When superstar bartender Jim Meehan met Kevin Heisner back in 2014 at Tokyo’s Bar Radio, a friendship was instantly born. “We were the only two English-speaking guys in there,” Meehan recalls. “We exchanged information and made it a point to stay in touch.” Meehan — a Chicagoland native who made his name in New York City — made it to Chicago shortly thereafter, where he met Matt Eisler, Heisner’s partner and the second half of Heisler Hospitality, the group behind nearly a dozen of Chicago’s most buzzed-about spots, from Sportsman’s Club and Lone Wolf to Bad Hunter and Estereo. “From that moment on we agreed that if there was an opportunity to work together on something, we would,” says Meehan.
That opportunity took the form of Prairie School, a locally driven cocktail destination inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Prairie School aesthetic, an architectural design approach classified by the low-lying structures and materials reflective of the Midwestern prairie landscape. As such, the team calls upon the use of “organic architecture” to inform every aspect of the venue, from the design of its entryway and bar to a minimalistic take on its drinks list — all factors that played into its recent Chicago Eater Award win for Bar of the Year. The idea came about a year ago, when Eisler drove Meehan down to 326 N. Morgan Street in the city’s Fulton Market district, a space on the ground floor of the Google Chicago headquarters that was formerly home to seafood restaurant Smack Shack. “I jumped at the occasion,” recalls Meehan.
His impulse to act was twofold. On a personal level, it would be an opportunity for the River Forest native to get back to his home city a bit more often. From a business perspective, he recognized immediately that the bar’s location in a steadily booming area — especially its proximity to the Ace Hotel and cocktail haven Aviary — was paramount. “I’ve witnessed the ‘Ace effect’ on neighborhoods nationwide, and I’m a big fan of the Aviary,” he says. “I’ve seen how well nightlife districts work in the East Village of New York, where you have a dense concentration of great cocktail bars and restaurants, and I felt the same way about this area.”
His expertise in New York nightlife comes from more than a decade cutting his teeth at what today are known as the city’s most prized cocktail establishments. He served as bar manager at Gramercy Tavern and opened Pegu Club with Audrey Saunders before debuting PDT, his East Village haunt that went huge overnight for a number of reasons: phone-booth entry, made-to-order hot dogs from a back-bar window, and its iconic bacon Old Fashioned.
And Meehan recently opened PDT Hong Kong — an experience that led to a big drinks realm observation. “The internet and social media are homogenizing our culture and creating an international style that you see reflected in a lot of the best bars in the world — and an international standard and set of expectations to accompany them,” he says. “Those who are able to travel will start to notice — there’s not a big drop-off between a great bar in London and a great bar in Chicago.”
Does that kind of homogenization mean that many incentives remain for a star bartender to stay put in any one city — or is there an open door to exploring other destinations, as Meehan has with Chicago and Hong Kong? The past few years have seen a steady rise in out-of-town chefs touching down in the Second City via their menus (e.g., Hugh Acheson and Punch Bowl Social, Jeff Mahin and Summer House Santa Monica, Gabriele Bonci and Bonci Pizza), showcasing that big names in the bartending world changing cities might just be the next thing on tap. And if so, what would such a change mean for a city like Chicago — one that is proudly and inextricably invested in homegrown talent?
Of course, there exists the chance of stealing the spotlight from the locals — but with it comes another possibility, Meehan notes, of bringing in fresh eyes and a healthy dose of perspective. “There’s a pride I have from being able to operate here, but it’s not like I have a Chicago flag tattooed on my forearm like Charles Joly,” he says. “Charles has the advantage of being more Chicago than Chicago itself, whereas I feel like I can now come back and view things objectively — my time away from Chicago has reinforced my appreciation of the city and its people.”
It’s for this reason the Prairie School team tried to implement one of the features Meehan incorporated at PDT since opening day — the ability to reserve tables. When they realized the offering wasn’t taking off the way they anticipated it would, they did away with it. “I created a reservation policy in New York to serve as an amenity to guests, and what we encountered here was that many guests were viewing reservations as a velvet rope-exclusivity thing — and that was never meant to be the case,” says Meehan.
Though the drink prices could be compared to those in New York — at Prairie School the average is $15, at PDT it’s $16 — they aren’t unheard of for the neighborhood, which houses upscale programs at the Aviary and Swift & Sons, where drams run near $18 and $14, respectively. “The price of your drinks comes from the neighborhood you’re in, the spirits you pour, and the environment in which you serve the drinks,” says Meehan. “Right now, we’re in a high-rent location in Chicago’s hottest neighborhood, in an iconic building, and using beautiful glasses and premium offerings — so in my mind, it’s never been a question of charging less.”
Those offerings include elements like a Hoshizaki tap system, large Hoshizaki cubes and Scottsman pebble ice, and ceramic highball tumblers from artist Phill Kim (which they sell to guests for discounted highballs upon return visits). It also means a heavy emphasis on local sips and plates, including spirits from Koval, CH, and Death’s Door; wines from Illinois Sparkling Co.; and menu items like local cheese and bratwursts. The latter items were implemented as a way to make a case for the Midwest — an effort by Meehan to distinguish Prairie School from the seemingly ubiquitous industry standard of today’s drinking culture.
“Selfishly, as a Chicagoan, there’s a sense that bars in Chicago should be different than bars in New York, Milwaukee, or Los Angeles,” he says. “We wanted to celebrate Chicago and the Midwest at large. Chicago is kicking ass right now and no one acts cocky about it — and that’s a good thing.”