It’s not often that a bar manages to be both restrained and over-the-top, but Prairie School manages it. The West Loop spot from Heisler Hospitality and nationally recognized bartender Jim Meehan is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style, which itself was inspired by the flat prairie landscapes of the midwest. Meehan built his reputation in New York with the speakeasy PDT, but he grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is making a return to his midwestern roots. Not that he’s moving back here: he currently lives in Portland, Oregon, so head bartender Kristina Magro (Pub Royale) is running things on a day-to-day basis.
Prairie School architecture is characterized by horizontal lines, and there’s no shortage of them here. Rectangles dominate the room: they’re in the carpet pattern, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the long strips of wood on the ceiling, the deep frames on the back wall of the bar, and the square-edged leather wing chairs. Even the bar stools have small rectangles of stained glass at the base. The sheer number of clean, simple lines combines for an elegant but slightly overwhelming effect, softened by organic elements like stone walls and a live edge bar. Kevin Heisner (who, along with Matt Eisler, owns Heisler Hospitality) has designed a space immediately evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright, with every element the architect favored crammed into a few hundred square feet.
Beer and wine are on draft, poured from several shiny brass taps, and handmade ceramic tumblers are on display behind the bar. Prairie School bucks the usual trend of cocktails on tap, instead opting for a Suntory highball machine, which combines highly carbonated water with Suntory Toki whisky. The result is clean and refreshing—two words not often associated with whiskey, but the highball is mostly soda and meant to be consumed quickly. It’s served in a Collins glass with a long, rectangular ice cube, a presentation also used for the Cheery Wine and Flagstone Fence, two drinks that otherwise couldn’t be more different. Both have some carbonation, but the Cheery Wine (brandy, bourbon, cherry vinegar, cherry bark vanilla bitters, and soda) tastes like an earthy, less sweet vanilla-cherry soda, while the Flagstone Fence has a funk that’s reminiscent of a barnyard—an intriguing flavor produced by a combination of cider, brandy, and barrel-aged grape must fortified with cognac.
Most of the drinks aren’t spirit-forward; except for the highball, it was impossible to pick out what was used in each cocktail without consulting the menu. The Falling Water, made with cold-brewed Ethiopian coffee and a whole egg, tasted like a rich, creamy coffee drink with barely a hint of the Rhine Hall plum brandy and cardoon-infused amaro in it. The one exception was the Fruit Loop, a midwestern version of the Brooklyn cocktail made with rye, vermouth, tart cherry liqueur from Michigan, and Letherbee Fernet. Fruity and a bit tart, it was my favorite of the bunch, balancing all the ingredients without obscuring any of them.
Overall the cocktails are solid, if a bit pricey at $15 each. But the atmosphere of Prairie School seems to be the real point of the bar. It’s a visual feast, and the cocktails are there to enjoy while taking it all in.
Prairie School 325 N. Morgan, 312-763-6564, prairieschoolchicago.com