Behind The Bear: the culinary history of Chicago's River North

What "The Bear" gets right and wrong about the food scene in Chicago's River North.

Behind The Bear: the culinary history of Chicago's River North
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Welcome back to "The Bear," FX’s most-watched half-hour series, starring the charismatic Jeremy Allen White as burned-out chef / prodigal cuz, Carmy Berzatto. In Season 2 we are returned to what was once an old-school Italian beef spot.

This time around, The Original Beef of Chicagoland is being transformed into a fine-dining restaurant called The Bear. The cast of compelling characters, including talented chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), get more screen time this time out. Sydney gets her own episode (more on that one later), as does fan favorite Marcus (Lionel Boyce), who travels to Copenhagen to live on a boat with a phantom cat and stage with an elite pastry chef (played by a lovable Will Poulter).

Mr. Beef on Orleans  in Chicago's River North © Ray Laskowitz/Lonely Planet

If the first season was an unflinching look at the dysfunctional inner workings of a small family restaurant (yes, chef!) this season takes it up about five notches, straddling the line between high-octane personal and family drama and trauma and what it takes to pivot from beef to boeuf.

The city of Chicago, the show's mise en place, is another star of the show. And based on the frenzy over its first season, including fans flocking to Mr. Beef on Orleans, the real-life inspiration for The Berf The Original Beef of Chicagoland and Chicago Italian beef sandwiches appearing on menus all over the U.S. What the show gets right and wrong about the restaurant scene in Chicago has been the subject of many debates. But what's not in dispute is the true culinary history of the neighborhood where "The Bear" is set.

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Where's the beef?

The actual Mr. Beef and its fictionalized counterpart are located in the River North neighborhood of Chicago and although the show gets other details right about authentic Chicago culture, like local restaurant critic Steve Dolensky’s photo on the wall, a Blackhawks jersey hanging behind the counter and constant references to the Bears and White Sox and the Blue's Brothers, the portrayal of the River North neighborhood is not so accurate. 

“The Bear” constantly references the gentrification of the neighborhood and concern that customers would protest an upscale menu change. Well, Chicago’s River North neighborhood has hosted gentrified food concepts and upscale restaurants for at least 40 years. In fact, it’s the headquarters for iconic Chicago eateries that have helped define the city’s cuisine. 

Gene & Georgetti in Chicago has been serving up steaks since 1941.  © courtesy Gene & Georgetti

Truth is better than fiction

Perched between the main and north branches of the Chicago River, River North boasts art galleries, legendary architecture and a host of famous Chicago restaurants. The area was rebuilt as an urban center after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and evolved into the industrial hub of the city. Today, the factory and warehouses are home to nightclubs, galleries and design firms, with restaurants lining the rest of the community’s bustling streets.  The Windy City is noted for its deep-dish pizza, Italian Beef, hot dogs and steakhouses and all of these dishes were established at River North restaurants. 

A landmark destination for Chicago Italian beef sandwiches, Mr. Beef serves up a taste of real Chicago food. Opened in 1963, Mr. Beef was the first Italian Beef stand to set up downtown but the sandwich, which requires 3-4 days to marinate, cook, freeze and slice, originated around the end of WWI in the Little Italy neighborhood on the near west side. Mr. Beef spread the dish’s popularity beyond the neighborhoods and eventually all over the U.S.  

Serving up a deep dish pizza at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. © Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Deep dish dishing

Chicago and deep-dish pizza are synonymous and Pizzeria Uno is the spot where it reportedly started in 1943. Step into a charming Victorian mansion and savor a recipe that combines old-world Italian crust with high edges and spread into pans like an apple pie crust and layered with gobs of cheese and toppings.  

Steakhouses are another Chi-town staple and Gene & Georgetti is the oldest, serving up perfectly cooked steaks and chops since 1941. Pull up to a table, draped with a white table cloth, surrounded by old-school wood paneling and dig into classics like a thick bone-in ribeye or a broiled veal chop accompanied with Vesuvio potatoes (another quintessential Chicago dish). 

A classic Chicago dog has fresh tomatoes, diced onions, green relish, peppers, pickle, yellow mustard and a dash of celery salt. © Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Top dogs

A Chicago-style hot dog is really a hand-held feast — an all-beef sausage topped with mustard, relish, onions, sport peppers, tomatoes, a pickle spear and a dash of celery salt in a steamed poppy seed bun. The best place to sink your teeth into one in River North is at Portillo’s. A Chicago institution since 1963, this bi-level restaurant also supplies Italian beef sandwiches so foodies can stuff their faces with two Chicago traditions at the same time. 

River North's new crop

Hardly new, but a trailblazer for fancy-ish Mexican food to the city, is Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1987. Bar Goa, an Indian bar and gastropub from chef Sahil Sethi features cuisine with Portuguese influences along with dishes from the southern island of India for which is named, burst onto the scene in 2021 and is already one of the city's top spots. 

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In season 2 of "The Bear" several other contemporary Chicago restaurants (and chefs and owners) show up, adding a new layer of authenticity to the proceedings. In episode 3, chef Sydney does a foodie version of Ferris Bueller's day off, sampling dishes from restaurant to restaurant, including Kasama, a Filipino restaurant with a Michelin star, River North stalwart Avec (where Sydney seeks advice from owner Donnie Madia) and Publican Quality Meats, where she talks meat with real-life head butcher Rob Leavitt.

So next time you're in the Windy City, do yourself a flavor favor and try out all of these fantastic restaurants, new and old. While "The Bear" is an intensely tasty binge, Chicago's restaurant scene is to be savored.

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