The Original Beef of Chicagoland was for many years what it was. A bedraggled River North institution where you could order your beefs through the service window because you really didn’t want to sit at one of those grimy booths. They were good beefs — not Johnnie’s level, not Al’s #1 level, maybe not even Portillo’s level — but solid. Lunch. Hot and dipped.

And then, lo! Last year we were treated to specials that involved neither beef nor sausage, neither wiener nor patty, but rather risotto of a quality I haven’t seen since my last sojourn in Vicenza, where the risotto nero de seppia took my breath away. Yet here was a risotto with braised beef that spoke to my very Chicago soul. I could taste the history of the city from the stockyards to the waves of Italian immigrants bearing fistfuls of seasoning in each luscious, creamy bite. 

What was going on here? I’ll tell you: Carmen Berzatto, that’s what. This scion to the Beef name has recently taken the helm of this venerable institution and turned things around. Why, even the booths have gotten a good scrub. And though I still brought a safety cushion, I wasn’t at all averse to taking my meal in the sun-dappled dining room. 

When I rang up Mr. Berzatto, he modestly gave credit for the risotto to one of his cooks, Sydney Adamu, but I could see right through his ruse. A little digging revealed that “Carmy” had trained at the world’s finest restaurants, from Noma to the French Laundry to Chicago’s very own Ever, where he served as chef de cuisine under the illustrious Andrea Terry, who has always been very kind about taking my requests for last-minute reservations. This chicken had come home to roost!

I daresay Carmy Berzatto (left) is in the express lane, headed straight for his first Michelin star.

Now, after a lengthy renovation during which Chicago restaurant lovers eagerly pressed their noses against the papered-over windows, the Beef has come out of hibernation as The Bear. (editor: I think this line will win me my long-overdue James Beard Award.) This kitchen now prepares a spectacular tasting menu for the reasonable price of $275 per person, plus a mandatory 30% service/FFE charge. I deem it one of the finest such restaurants in our world-class-but-humbly-just-folks dining town, and I savored every exquisite bite — except for a few that I will perfunctorily rattle off toward the end of the review. I did have some issues with the cramped and noisy dining room and the occasionally awkward service, but really all diners care about is food. They never remember the people. 

Even though I used my usual nom de Tock, Harold Roach, I don’t believe I was recognized. My dining companion and I found ourselves escorted to a cramped two-top in what was surely the noisiest sector of the dining room where we sat on hard wooden chairs rather than plush banquettes. (I thought longingly of the cushion stashed in the trunk of my extremely reliable 2005 Toyota Camry.) We received neither small gifts from the kitchen, which would cause me to chuckle and feign resistance before eagerly gobbling them up, nor a welcoming glass of sparkling wine.  

No matter! The table offered a fine vantage point from which to feast my eyes over the chicly renovated dining room. I could barely pick out the spot where I once had an unfortunate incident after power-eating three beefs by myself in a misguided effort to lower my blood alcohol level. Now the mood is set by indirect light cast on ecru-washed brick walls. With its dining bar and understated earth tones, The Bear reminds me very much of Kasama (which is America’s only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant).

We received neither small gifts from the kitchen, which would cause me to chuckle and feign resistance before eagerly gobbling them up, nor a welcoming glass of sparkling wine.

The meal begins with a whimsy, a mirepoix broth poured tableside over actual mirepoix, the carrot/onion/celery admixture that is, as the French say, the fondation of every soup, stock, and sauce. Perfection! The menu changes each night, which must be quite a juggling act for Chef Carmy and his team. However, it does require repeat meals to fully understand the genius of this restaurant, which is why I talked this magazine into paying for me to visit four times instead of publishing that boring exposé on corruption in the state gaming commission.

Let me just say it was worth it. I ate gorgeous rosy duck with different fruit gastriques on each of my visits. A gushing egg raviolo bejeweled with truffle was lush but had a sharp undertone that tasted of buried rage and self flagellation. The wagyu beef maybe could have used another five seconds under the salamander to rid it of its jiggle, but what’s a $300 tasting menu without a slice of wagyu strip loin set amidst painstakingly tweezered vegetables that no one ever eats? Amirite?

As for libations, the restaurant serves a few bespoke cocktails, such as a delightful take on the vesper made with giardiniera, celery salt, and hot-dog-washed vodka. The pleasing wine list offers such delights as a natural Hoosier Valley field blend with an expressive nose of rathole, asafoetida, and pet store. Mark my words: Indiana is the next great wine state. 

Service from a charming young man with the word “FUCK” tattooed on his forehead, was friendly if a little sloppy. I can forgive the occasional broken wine cork or forgotten course. I did appreciate the way he did his best to divert our attention from the bloodcurdling cries and sounds of smashing plates from the kitchen. We were allowed a peek inside after dinner, and the chefs stopped strangling each other long enough for us to get a good look at the floor strewn with fennel soubise, blood, Orwellian butter, and shards of Japanese pottery. It reminded me of dessert at Alinea. 

What a fitting end to a meal at the most exciting new restaurant in Chicago. I daresay Carmy Berzatto is in the express lane, headed straight for his first Michelin star. He has a rare gift. Even something as cheerful as fresh peas still nestled in their pod can speak of decades of suppressed trauma in his hands. Bravo, chef. Please keep me on speed dial because I have a very important person I need to get into your restaurant with a day’s notice. He may either be Bon Appétit’s restaurant editor or my orthodontist who’s giving me a good deal on my next bridge. 

Dear readers, if this all sounds a little too rich for your blood, you can still visit The Bear without breaking the bank. Yes, the beef window is still open and totally worth the hour and forty-five minute line on a Tuesday morning. Please tag me in your Instagram post.