Chicago is a city that is no stranger to acclaimed craft cocktail bars of the speakeasy-revival style, and one that has more than its fair share of casual drinking joints. Less frequently do you find the two in one, which is exactly what Stephen Cole set out to offer when he left The Violet Hour to open Barrelhouse Flat. A sort of sleeves-rolled-up answer to The Violet Hour’s cuff-linked approach, Barrelhouse Flat has become something of a sandbar in the disparate sea of Chicago’s drinking scene.
The staples of a local watering hole are all present and accounted for—Miller High Life on draft, a friendly smile with your vodka-soda—but the staff doesn’t lack craft credentials either, something they prove time and again with a bimonthly rotation of house cocktails that are creative without being overwrought.
With two floors of space, Cole and his team, led by general manager James Wright, specialize in not having to specialize. Looking for the Blackhawks game on TV, music you vaguely recognize and well-priced drinks you can buy in rounds? Step right through the front door. Hoping instead for a traditional, speakeasy-style experience—live jazz included? Head straight to the stairs in the back, and up to the second floor. Barrelhouse Flat offers more than one experience, which stands as something of a symbol for that very Chicago tension between a laid-back, game-and-a-beer Midwest sensibility and the devotion to harder and faster city life. At its core, it’s a bar for the city’s most worldly drinking ambitions, and one that won’t mind when you order High Life instead. —Shea Corrigan