Pop Culture

The Bear Is the Great Chicago TV Show

FX’s new series about a chef who returns home to save his brother’s greasy spoon is one of the few to ever get the city right. 

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Jeremy Allen White as Carmy Berzatto in The Bear, 2022.Courtesy of Frank Ockenfels for FX Networks

When I was 19, I got a summer job working at a beloved little hot dog place about a mile from Wrigley Field on the North Side of Chicago, and either a 15-minute bike ride or two El trains, one bus, and a ten-minute walk from my apartment, thanks to the city’s wonderfully confusing public transportation. The place was cramped and decorated with autographed pictures of famous locals and lots of Cubs and Bears gear, and firefighters and cops always got discounts (cops also received free soda). The soundtrack was mostly older electric blues stuff, and the city’s flag greeted you over the door upon entry. It was stiflingly hot all year round, and the owner yelled a lot, mostly to let me know what a terrible job I was doing: I didn’t put enough relish on the dogs, or hadn’t dipped the Italian beef in the vat of its own juice long enough, and so on. He yelled at me in English, unlike the two Polish cashiers who pretended not to speak the language so I couldn’t understand their complaints about what a bad job I was doing.

I still viscerally remember how tired and dirty I felt at the end of every shift, and how hard it was to get the odor of Vienna Beef water out of my skin. All those sights, slights, and smells came back to me when I watched FX’s new show, The Bear, about a celebrated chef, Carmy (Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White), who returns to try to save his late brother’s Chicago greasy spoon. This Uncut Gems-level-intense half-hour drama is the rare Hollywood production to truly capture my home city, and accurately evoke what it’s like to work in a dingy restaurant. And it puts the two together to perfectly recreate a very specific world that this weiner-slinging veteran knows well: The Bear is as close as you’re going to get to working in a Chicago dive without getting mustard on your clothes.

After my time in the hot-dog mines, I worked every possible sort of food industry job—from busboy to bartender, fry cook to barista. So while most restaurant-set TV shows and movies buy into the glamorized, bad-boy view of chef life recounted by the late Anthony Bourdain, I’d always hoped at least one would try to capture the unglamorous stress one feels working there, whether you’re front of house, being yelled at by drunk customers, or in back, dealing with fires, sharp objects, and the constant buzz of the ticket machine. 

The Bear’s central restaurant is called The Original Beef of Chicagoland (The Beef for short), and it feels plucked from the days when Barack Obama was a political organizer, the Bulls dominated, and the Bears and Blackhawks still stank… but it was charming. The tiniest details are so evocatively IFYKY to a Chicago native: on the Beef’s soda—sorry, pop—fridge, someone slapped a ‘90s-era sticker from radio station B96’s “Killer Bee” days, when DJs Eddie & JoBo talked between songs by La Bouche and Janet era Janet Jackson. There’s a quick glimpse of an autographed Dennis Farina photo on the wall of fame, and Fak, the restaurant’s handyman (played by Matty Matheson), has the 773 area code tattooed on his arm, a signal that he’s likely too young to have grown up with a 312 number. And most crucially, many of the actors capture the subtleties of the hometown accent and avoid tipping into SNL “Superfans” territory.

They also nail the local cuisine. The Beef is named after the city’s famous sandwich, a big hunk of rump roast coated in garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and whatever else the house recipe calls for. After it’s cooked, you save all the juice (gravy, dip, the beef pool, whatever you want to call it), slice it up, and put it on a roll sturdy enough to withstand being dipped. Chicagoans have very specific variations on it and tend to know their orders by heart: “sweet” peppers and/or “hot” giardiniera; dry or “wet” (dipped in the beef juice). And the show spotlights other local meat-based customs: When one person orders a hot dog on The Bear, they say “Drag it through the garden,” which means top it off with mustard, relish, onions, tomato wedges, pickles, green pickled sport peppers, and celery salt. In one episode, Carmy and his cousin, Richie (The Dropout’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach), cater a child’s birthday party, and Richie is offended that Carmy would even suggest they bring ketchup, since it’s a sin to put that on a Chicago dog.

The Chicago vibe extends far beyond the kitchen. The show shares the unrelenting grayness of the city, and the hard lighting of The Bear makes it feel like the usual Chicago day where you hope for that rare moment when the sun emerges from behind the clouds. That’s not a diss against Chicago: It’s just the city’s innate color palette, whether in the skies during the long, miserable winters, or the architecture. There is a lot of gray, black and brown noticeable all over the city with only an occasional pop of patina offering up some color. Bright and bold don’t work well in a city that has offered up its landscape to some of the greatest architects of the last century, from Louis Sullivan to Mies van der Rohe.

And The Bear is well-schooled in Chicago’s class divide. When Carmy’s good-natured but dopey “foodie” brother-in-law mentions he’s a Cubs fan, he’s immediately made fun of because Richie, Carmy, and most of the people who eat at The Beef are South Siders, which often means they’re more working-class, and almost always White Sox fans. They and nearly anybody else from below the Loop see Northside Cub fans as stuck-up yuppies, usually white guys from the suburbs.

It’s frustrating that The Bear is such an anomaly in accurately capturing Chicago, which is usually unfairly or generically represented in movies and TV. The Blues Brothers and Michael Mann’s Thief set the gold standard for using the city and its culture as a backdrop, but those came out over 40 years ago. John Hughes is regularly associated with the city, but aside from half of Ferris Bueller, most of his movies took place in the suburbs, and the Bueller household itself was actually a house…in California.

Today, Lena Waithe’s The Chi, and HBO Max’s South Side get it right, but besides those, just about anything based in or about Chicago focuses on crime, the people who commit it, or the people who fight it: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, and shows like The Chicago Code and the ever-expanding NBC franchise Chicago Fire/Med/P.C./Justice.

The problem with all those cop shows is they buy into a simplistic narrative where good guys fight bad guys, but Chicago is far more nuanced than that. This is a city where one Mayor Daley lorded over the city for over 20 years, then his son took it over a decade later and stayed in office for 22 years, ruling it with the power of the city’s political “Machine.” It’s where you just get used to politicians resigning in disgrace or going to prison (Rostenkowski, Cochran, Blago). It’s a place where the powers-that-be can often do more harm than good in ways felt by the working class and people of color. That’s why many Chicagoans walk the fine line between breaking the law and bending the rules a little, a mindset captured by The Bear. At one point, Carmy discovers that Richie is selling coke out of the alley behind the restaurant. But since the restaurant is having money troubles, he decides that it’s okay for his cousin to do a couple of more deals if it will keep the lights on. Illegal? Sure. But also a practical solution. This embodies the ingrained do what you gotta do mentality of the Chicago little guy. The show doesn’t dwell on the drug dealing, or use it as a “Chekhov’s coke” that will complicate Carmy’s life later in the season; it just is what it is.

Maybe it’s just my hot-dog memories talking, but to me it all comes back to the food. Chicago is definitely not all beef, dogs and deep-dish. It’s high-end dining, with Alinea and its three Michelin stars, or trendy spots like the Publican and Lula Cafe—but it’s also where you’ll get some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, or fried chicken at a Harold’s Chicken Shack, or pretty much anything on the menu at Calumet Fisheries. It’s a city with a ridiculous amount of food choices, and at the heart of The Bear is Carmy’s struggle between his culinary aspirations as a former chef at high-end places like Noma or the French Laundry, and the emotional ties the entire staff have to The Beef’s traditions. And that, more than anything, feels Chicago to me. Everybody at The Beef is proud of what they do. It’s their job, it’s where they work, and they want it to succeed—it’s just turned up to 11 in the kitchen’s cramped, hot quarters. It’s that stubborn blue-collar streak that you can still feel across the city, even as big corporations set up shop and gentrification skyrockets rent. That’s what sets Chicago apart, and it’s what The Bear puts on display.

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