When architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked which project of his that he was most fond of, he would routinely answer, “The next one.” Bartender Jim Meehan—who just opened Prairie School, a Chicago bar inspired by Wright—hasn’t been able to say the same, because, until now, there hasn’t been a “next one.”
Meehan made his name with PDT, the world-renowned cocktail bar in New York’s East Village that he opened in the heady, brave-new-cocktail-world days of 2007. Since then, Meehan’s contemporaries—such as David Kaplan, who opened Death & Co. in 2007; the Employees Only gang, who opened their New York flagship in 2004; and Julie Reiner, who opened Flatiron Lounge in 2003—have expanded their seminal bars into mini empires. Meehan has been content to let his lone speakeasy-defining speakeasy speak for him.
Instead, he has poured his energy into a wide variety of ventures, including a couple books (The PDT Cocktail Book, Meehan’s Bartender Manual) and an app; acted as consultant and brand face to Banks Rum, which sold to Bacardi in 2015; and has been a regular presence on the cocktail-convention circuit. His tireless industry has paid off. Meehan is one of the few bar personalities with an international profile.
But it’s in his native Illinois that he’s finally chosen to launch his second drinking establishment. For Prairie School, he teamed up with Heisler Hospitality, with whom he has a consultancy agreement. The Chicago group is responsible for some of the better bars in the city, including Sportsman’s Club and Estereo—taverns adept at balancing the cocktail bar aesthetic with accessibility. Prairie School is arguably their showiest effort to date.
No one can say the craft-cocktail world hasn’t toyed with the conceptual over the years. Bars get named after all kinds of things: the owner, the location, an intended atmosphere, a punning joke, or, in the modern era, obscure cocktails (Satan’s Whiskers, London), obscure mixologists (Charles H., Seoul) and obscure historical references (The Pastry War, Houston). But a bar named after an architectural style? It’s unclear how many Wright groupies were having trouble finding the perfect watering hole, but in Prairie School, they have it.
That the bar is an overtly ambitious undertaking, in almost every respect, is apparent the moment you enter. Though the room’s clean, controlled lines will be familiar to anyone who has ever toured a Wright house, the design is not all Wright. The bright, rose-gold-tinted mirror and flagstone bar is inspired by Donald Judd, and the boldly colored carpet panels are influenced by Joseph Albers. It may well be the artiest bar in America.
While a bar inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright is easy enough to wrap your head around, how you get the architect’s aesthetic into a drink is another matter. Based on three recent encounters with the debut menu, the approach seems to be minimalist (few ingredients), precise (careful execution and presentation) and Midwestern (many of the spirits are locally sourced).
“The Midwest has a number of great brewers, distillers and winemakers and there’s so much civic pride in Chicago,” says Meehan. “Channeling Wright and the Prairie School architects, I feel like they would have used local artisans wherever possible for their buildings and materials as well, so it fits the concept.”
Meehan scores highest when he keeps it simple. Tall Boxes, a superb drink with an ungainly name (it was Wright’s derisive term for skyscrapers), is an elegant refinement of that Wisconsin favorite, the Brandy Old-Fashioned. The brandy is Heaven Hill’s excellent 100-proof Sacred Bond. And the messy muddled orange and cherry associated with the drink are fine-strained out, their presence marked only by a diminutive cherry and orange peel garnish on a metal pick. Strong, subtle and seamlessly integrated, it’s one of Meehan’s best drinks ever. (Cocktails are $15.)
Inside Jim Meehan's Prairie School
Doing an update on the Gin Blossom was also a savvy move; a minor modern classic by Julie Reiner, the drink doesn’t get a lot of attention. By combining the great J. Rieger Midwestern Dry Gin and Dolin Blanc vermouth with Reisetbauer Apricot Eau de Vie and a rinse of spine-straightening Suze, Meehan’s Blossom lands closer to Martini-land than the original. And while the garnish may be a baby pickled peach, it happily eats like an olive.
Among the most popular drinks—and one that, like Tall Boxes, was carried over to the current menu—is the Lemon Ice, a shaved-ice French 75 variation with Chicago-made CH vodka, Illinois brut sparkling wine and lemon juice. It was, says the menu, “inspired by its Platonic ideal served at Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park, Illinois.” As one familiar with the luscious lemon ices at Johnnie’s Beef, I can testify that the frosty drink nails it. It’s sweet and tart and delightfully mindless.
The food, too, is pleasingly proletariat and local, like the crispy smelt with tangy smoked salmon roe remoulade. Fried cheese curds have come to be a ubiquitous bar-food choice in recent years, but the Midwest had them first; Prairie School’s inventive rendition is dusted with a scattering of bonito flakes, scallions and togarashi aioli.
The bar could use a little more of the looseness communicated through items like the Lemon Ice and cheese curds. Even when full, the formal room is short on warmth. The furnishings, while handsome, do not help. Narrow, boxy standing tables and high-backed Moore & Giles leather chairs, with arms so high they cut you off from your neighbor, may be design-appropriate, but they don’t lend themselves to the easy conversation and comfort you’d want—and expect—from a bar.
The décor makes one even more grateful for the geniality of the top-tier staff. The team, led by head bartender Kristina Magro, are expert craftspeople. Each drink they turn out is a beauty: careful, clean, sleek. More importantly, they are friendly—as much a hallmark of the Midwest as Prairie School architecture. That openness is useful when it comes to navigating some of the menu’s more esoteric offerings, like the Lovely Day, a dauntingly austere aperitif made of viognier, Letherbee Royale Cup (a spin on Pimm’s), the malort-like Letherbee Besk, quince vinegar and a few dashes of saline. When one woman haltingly wondered about it, the bartender, correctly reading the situation and the customer, diplomatically described it as “a cocktail lover’s cocktail.” Translation: not for everyone. The woman ordered a Gin Blossom instead.
There are certainly a few of those cocktail-lover’s cocktails on the list. The Fruit Loop, the menu’s Manhattan riff, is freighted with a quarter-ounce of both Leopold Brothers Michigan Tart Cherry Liqueur and Letherbee Fernet. It’s a deep, dark vortex of a Manhattan which may appeal to the aficionado, but would probably register as too rich for the layman. The opposite is true of the Eve, a mix of gin, génépy, Cyril Zangs Cidre Eau de Vie and lemon juice that drank like unsweetened lemonade; it was a cocktail easier to admire than enjoy.
Like many new bars, Prairie School has hopped on the Japanese bandwagon, offering custom whiskey highballs from a Hoshizaki tap system. Here, however, the choice makes good sense, given Wright’s affinity for Japanese design. (Amusingly, Meehan first met Heisler partner Kevin Heisner in Tokyo.) To encourage regulars, the off-white tumblers that the highballs are served in—the work of ceramicist Phil Kim—can be purchased for $50. After that, your personal mug, which is numbered and stored at the bar, will net you $5 off future highballs. It’s a nice nod toward street-level normalcy from a bar that can feel academic. The name does have the word “school” in it, after all.
It was natural that Meehan’s first effort after PDT would aim high. Though his fame began at one of the smallest cocktail bars in the world, he is not known for doing things in a small way. Prairie School likely hopes to become a destination bar; odds are it will achieve that goal. But, ironically, it has found its heart in its territorial focus. The best way for a customer to approach it would be to view the Wright concept simply as an attractive backdrop, and to think of Prairie School as a hyper-regional drinking den that makes the most of local products. In a way, it’s in keeping with Wright, who often built with his natural surroundings in mind. Prairie School’s greatest asset is that gets us drinking along similar lines.