After eight years working his way from barback to general manager of the James Beard-award-winning cocktail bar the Violet Hour, Abe Vucekovich decided he needed a break. He left the Wicker Park bar in December 2021 to take an extended vacation and consider what to do next.
“I often think about all my memories at the Violet Hour and all the people there, and then I really miss it,” Vucekovich says. “But it was just time. Everything good comes to an end.”
Now he’s starting something new by becoming beverage director of Meadowlark Hospitality, the restaurant group that launched with the charcuterie cafe Lardon in 2021 and added the craft beer-focused bar Union under the same roof in March. Vucekovich will be revising the drink menus for both spots as well as opening the Meadowlark, a craft cocktail lounge debuting in the same Logan Square space in October.
“The Meadowlark has got kind of a high-concept cocktail menu, but the hospitality is very Midwestern,” he says. “We’re going to take the drinks really seriously, but we’re not going to take ourselves too seriously. That’s something I learned from [head bartender] Toby [Maloney] at the Violet Hour. I think it’s a really good kind of ethos for a bar team to have.”
As beverage director for the bar’s parent company, Vucekovich will be changing things up at Lardon, which currently focuses on spritzes and Amari; and Union, which offers 24 Great Lakes region beers on tap along with more than 200 whiskeys. Vucekovich will be leading bartender education focused on Amari and wine at Lardon and bourbon and whiskey at Union. He’s also revamping the cocktail at both concepts, having them make fresh citrus juice each day as well as incorporating some of the ingredients he’ll be making for the more complex drinks at The Meadowlark such as housemade ginger and honey syrups and chai and smoked orange bitters.
The 16-drink menu will include two or three whimsical options utilizing souvenir glassware. Vucekovich also wants the menus themselves to be interactive, serving as a collectible that drinkers can use to track what they’ve tried and what they thought of each one, which they can then turn in to provide feedback for future offerings. While Vucekovich will only say that The Meadowlark’s opening menu will be inspired by the bar’s namesake — a small grasslands songbird — he’s already planning on rotating his selection three times a year. Future themes could include the evolution of Chicago architecture. For Vucekovich that means incorporating an “aggressively simple” Brutalism-inspired drink with bold flavors or mixing up an ornate neo-gothic drink.
“My head is kind of spinning in terms of ideas,” Vucekovich says. “After the pandemic and everything we’ve been through, I think people are looking for not just an experience, but something that they themselves feel a part of.”
Vucekovich encountered that desire for connection firsthand during the March 2020 COVID lockdown when he led numerous cocktail-making classes for corporate gatherings, bachelorette parties, and family birthday celebrations.
“It was a weird next-level version of bartending where I was welcomed into people’s homes and hearing more of their interpersonal intimate conversations and leading them through learning how to make drinks,” he says. “It was really special, a thing that was very unique to the pandemic time. I learned a lot about what people are looking for in a community and tying that into what we’re doing when we’re putting alcohol together and giving it to people.”
Tucked behind Union and Lardon, The Meadowlark will be an intimate space featuring exposed beams and brick accented by velvet and leather. “We want it to be a warm, comforting — but clean — canvas for us to paint on,” Vucekovich says.
Beyond cocktails, The Meadowlark will serve a small selection of accessible wines and small bites from chef Chris Thompson. There will be a few beers on tap plus a small nonalcoholic cocktail menu. Many of the drinks on the standard menu will also be available spirit-free.
“I think a lot of people’s relationship with alcohol is difficult, but they still want to have the social life and the community of going out,” Vucekovich says. “I think that’s important for bar programs to be mindful of.”
Vucekovich is also training his bartenders to help guide customers to the right selection on the menu or whip them up a custom drink.
“Maybe a drink on the menu is really what they want, but maybe they’re new to cocktails and it’s very intimidating and they want to try something they’ve heard about like a pisco sour,” he says. “I think it’s a really special thing when you go to a bar and a bartender’s like, ‘Oh, I have something I’m cooking up. Let me work on it for you and make it just a special drink for you.’”
The Meadowlark, 2200 N. California Avenue, scheduled for an October opening.