The Rise of Lost Lake, One of Chicago’s Premiere Tropical Cocktail Bars

When it comes to one of the best tiki bars in the nation, the Logan neighborhood of Chicago might not jump to mind. But if you’ve been to Lost Lake, it does, with a warm and inviting splash.

lost lake tropical cocktail bar chicago
Jaclyn Rivas

The bar was created just a few years ago and has since garnered quite the award list. It’s a three-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program, was named one of the nation’s best bars by Esquire in 2017, and voted Best American Cocktail Bar at renowned bar industry gathering Tales of the Cocktail in 2018. If you happen upon Lost Lake, it goes without saying that you might have to wait a few minutes for one of its beloved booze concoctions.

Like so many tiki establishments in the landlocked sectors of the lower 48, Lost Lake resembles something we so desperately want. In the dead of winter in the midwest, a steamy tiki bar is not just a watering hole, it’s a refuge. Good doctors prescribe it. Great friends make it mandatory. There’s not a better way to imagine you’re somewhere else entirely — specifically, a humid and hazy place, draped in banana leaves and decorative flotsam and jetsam.

lost lake tropical cocktail bar chicago 2
Jaclyn Rivas

Lost Lake’s success is due to a number of things. It’s not simply riding a kitschy interest in equatorial boozing, with gimmicky sandy floors, miniature umbrellas, and leisure music wafting through the speakers. Instead, the bar honors tiki rituals and perfectly iconic and inventive drinks (per its Strangers in Paradise program), and whips up presentations so pretty you’re pulling out your phone before the first sip.

The bar applies its magic wand to things like Batavia Arrack, pandan, Makrut lime leaf, and habanero shrub. The rum catalog is extensive, as it ought to be, spanning nations, styles, and barrel regimens. And the space, and the vessels the drinks are served in, feel like timeless treasures. 

Lost Lake is the brainchild of partners Paul McGee and Shelby Allison. The former once ran celebrated tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash while the latter was a publicist. The two logged tons of industry hours, working bar and within larger restaurant groups. They waited until the time was right, accrued an Encyclopedic knowledge of tiki-ness, and thenpounced. 

Lyndon French
Lyndon French

Cool as the couple is, part of the bar’s freshness is owed to another angle. Lost Lake brought on Land and Sea Dept., an innovative area studio and creative team that has lent its incredibly catchy aesthetic to projects like Sparrow, Leatherbee Distillers, and Parson’s Chicken and Fish. As a result, Lost Lake iss beginning to feel like an institution, already. 

The frosting on the tropical cake comes from genre guru Martin Cate, one of the bar’s partners. Cate is an acclaimed author and the owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco. He’s also involved in other tiki institutions such as False Idol in San Diego and Hale Pele in Portland. Musicians form supergroups; experienced spirits experts and tiki worshipers formed Lost Lake.

lost lake tropical cocktail bar chicago exterior by clayton hauck
Clayton Hauck

“Lost Lake kind of changed the modern tiki game when they opened in 2015,” says Penelope Bass, a senior editor at Imbibe. The drinks publication named Lost Lake its bar of the year that very year. “Not only do they nail the classics, but they’ve used the genre as a springboard to experiment with new flavor combinations and less traditionally used spirits like whiskey, mezcal, and sherry.”

That means comforting tropical drinks like This is the Way to Burn, a mix of scotch whisky, cognac, orgeat, passionfruit, apricot, lemon, habanero shrub, and absinthe. Or Trader Vic’s famous Fogcutter from 1940, a careful mashup of aged rhum agricole, London dry gin, cognac, orgeat, Curacao, Amontillado sherry, and lemon.

“They’ve proved that tiki is no just a list of cocktails, but a playful approach to drinks that anyone can appreciate,” Bass says. 

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