What’s hailed as Chicago’s next great cocktail bar opens Wednesday in Fulton Market as James Beard Award-winning bartender Jim Meehan will debut Prairie School. Meehan, known for his quirky beverages at New York’s PDT (Please Don’t Tell), has teamed up with Chicago’s Heisler Hospitality (Pub Royale, Bad Hunter, Sportsman’s Club). Workers scurried around Friday morning prepping for the opening insde the bar at 1K Fulton — a.k.a. Google’s Chicago headquarters — at 326 N. Morgan St.
Meehan last lived in the Chicago area in 1995 and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School. That’s the home of many of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, and he provides inspiration for the bar. Meehan would drive past Wright’s 110-year-old Unity Temple every day on his way to and from high school in Oak Park. Heisler’s Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner all agreed that the bar’s design should have Wright’s influence from the onset. The “Prairie School” name reflects Wright’s simple philosophy of bringing nature indoors, and that thinking is reflected in Prairie School’s drinks.
“I’m interested in the move toward more elemental mixtures that are more ingredient driven than the byproduct of many, many ingredients,” Meehan said. “We will be serving more simple — three-, five-ingredient — mixtures that showcase the Midwestern wine and spirits that I’m interested in.”
Prairie School carries an element of nostalgia and fun. Meehan described one drink, a riff on the frozen lemonades sold at Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park and Arlington Heights (home of one of the best Italian beefs around Chicago). It’s like a French 75 with CH Vodka, simple syrup, lemon juice, Illinois Sparkling Co. wine, and shaved Japanese ice on top. It’s then garnished with pieces of lemon.
“It’s refreshing, accessible...the preparation is Japanese, but the drink or the dish, you could say, is entirely inspired by something I grew up with and enjoyed as a kid in the Midwest,” Meehan said.
After leaving Chicago 22 years ago, Meehan attended University of Wisconsin at Madison. PDT opened in 2007, an annex to New York’s Crif Dogs (a kind of bacon obsessed, east coast version of Hot Doug’s). Customers won’t find New York-style dogs at Prairie School, but there is food courtesy of chef Jared Wentworth, who help lead Longman & Eagle to Michelin star-status in Logan Square. Separate from the menu Wentworth is creating for the neighboring restaurant, Regards to Edith, Meehan and Wentworth worked together on food for Prairie School. One item is cheese curds battered in rice flour and spiced with togarashi powder. Customers should also expect bratwurst, a fish fry, and jerky.
“I wanted the food that I ate and drink while I was in Wisconsin,” Meehan said. “The beauty of what [Wentworth has] done is that he’s made very refined and cool, and delicious versions of these dishes, and because of their seasoning, plating, and prep, they really fit perfectly with our concept.”
Meehan lives in Portland, Oregon, and he’ll hurry back on Wednesday as his wife is about to give birth. He’ll return to Chicago a few times a year to check in on Heisler and the gang. When creating PDT, Meehan opened a bar that changed New York’s cocktail culture. But with Prairie School, Meehan doesn’t want to turn Chicago to New York. He understands that Chicago has its own unique scene and praised bars including The Violet Hour, a fellow Beard Award winner. The Wicker Park cocktail bar celebrates its 10th birthday this year.
“I’m not coming to Chicago to improve it, I’m coming to Chicago when it’s already been recognized as the best place to eat and drink in America,” Meehan said.
Check out Meehan and Heisler’s vision on Wednesday when Prairie School opens.