy. It’s a good read on his part.


On this day, Magill spots a high school journalism class on an anthropological field trip, waiting at the grill for their orders. Kids watching adults drink. They observe from across the tiny gap that separates diners from drinkers, 30 to 40 feet. Half the width of the Billy Goat. “I don’t know how I feel about these visits,” Magill says. “I’m not sure drinking shouldn’t be a private thing. In many ways, a bar is a meditative space. Why demystify the idea of having a drink?” He shrugs. “Obviously, the owners have a right to drive business the way they want. They’re very good at it. I’m not standing in the way. It’s just something I think about when the people in the grill line outnumber the regular customers of the bar by a factor of x.”

The place is a museum of sorts, and the bar is virtually the same as when Magill arrived—same Formica, same fixtures, same shitty fluorescent lighting. That’s how the second-generation family owner Sam Sianis wants things. “These people have given me almost complete physical autonomy to run the bar in whatever way I see fit,” Magill says. “I’m very fortunate. They do what they want with the name, with the brand. The restaurant gets reproduced, the menu, a version of the experience. Does it make the original less important? It’s debatable. But the bar remains the same.”


This may be why the place is populated by so many regulars—the constancy of the subterranean setting. Regulars know why they’re here. Same as yesterday. Same as tomorrow. Magill makes sure of it. He’s here for them, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., even if the folks in the grill line don’t notice.

“I saw this place on Saturday Night Live when I was 10 years old,” says a guy from Modesto in a too-small down jacket and a CalArts T-shirt. “I’ve always wanted to see the original. Bucket list, right? It’s kind of the same as the show. Not really. But you can picture it.

“I didn’t even know there was a bar,” he says once it’s pointed out. And the bartender? “Which?” he says before he picks up on Magill at the tap. “That guy looks like my old professor. I swear. He looks like the Professor. You know, Gilligan’s Island, right? You’re saying he’s the bartender?”


Throughout the afternoon, among the swell of shoppers and the comings and goings of ComEd crews, Magill’s regulars appear. An accountant for an architecture firm who reads the sports page, drinking one bottle, then another, then maybe just one more. A former Chicago Board of Trade member who holds up the end of the bar; he’s completely tapped these days, living at the Y, still walking to the Goat through every manner of lousy weather. He nurses blended whiskey and a month-old unpaid tab, which Magill and the management ignore. (“He has to have a place to go,” Magill says. “And a bar has to be a refuge.”) An old dame who’s moved back to Chicago from the desert to live with her daughter and suffer the cold. Another woman, a housekeeper at the Marriott, who’s known Magill since the mid-’90s. Magill encourages me to sit with them, talk with them. “A bartender’s job is to make connections,” he contends. “You develop an instinct for it. You start to know when one person would do some good for another.”

If these regulars are a chorus in any one way, it is that their greatest connection here is with Magill. “He listens,” the accountant says. “But it isn’t just like he’s taking confession. I’ll tell him things, and he’s not afraid to argue. He’s called me on my shit before. Jeff will straighten you out.” He raises his bottle for a clink. He’s also signaling Magill that he wants another. “And he knows when to leave you alone, too.”

“Jeff has seen a lot,” the former trader says. “So many people. And a lot of them were pretty ugly. . . .”

“Vulgar,” the old dame clarifies.

“Well, it’s a bar, isn’t it?” the old trader says. “You see a lot just sitting in my seat. And this is my seat. This one right here.”

“Long as anyone can remember,” says the old dame.

“Anyone being you,” says the trader.

“I am anyone,” she says. “That’s true.”

“Well, the point is, Jeff will step up for you. He’s seen a lot. A lot. And people have sometimes been terrible. He remains . . .” The trader drifts off, failing to conjure the word. “Steadfast,” perhaps.

“He’s the last gentleman bartender, only bartender in Chicago who knows how to make my Bloody Mary,” the old dame interjects. “And I have lived all over.”


Consider the bartender in the morning. There is no talk then, no treatment of the wounded. It is the brotherhood of the broom, the mop, the towel. The small discoveries: an odd stem of broken glass, a skin of some stickiness, a forgotten jacket with a phone, dead and folded, in the pocket. The morning news? On. Coffee? Steaming. Stock, count, recount, restock. Kneel, reach, grab, swipe, shoulder down into icy boxes to stack the lumber of beer in bottles. The ritual makes for a lonely industry at the mouth of the day. And all of this only sets up the work of the thing. A bartender isn’t really on the job until some Joe walks in off the street with his set of expectations. A cold one. A dry one. A quick one.


“It’s a physical job first,” Magill says. “But a psychological job primarily. You stand a lot. And you walk a lot of miles behind the bar. I’m constantly finding ways to stretch, to deal with my feet.” He talks to most customers with one foot up on the cooler in front of him, stretching his hamstring, loosening his lower back.

At 64, what’s the toll? “Well, I’m lucky enough that it isn’t my body. Things might have gone differently if it had been. My back has held on,” he says. “And it isn’t the mind. I find this very stimulating—a great deal to consider and interesting people to do it with. I don’t know, Tom, there are times when I’m forced to admit that the toll is time. Too many missed dinners with my family.”

Customers approach. Magill explains the wine situation again—the binary choice—to a couple who have tumbled in. There’s not a huge crowd, but it takes some tending, and Magill’s shift is dwindling. It seems important to get answers from him about what makes a great bartender.

“I’m not one to go with the clichés of the job, the techniques,” he says. “You have to be able to balance things, I suppose. You have to move. It’s a real dance to touch all the disparate spaces along the bar. You have to be capable of keeping many relationships going at once.”

He shrugs. “Maybe I’m not the best bartender, not the best mixologist, not the best presence behind the bar, and that may be the why of how I got here. But I don’t know if I believe that being a great bartender is simply a matter of principles of service, standards, or what you might call a craft. I’m of a mind that there is a kind of work that goes on here. I think that the guy at the end of the bar, staring into his beer, is working through some stuff. And so you have to create a place where that can happen. People come here for a reason. A bartender serves that. You want people to get to the point they can find examples of joy.”

Joy. Really?

“Examples of happiness,” he says, looking around at his room, which is starting to fill.


The day winds to a close, handshakes are exchanged. The only windows in the Billy Goat are blocked by picture frames or faded plaid curtains, and there’s no sky outside save the underside of the deck that supports the street above. So it’s always surprising when you see a little daylight still hanging across the tops of the clouds as you climb up to Michigan Avenue. Magill had told me that he likes the perpetual night of the Billy Goat. “Night gets my blood flowing,” he said.


At a highway rest stop on my way home to Indiana, I check my phone, and there it is, a message from Jeff Magill, the ever-thoughtful, deeply philosophical minister and magistrate of the Billy Goat, who has finally allowed himself a monologue. He feels he was unclear. He’s sorry he didn’t answer me more directly about what makes a great bartender:

Yeah, Tom, Jeff here, just got home. You’re probably driving at this point. I just have a few additional thoughts that come to mind, if you get this message. One of the things we didn’t get to: Of course the bar doesn’t always operate in a totally happy, benevolent way. I have little tolerance for tyranny in the bar, and that comes in a variety of ways. The obvious one would be, like, barroom bullies, certainly; the other being something a little more obscure, more a tyranny of largess. It’s the guys who buy the rounds, have the most dough. They kind of control the milieu based on that. That has a subtle way of oppressing people. I don’t like that, and I discourage those things. I just wanted to throw that out there. Another quick thought: I may have at times thought I didn’t celebrate this work of mine adequately, and we touched on that—that somehow it wasn’t as good as it should be for me. Not totally true. But this physician model, for instance—oddly enough, in some ways, other than title and public esteem, the basic relationship, I see myself in there. I mean, people come to bartenders for something. Bartenders dispense medication and maybe sometimes advice, and hopefully people leave feeling better. So that does hold up, and I feel good about that, about presiding over a milieu that creates that sort of an ethic. And one more additional thought has brought me much comfort. I read this many years ago. The great philosopher Spinoza did menial work, but he had one of the great minds of the world, and people would ask him, “You’re a great thinker, why do you do such menial work?” He ground lenses as an oculist, I think, for a living. And his answer was, “It gives me time to think.” And yes, that has brought me great comfort. I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’m a fortunate guy.

And just like that, he owns the whole of it. I’ll remember this bartender as a man who lives by his words.


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