More than a century has elapsed since the onset of Prohibition, when a national ban on the production, transport, and sale of alcohol spawned the proliferation of speakeasies — illicit drinking dens tucked into inconspicuous spaces with an atmosphere of risky fun.
The Chicago of today bears little resemblance to the oft-romanticized era of Prohibition, but the lure of speakeasy-style bars remains a potent force, with operators offering an atmosphere of moody mystery sans the threat of legal action. That’s the impetus behind the Blue Room, an intimate 55-seat “covert lounge” set to debut in late March in the depths of the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant at 1401 S. Michigan Avenue in the South Loop, according to a rep.
Steeped in local history, the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant seems a natural fit for an intimate vintage bar. Founded 23 years ago inside the former home of the Chicago Fire Department’s Engine Company 104, the restaurant is known for its building’s original 1905 Romanesque Revival architecture and classic steakhouse menu. A massive fire in 2014 forced a years-long closure and major renovation. The city landmark reopened in early 2017.
Appropriately located in the basement of the historic structure, the Blue Room is a study in juxtaposition. Luxurious leather booths and armchairs contrast cleverly with exposed brick walls and a low, pipe-laden concrete ceiling, aglow from the light of Art Deco-style fixtures and playful wall sconces — iron monkeys gripping umbrella-shaped lamps.
A cocktail menu isn’t yet finalized, but operators promise plenty of whiskey-heavy options such as the Chicago Firehouse Old Fashioned (Michter’s bourbon, creme de cacao, maple demerara syrup) and the applewood-smoked Burning Landmark (Kikori Japanese whisky, Woodford Reserve, Benedictine). Drinks take top billing, but the bar will also serve some food, including a sweet bourbon baba, a yeasted cake soaked in bourbon, honey, orange, and cardamom syrup.
The Blue Room team also drew inspiration from jazz kissa, a genre of Japanese cafes dedicated to playing recorded jazz music, a rep says. Interest in Western music and culture surged among the Japanese populace in the 1920s and ’30s, but restrictions on live music performances at the time made it difficult to access. This confluence spawned the proliferation of cafes that played records on phonographs, and — as the decades passed and technology advanced — high-end analog sound systems. Much like Chicago’s Prohibition-era speakeasies, jazz kissa tend to opt for a moody aesthetic with dim lights and antique furniture to match their classic sound.
At the Blue Room, this manifests in the form of a record player (armed with a two-channel stereo system) and a sizable vinyl record collection flanking an eight-seat bar made of dark wood. The setup also features speakers originally owned by the late country music legend Cowboy Jack Clement, a Nashville record producer who used them to record artists such as Dolly Parton, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt. A petite stage will provide room for live performances from solo artists and small combos.
While true speakeasies (also called “blind pigs”) may be largely a thing of the past, the Blue Room aims to tap into the energy and sound of the infamous establishments. Knock twice and explore the results in the photographs below.
The Blue Room at the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant, 1401 S. Michigan Avenue, Scheduled to open in late March 2023.