Barrelhouse Flat takes patrons back to the Prohibition era

By Sophia Coleman

During the Great Depression, there were thousands of speakeasies in Chicago. Though illegal, they gave the deprived public exactly what it needed: a strong cocktail and a place to escape.

Now that the country has fallen into a recession, people may be searching for something similar when it comes to the drinking scene—a bar that provides a sense of adventure and excitement similar to the roaring ’20s.

Granted part of the excitement of that time was due to the likelihood at any moment, police could shut down the party—but at Barrelhouse Flat, 2624 N. Lincoln Ave., the thrill comes from being transported back in time, while still enjoying the comforts of today.

Inspired by the hit song “Barrelhouse Flats,” by famed blues artist Mary Johnson, the bar captures the illicit but romanticized feel of the Prohibition era.

Though it opened on Oct. 24, Barrelhouse Flat has already proven to be a historic hit among locals.

“The whole idea behind it was that there were so many forgotten classic [drinks] out there that have been lost to time,” said Stephen Cole, owner of the bar. “No one has really brought these fantastic drinks to light, so I decided to do that.”

Cole, a former bartender at Violet Hour, 1520 N. Damen Ave., took it upon himself to create what he pictured as a welcoming and luxurious getaway for the Lincoln Park community.

He used experience he gained as a head bartender at the popular Wicker Park bar, famous for its gourmet approach to mixology. Cole took his expertise to another level by researching classic drinks like Holland’s Pride, which uses Bols Genever, sweet vermouth, bitters and a dash of absinthe to create an unfamiliar but pleasant taste.

The bi-level, speakeasy-inspired bar is two blocks away from the rowdier sports bars and is located inside a building that dates back to 1892.

“It’s unique,” Cole said. “[The bar] is separated into three rooms, which invokes a different personality of the bar.”

The first floor is all about accessibility, said Kellie Patry, head of Patry and Kline, which designed Barrelhouse Flat.

Every element is custom, from the handcrafted woodwork to the giant, group-seating booths. The floor features custom-made black and white hexagon-tiles, which were made to look as though they were aged 100 years.

There is an old grand piano tucked in a corner that blues artist Barrelhouse Chuck plays with ease, despite the missing keys and creakiness of the floor pedals.

“People romanticize that era,” Patry said. “But really it was rough and tough, and we wanted to translate [that into] our design.”

A mysterious transition begins while climbing the staircase to the second level. The atmosphere becomes more intimate, and red fringe decorates the space to bring in an aura of seductiveness. A vintage 1940s Persian rug greets patrons at the top of the stairs inviting them to the darker corners, where people can choose to retreat.

Patry hopes the white and gold paint will provide relief from the bitter cold and dark days to come. As snow piles high on window sills, it will reflect into the room and bathe it in a golden glow, enhanced by a welcoming fireplace.

In the second-floor lounge area, there is a pool table, fireplace and a wrap-around bar, that Cole says gives off a “Cheers” sort of vibe.

John Russick, historian at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., said the styles of speakeasies during the Great Depression ran the gamut from gritty holes-in-the-wall to luxurious nightclubs that were careful to keep alcohol out of the equation, at least at first glance.

“These places knew that their clientele was going to be tuxedoed and flapper-dressed, so they styled the speakeasies and nightclubs accordingly,” Russick said.

The mixings of the martini would be laid out at the establishment, but the patron would be expected to bring his or her own alcohol, according to Russick.

He said that although cocktails were invented in the 19th century, they became immensely popular during the 1920s for two reasons: they masked the horrendous flavor of homemade liquor and disguised the drink to make it look non-alcoholic.

Bringing your own alcohol isn’t necessary at Barrelhouse Flat. The style is elegant with a comfortable, worn-in feel, and the forbidden drinks of that era

flow freely.

In addition to a selection of 70 cocktails that fall into four different categories—shaken, stirred, bubbles and egg—Barrelhouse also boasts an extensive wine and beer list. And of course, don’t forget the homemade punch and hard ciders.

Most of the drinks will be made from locally sourced products, which Cole admits has been tough considering they opened in the middle of the fall season.

“We haven’t had the chance to use a lot of locally sourced ingredients [with our drink menu], but our kitchen has,” Cole said. “But once we start rolling out our house cocktails, we will incorporate more of that.”

In Cole’s mind, so many bars have been about “pushing the penny,” more so than developing a sense of community. With the Barrelhouse Flat, he hopes to spark that sense of togetherness bars used to have, in addition to serving up nostalgic drinks.

“The most important part about a bar is that it’s first a community bar and second a destination bar,” Cole said. “Back in the day, that’s what bars used to do. It was a market where you could grab your newspaper, hang out and relax.”