Tucked within an unassuming building near the corner of N. Kedzie Ave. And W. Diversey Ave. in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, there is a place that promises to delight imbibe and culinary enthusiasts alike the moment they step beyond the threshold and leave the city’s residential and commercial architecture interplay behind. Its façade, which features a splash of vibrant green on a brick canvas, courts the curious onlooker and hints at the oasis-meets-flotsam experience within its doors where wallpaper, lighting, and glass-blown globes in netting come to life in the windows at night.
There is an experience, an escape, and perhaps a journey that waits within, where intentional design and curation of program come together in a single glance as one catches sight of a wildly garnished, innovative tropical cocktail made distinctive by the team at Lost Lake. The neighborhood bar, named Best American Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail Foundation 2018 Spirited Awards and recognized as a two-time James Beard Foundation finalist for Outstanding Bar Program—and winner in 2020—seeks to break away from the stereotypical—and often controversial—tiki bar and instead bring an authentic experience and distinctive flavor pairing to classical tropical cocktails.
“We are no longer calling ourselves a tiki bar. We are ceasing to pay homage to what is generally a pretty racist and problematic moment in culinary history and instead focusing on the idea of escapism and the idea of leaving behind your regular, everyday life to find something really different from what you see all day long,” said Shelby Allison, co-owner at Lost Lake and co-owner of Banana Daquiri LLC in Chicago. “To Chicagoans, it is something tropical and we are leaning into our love of rum, tropical ingredients, and warm-weather vacations. That is Lost Lake.”
Lost Lake, which was established in 2015, began in concept several years before it opened its doors and in similar mission: on a cold, Chicago evening at a book club event regularly hosted by Alisson and Paul McGee, co-owner of Lost Lake.
“My business partner and I worked at a different bar in the neighborhood and we were throwing these book club parties where we would take a cocktail book and create recipes from it, do a playlist, do some décor, and other theme elements,” Allison said. “We ordered Jeff Berry’s tiki tome and as we were working through the recipes, we realized quickly that they were very complex. We really just fell in love with the recipes.”
Inspired by the rum blend and flavor combination complexity found in the pages of cocktail books like “Jigger, Beaker and Glass: Drinking Around the World” by Charles H. Baker Jr. And “Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari” by Jeff Berry—a book divulging recipe secrets of the midcentury tropical cocktail era—Allison and McGee quickly turned an affinity for serving classic-inspired and original recipes into a vision of creating their own rum bar destination. While they would spend years working with a large restaurant group—Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants—as it launched the speakeasy-style Three Dots and a Dash, Allison noted the opportunity came up for them to open their own spot back in the neighborhood where they had both first worked.
“Logan Square as a neighborhood is really known as a drinking and dining destination in the city. It is a neighborhood where there are a lot of independent small bars with lots of character and specialty focus,” Allison said. “It felt like a good neighborhood for us.”
Working with Land and Sea Dept., a concept and project development studio based in Chicago, Allison and McGee brought their envisioned bar destination to life through dramatic wallpaper, thatch-work and bamboo, fish traps, glass-blown floats, a piranha tank, and pitched ceiling heights throughout the former two small storefront spaces.
It is both Allison and McGee’s affinity for the classic cocktail, such as the Old Fashioned or Negroni, that drives the philosophy and process behind Lost Lake’s drink menu, where tropical cocktails are given a new and interesting perspective—and a keen eye and palette for splitting base spirits.
“Pretty much all of our cocktails will have some appearance of rum in them, but many times what we are doing is splitting base spirits so most of our drinks have two or three spirits to begin with. We will use a rum Agricole from Martinique, but pair it with mezcal or tequila; or we will have bourbon or a lighter multi-island rum that plays really well with gin, and from there, you can pick out different elements of spirits,” Allison.
For Allison, who initially began in the hospitality industry during college with a job at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, it is in the curation of the experiential and playing a small part in other people’s celebration and story that has drawn her to the field.
“It was intoxicating to me and I just got bit by the bug. I love creating this experiential, almost theater-like level of hospitality,” Allison said.
“I think design should happen without you noticing and the best design feels like it has always been there, not like it is trying too hard; it feels natural,” Allison added.
Full text available in Great Lakes By Design: Raising the Bar, 2020
Text: R.J. Weick
Photography: Clayton Hauck | Lyndon French