A couple of years back, when Jim Meehan made the decision to relocate from New York City to Portland, Ore., every PDT devotee was placing bets on what kind of bar he’d open. But when details about his new spot began to surface earlier this year, all bets were off. Meehan wasn’t opening a bar in Portland—he was opening one in Chicago. And it would be as Midwestern as Meehan himself.
Prairie School, named for famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature Midwestern style, is a visual and gustatory homage to Meehan’s upbringing in the Chicago suburbs, surrounded by Wright’s architectural influence.
Though the bar is situated in the sleek Google building across from the new Ace Hotel, the modern world melts away as soon as you step inside and onto the tatami-mat-inspired carpet. Like Wright’s own home, the space has a way of quieting its visitors with comfort.
Chalk that up to the upholstered walls, impeccable sound system and impossibly tall leather armchairs that envelope conversations into privacy. Meehan lights up when he talks about the contrast between Prairie School’s modern building and the traditional, organic aesthetic that he and his partners at Heisler Hospitality (Estereo, Sportsman’s Club, Queen Mary Tavern) have created.
“I feel like these tensions and dichotomies actually bring out excellence more than something historic might,” he says. “We really wanted to warm the space up using wood and stone and brass and leather. We wanted to open a bar that, years from now—hopefully, if we take care of this stuff—will look better and more interesting.”
Every detail in the space leans Frank Lloyd Wright, from the subtly dropped ceiling to the river-rock-covered backbar. Touchstones of the architect’s Prairie School style—native materials, open floor plans, horizontal lines—come out of the woodwork in ways that feel comfortable, not contrived. And it all dovetails nicely with Meehan’s environmentally conscious ethos.
Coasters are fashioned from scraps of Horween leather, the century-old Chicago leather tannery that the bar tapped for upholstery. The private room’s occasional tables are wedges of spent tree stumps, buffed until smooth. There’s no bottled water; there are no beer cans or wine bottles. Everything is on tap—except the cocktails.
There’s a dozen of them, primarily based in grains and fruit from the Midwest. From Koval oat whiskey to Rhine Hall brandies, the majority of Prairie School’s house spirits are hyperlocal, while many ingredients are sourced from The Roof Crop, an urban rooftop farm down the street.
The resulting cocktails are clever yet approachable: The Fruit Loop is a riff on the Brooklyn cocktail, capitalizing on local stone fruits; the Falling Water (named for Wright’s most famous house) literally references the drink’s slow-drip coffee method and is spiked with plum brandy. Nodding to Meehan’s college days in Madison, the Tall Boxes is a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, upgraded from the requisite Christian Brothers to Heaven Hill’s Sacred Bond brandy.
Meehan sweats over his nonalcoholic offerings, too. “I want people who aren’t drinking to feel welcome and comfortable here and have the same dynamic drinking experience as those who are drinking alcohol,” he says. There are a couple of temperance cocktails on the menu, but he seems most excited about Prairie School’s rotating sekki menu—another Wright influence. Based on the Japanese idea of 24 seasons, every sekki (about two-and-a-half weeks) will see the addition of a rotating single origin coffee from Four Letter Word and two teas from Spirit, served in ceramics commissioned for the bar.
To be fair, the presence of upscale coffee and tea is partly a Portland thing. Since moving there, Meehan says he has been drinking more caffeine and less alcohol. He snuck a few Oregon wines on the menu too. But other than that, Prairie School is proof that Meehan is Midwestern through and through.