Class is in session starting this evening in Fulton Market, as star bartender Jim Meehan and the owners of Sportsman’s Club, Lone Wolf, and Estereo unveil their ambitious new cocktail bar. Prairie School combines Midwest nostalgia, a love for foreign cultures, and concise drink list showcasing the same creativity Meehan used when he mixed drinks at PDT (Please Don’t Tell), an influential New York cocktail bar. The bar will also serve snacks created by chef Jared Wentworth, formerly of Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle in Logan Square.
Meehan, a Chicago-area native, is collaborating with Heisler Hospitality. They’ve transformed the former Smack Shack space at 326 N. Morgan St. using Frank Lloyd Wright as inspiration. Most locals are familiar with the iconic architect’s work, but how will guests see his influence? Prairie School features a back room inspired by a Japanese tea room and straw mat-inspired carpet patterns. Wright only worked in America and Japan, and the name is also a tribute.
“Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and his history allow [Heisler’s Kevin Heisner] and I, especially, to express our admiration and appreciation of Japanese art, culture, and design,” Meehan said.
Meehan is a James Beard Award winner, and PDT’s customers in New York rave about the cocktails. He’s a star in the industry, while his brother, Peter Meehan, is a food writer who co-founded Lucky Peach. Jim Meehan is aware of Chicago’s skepticism of success enjoyed outside of the city. He takes a tender approach to Prairie School. He’s not shy with praising other Chicago bars, whether it’s The Violet Hour in Wicker Park or one of his neighbors in Fulton Market. He has a clear goals for Prairie School and how it will fit in Chicago’s cocktail landscape. NY import GreenRiver has managed to figure out the formula.
“Ten years ago the drink was enough — now 10 years later, it takes more than the drink, it takes attention to detail, it takes a sense of urgency...,” Meehan said. “That’s what I try to emphasize with my team at PDT, that’s what I try to emphasize with my team here. We will never serve better drinks than The Aviary. That is not the goal. The goal is to entertain and delight our guests and make them feel welcome.”
Comparisons aside — Prairie School’s drink menu isn’t run of the mill. A peek at the menu shows 12 house cocktails which will rotate. For now, there’s the Lemon Ice, a boozy tribute to the frozen lemonades at Johnnie’s Beef in suburban Elmwood Park and Arlington Heights. The Gin Blossom eschews the normal citrus peel garnish for a pickled baby peach. A Japanese machine will dispense high balls. There’s also four non-alcoholic mixed drinks. Two, including the Red Chai Horchata, use Spirit Teas. None of the drinks will take more than 30 seconds to mix, Meehan said.
Snacks include Japanese-style cheese curds and crispy smelt with tempura lemons. Heisler serves the lemons as an appetizer at its veggie-centric West Loop restaurant, Bad Hunter. Heisler bartender Kristina Magro will help run the bar, as Meehan lives in Portland, Oregon. Tables will be by reservation and rest of the bar is first come, first serve.
Seasonal menus aren’t new for Chicago bars. But Prairie School’s menu doesn’t adhere to the Northern Hemisphere’s four seasons. Instead it relies on Japan for inspiration, as parts of the country divide the year into 24 sekkis, or short seasons. Prairie School’s debut sees the start of Shuubun, which stretches out until around the first or second week of October. For this autumnal part of the year, Prairie School will feature teas and cocktails including the Silver Corn Fizz (mellow corn whiskey, corn water, dandelion honey, egg white, Illinois Sparkling Co. wine).
One Chicago tradition that won’t be making an appearance at Prairie School is Jeppson’s Malört. Letherbee’s Besk, a Jeppson’s doppelganger, will be available in a drink: “I can put lipstick on anything,” Meehan said. Customers shouldn’t expect to do a shot of Besk or any other spirit with staff. Staff drinking shots with guests is a trend Meehan can’t support.
“Service always suffers from that, and I also think it’s just not healthy,” Meehan said.
But there’s still plenty of fun to be had. Wright would have turned 150 years old in 2017 and a new bar is a great way to celebrate. Check out their menus below as Prairie School opens tonight in Fulton Market.
Prairie School, 326 N. Morgan St., open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sunday to Friday; 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday.