*Spoilers for “The Bear,” Season 2 below
Season 1 of FX’s The Bear references plenty of Chicago restaurants, but Season 2 really digs into the city’s dining scene in depth as the Beef’s crew seeks inspiration for their new fine dining spot, the Bear. Season 2 is a love letter to Chicago’s status as a culinary destination but fully acknowledges how challenging it is for even great restaurants to make it.
In Episode 3, “Sundae,” business partners and co-chefs Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) struggle with creating new dishes (hello, chaos cooking) for the upcoming restaurant’s menu when Carmy suggests going out to reset their palettes. He promises to meet Sydney at Kasama, the world’s first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant. Not only is Kasama one of the best restaurants in Chicago, but it also offers a parallel to The Beef’s transition into the Bear in that it started as a counter service spot serving decadent desserts and even a spin on an Italian beef sandwich before introducing its celebrated tasting menu.
Carmy stands Syd up, but as pissed as Syd is, she clearly finds it hard to stay mad when digging into a longanisa sausage sandwich with hashbrowns, mushroom adobo, and a mango tart. That breakfast kicks off a whirlwind food tour where Syd puts away a seemingly impossible amount of food while getting advice from several top Chicago chefs and restaurateurs played by themselves.
She feasts on dumplings from Lao Peng You, a pepperoni-covered slice from Pizza Lobo and has the titular sundae at Margie’s Candies, an ice cream parlor that’s been open since 1921. At Publican Quality Meats, she browses cuts from Slagel Family Farm in Fairbury, about 100 miles south of Chicago. Slagel is a favorite of Chicago restaurants, and Syd gets a lesson about short rib from head butcher and chef de cuisine Rob Levitt.
But the trip isn’t all delicious. Syd has a dual mission to recruit for the Bear and finds posters for other restaurants struggling to find employees everywhere she goes while she gets zero hits for her online posting. At one point she’s chided for an attempt to poach employees in front of their workplace. Despite a promise from Donnie Madia — co-founder of the Publican’s parent company One Off Hospitality — to send some leads her way, good help turns out to be hard to come by. One of the line cooks the Bear hires disappears during the friends and family service; he’s found in the alley using crack, leaving Syd (and Marcus) both shorthanded and amazed.
Staffing isn’t the only industry challenge the season addresses. Syd’s concerns that Carmy isn’t giving the restaurant his full attention are reinforced by Levitt, who explains that it was a problem with his business partner that led to the abrupt closing of his restaurant. That wasn’t in the script. Levitt tells Eater he channeled his own real-life experiences with the closing of his Wicker Park restaurant Mado in 2010.
The restaurant industry has always operated with razor-thin profit margins. “Uncle” Jimmy (Oliver Platt) notes that rising interest rates mean the restaurant needs to open smoothly so he can recoup some of his investment. Carmy’s sister and project manager Natalie (Abby Elliott) crunches the numbers on ingredient costs and pushes the restaurant to raise prices.
In Episode 3, Syd also reads some sobering industry news including a story from the familiar yet fictitious site Chomp Chicago about the end of Funkenhausen — which served the same type of chaos menu Carmy wants to offer. She browses a running list of closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including sports bar Kroll’s South Loop, and checks up on the shuttering of farm-to-table pioneer The Bristol, which served its last meals on New Year’s Eve after 14 years in business. One headline notes that even the Michelin star Syd covets can’t always save a restaurant from closing, a fact proven last month in the real world when tasting menu restaurant Claudia closed after just a year and a half.
In fact, one of the restaurants Syd visits, Verdana French Bistro, isn’t actually a Chicago restaurant but a plant meant to provide a cautionary tale. As the Bear prepares to open in Episode 9, Syd passes by a sign announcing that the restaurant has closed. For all the kind assurances its chef offered Syd, she couldn’t actually keep her own business open. The Bear the show has proven to be a huge success, but the sobering truth of just how hard it is for a Chicago restaurant to stay afloat will likely continue to be a major plot point for the restaurant the Bear in the — for now— unannounced Season 3.