Jim Meehan is back home. The author, consultant, and startender teamed up with Heisler Hospitality to open Prairie School, a new Chicago bar already making waves in both the craft cocktail and architectural worlds. Meehan took some time off from the opening (and the birth of his first child) to talk to Neat Pour about Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese aesthetics, and his take on the future of cocktail spots.
Meehan currently lives in Portland, Oregon and made his name in New York City, first cutting his teeth at Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club before becoming the public face of the famed PDT. However, the barman grew up in Chicago.
During his youth in the Oak Park and River Forest neighborhoods, Meehan did not have much exposure to nightlife. “My parents aren’t big bar goers, so the only bars that I really caught my attention growing up were T.G.I. Friday’s and the Hard Rock Café, which were much cooler back then (to me) than they are now,” he recalled. Instead of drinks, these formative years were filled with architecture, specifically Frank Lloyd Wright. River Forest is renowned for a high concentration of Wright’s houses including one kitty-corner from Meehan’s childhood home. Likewise, Oak Park is the home to Wright’s own house, studio, and one of his most iconic buildings, the Unity Temple.
So, when it came time to open a bar back home, the architectural angle was obvious. “The connection to Wright and Prairie School architecture is the perfect conceit to frame our beverage program, which is an ongoing love letter to the Midwest.”
The daunting task of creating a design homage to one of the greatest architects of all time fell to partner Kevin Heisner. Heisner honed in on Meehan and Wright’s shared affinity for Japanese aesthetics. (Wright was said to be the largest buyer and seller of Japanese woodblock prints in America.) The partners pored over stacks of books for inspiration and found it in Leonard Koren’s Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. The influences are everywhere in Prairie School’s three distinct chambers (a 12 seat bar, cocktail tables, and a classic barside seating area) each decked out with the clean horizontal lines, natural materials, and leaded glass windows so typical of the architectural movements.
While Meehan believes that the “the design carries this project,” he is equally enamored with the beverage program. He described head bartender Kristina Magro (Pub Royale, Queen Mary) as “a brilliant, hard-nosed bar manager who makes delicious drinks.” Magro’s 12 drink menu primarily features riffs on classics like the Brooklyn, Sour, French 75, and Last Word with Wright inspired names like “Falling Water” and “Flagstone Fence”. In addition, Prairie School offers a solid collection Chicago craft beers from Off-Color, Whiner, Metropolitan, and Hopewell. Then, the list gets really interesting.
The Japanese influence appears again via PS’ signature imported highball machine. “The new Hoshizaki Highball machine dispenses supercharged, chilled water and whisky together consistently from pour to pour, allowing us to serve the perfectly balanced highball,” explained Meehan. “By championing a drink that has no sugar, is more water than alcohol, and is served from a tap instead of poured by hand; my bartenders have more time to make more demanding drinks and chat with guests when they’re free.”
However, Meehan is most excited about the non-alcoholic offerings on the list. The co-founder told Neat Pour that after recently scaling back his own drinking, he realized how few options are available for customers taking the night off. “We have three killer alcohol-free cocktails and Einbecker N/A available so everyone has the opportunity to drink something amazing at our bar: even if it isn’t fermented or distilled,” Meehan enthused. He is even more excited about the offerings from Spirit Tea and Four Letter Word Coffee, noting that the pour-overs and teas will rotate every two weeks in sync with the Japanese sekki calendar.
“We went from bartenders to mixologists and now we must return to the brass tacks of tending bar, which is really just tending people.”
Jared Wentworth (Regards to Edith) is helming the kitchen. He is cooking up a few small plates, upscale takes on midwest classics like bratwurst, cheese curds, local cheeses, and seasonal pickled vegetables.
Despite all of the offerings, Meehan believes that in this era of craft cocktail ubiquity, the new establishment must make its mark off the menu. “I’ve told my staff over and over that we’re not going to distinguish ourselves with our cocktails at Prairie School: it will be through our service and hospitality,” he elaborated. “Years ago, only a few places had great drinks because only a few people knew how to set up a bar and train everyone to enthusiastically serve great drinks. Those days are over. So the goal must shift from the drinks themselves to the environment you serve them in and the people themselves. We went from bartenders to mixologists and now we must return to the brass tacks of tending bar, which is really just tending people.”
Prairie School (326 N. Morgan Street) occupies the northeast corner of the historic building refurbished for Google’s headquarters, and is open from 5pm till late.