Upstairs at The Barrelhouse Flat
When I first heard the name The Barrelhouse Flat, I imagined a place that looked like a cross between a Texas Roadhouse and a Cracker Barrel. But what I beheld inside this recently opened Lincoln Park lounge was something much cooler, which is exactly what I expected after learning that Stephen Cole, a former Violet Hour mixologist, is the owner.
On the first floor, the cushy barstools, requisite Edison light bulbs, and welcoming wooden booths are a major improvement over the décor of the space’s previous tenants, The Rockbox and Déjà Vu—both sticky late-night bars where arguments frequently escalated into brawls on the sidewalk outside. My date and I sipped an intriguing house punch, a polished version of a Long Island iced tea with rum, Cognac, black tea, and lemon ($7), and an expertly mixed, shockingly good La Louisiane ($10), a complicated blend of rye whiskey, vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, and bitters, with a chewy cherry on the bottom.
When a table became available upstairs, we joined two friends and discovered a place that’s like nothing else in the neighborhood. From our perch on a velvet couch, we watched couples murmuring in cozy armchairs, servers hurrying across a chevron-patterned wood floor, and mixologists working behind a modern bar that successfully complements the upscale speakeasy atmosphere, thanks to the Los Angeles–based design team Patry + Kline.
“Is that Lois Weisberg?” I whispered to my group as a distinguished white-haired woman walked past. What could the grande dame of Chicago culture be doing in a bar that, for all its grown-up trappings, was filled mostly with 20-somethings? Things became clear later when a publicist confirmed that Benjamin Pritzker, son of Hyatt chairman Thomas Pritzker, and venture partner Benjamin Lurie, son of the late real-estate mogul Robert H. Lurie, are investors.
Trust-fund entrepreneurs aside, what really caught my attention was Cole’s concept for Barrelhouse. “A lot of mixologists are trying to do crazy new stuff, throwing in a lot of West Coast ingredients,” he says. “I wanted to do an homage to the classics.” The lengthy cocktail menu is full of old-school potions: Sazeracs—Cole’s all-time favorite drink—mai tais, Cuba libres, and more unfamiliar concoctions, such as the Swiss Ess, Bizzy Izzy, and Burnt Fuselage. Alcoholic punches, which predate most cocktails (think of it: the Iceless Age), are another attraction. The potent house punch I had came served in a teacup-size glass with a dainty handle.
Cole named his bar after a 1930s Mary Johnson song about a casual joint where everyone is welcome. On most weekend nights, a guy conveniently called Barrelhouse Chuck plays ragtime on the bar’s upright piano. “Downstairs, I wanted anybody to be able to roll in off the street and have a good time,” Cole says. “Upstairs is more controlled because it’s more compact.” It’s also the place to be.
After trying a few bites from the food menu (go for the pig-face poutine, $13), my date and I joined a young hipster couple for a game of pool. Several long, unskilled, and wretched games later, we finally won. I’ve never felt that victorious in a Cracker Barrel.
The Barrelhouse Flat 2624 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-857-0421, barrelhouseflat.com
Photograph: Chris Guillen