Prairie School Brings Cocktails and Frank Lloyd Wright Style to West Loop

Drinks guru Jim Meehan pays homage to the heartland
October 3, 2017
by Matt Kirouac

The Tall Boxes is a riff on an old fashioned, which became popular around the same time Frank Lloyd Wright began decrying skyscrapers as "tall boxes" 

The opening of Chicago’s latest cocktail haven is more than just a new bar; it’s a grand local debut for one of the country’s most acclaimed mixologists and a concept that gives Midwestern traditions the same diligence afforded to more established regional styles. Prairie School, the highly anticipated partnership between local hitmakers Heisler Hospitality and Jim Meehan of New York City’s PDT, may just be the most significant new bar of 2017.

Made with oat whiskey, sherry and farm-fresh cream, the Father-in-Law is an ode to cookies and milk

The name is an immediate cue that the bar is out to pay homage to the Midwest, a region whose cuisine has long glided under the radar compared with those of California, the South and New England. Prairie School is the style of architecture popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, a man who helped put Chicago — and the Midwest at large — on the map in terms of architecture and design. Wright’s guiding principles, which hinged on organic design rooted in the Midwest’s low-lying prairie landscape, lay the framework for the bar, which weaves those organic, Midwestern philosophies throughout its menus and aesthetic.

For the Falling Water, Ethiopian coffee combines with Cardamaro, egg and plum brandy produced down the street at Rhine Hall

Taking a minimalist approach to mixology, Meehan and head bartender Kristina Magro highlight local, seasonal ingredients in fresh new ways. The opening roster includes the Gin Blossom, an elegant and light combination of J. Rieger & Co. Midwestern Dry Gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, apricot eau de vie and suze. For the King Kamehameha, maple syrup lends subtle sweetness to a potent blend of rum, lemon juice and wild mountain tea, while the French 75–inspired Lemon Ice is a mash-up of CH Vodka (distilled elsewhere in the West Loop at CH Distillery, no less), Illinois Brut sparkling wine and lemon juice. Considering the strong Japanese influence found throughout Wright’s Prairie School style of architecture, it’s no wonder that Meehan and co. feature Japanese flavors behind the bar, like a Japanese whiskey highball, poured on tap into chic tumblers. Beyond cocktails, Prairie School features an abbreviated selection of seasonal local beers, wines, ciders and some interesting alcohol-free options like a red chai horchata and the Malabar Buck, with sparkling water, lemon juice, sunflower honey, ginger and black pepper.

Crispy smelts get an elegant upgrade with edible flowers and smoked salmon roe rémoulade

To eat, the bar features a lineup of Midwestern-inspired snacks from Jared Wentworth, formerly of Longman & Eagle and chef for another big Heisler opening this month, Regards to Edith. Many of the plates elevate local cuisine by showcasing the delicacy of items like cheese curds and smelts. The former is lightly fried and flecked with bonito flakes, while tempura-battered smelts get a heady assist from smoked salmon roe rémoulade.

All this is rounded out by the bar’s design, headed up by Kevin Heisner and Rugo Raff Architects. Inspired by Wright’s style and Japanese tea houses, the space includes high-backed leather couches and chairs, a rose mirror, carpet panels, a 13-seat white oak bar and leather-clad tables. Cocktail tables provide a nice view of Morgan Street, and the design team paid special mind to sound-baffling features to ensure comfortable acoustics throughout.

It’s this meticulous approach to simplicity and Midwestern ideals that helps put Prairie School in a class of its own.

Prairie School is now open seven days a week, starting at 5 PM.

All photos by Jackie Gillum

326 N. Morgan St.; 312-763-6564

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