In a Nutshell: Tiki kitsch as an ode to what is said to be the original tiki bar, the 1930s Los Angeles “Don’s Beachcomber Cafe”. Lost Lake is the brainchild of famed mixologist, Paul McGee, whose first run at a tiki concept, Three Dots and a Dash, took off in River North in 2013. This iteration still has the fantastic, authentic daiquiris, punches and other high-octane libations but in a far less sceney setting as the throngs of tourists and bachelorette parties are pleasantly absent. Opened in early 2015, it has quickly established itself as a key player in the Chicago beverage scene and recently received national acclaim as well, snagging Imbibe magazine’s award for the 2015 Cocktail Bar of the Year.
Ambiance: Plenty of rattan, palm leaf accents and colorful lanterns help to create a tropical oasis in the middle of Chicago hipsterville (where Logan Square meets Avondale). Against the front windows, low table and chair seating is available for a few lucky couples or small groups to easily take in the space. The bar area features a number of stools and there are some additional four-top tables against the wall rounding out the main room. On the other side, there is booth seating along with some additional low tables. Even on weekdays it seems to get packed within 45 minutes of opening so be prepared to arrive early or spend a little time scouting seats given the small space and huge popularity. The crowd usually features a good range of ages, couples and groups. With some of the strongest drinks in the city, the energy teeters between lively and downright boisterous. Needless to say, it’s not the spot for an intimate conversation but an easy setting to make some new friends; with packed quarters and most patrons hopped-up on rum concoctions, it’s a pretty chatty bunch.
Service: Mostly friendly yet there is a definitely an air of exclusivity if the staff does not recognize you as a regular. They’ll hand you a large leaf-shaped menu for drinks but will not offer up the “Beta” cocktail list (the “secret” secondary list of drinks) unless requested or recommended by a more-seasoned patron nearby. Either way, definitely use your server’s help to navigate the extensive menu- some drinks are decidedly more sweet or tart than others and they can provide guidance based on what flavor profile you’re looking for. The staff does a pretty good job of keeping pace with the drink orders, especially considering how intricate they are and the sheer volume they’re serving. The challenges mostly come with the food delivery from the adjoining Chinese takeout stand, Thank You. Both times I’ve ordered food, it seems like half the order makes it over and the other half mysteriously gets lost (no pun intended) on the 10 foot journey across the door threshold.
Beverages: These are not your Sandals all-inclusive resort type tropical drinks. There is definitely no syrupy, cloying ready-made mix. Everything revolves around authentic tiki fundamentals: high quality spirits and liqueurs, fresh squeezed juices, bitters and the occasional spice. While some drinks certainly skew in one direction, most have a great balance of sweet, sour and bitter. They could serve the drinks in a plain glass and they would still taste amazing but the playful and creative presentation certainly adds to the fun and completes the atmosphere. Drinks come in all sorts of vessels (ceramic parrots, coconuts to name a few) and are accompanied by edible flowers, colorful straws and in some cases, fire. Single serving and large format offerings are available. Bear in mind, even the single servings contain multiple alcohol components and none would classify as an actual single drink. 2 will send most people well on their way to their own tropical happy place. 3 is a little more like spring break hangover hell but without the 21 year old bounce-back capacity.
Food: As mentioned above, there is a connected Chinese takeout place next door, Thank You. This is pretty much your standard Americanized Chinese fare- egg rolls, dumplings, etc. The portions are pretty hearty. The wings are definitely a standout with the tangy sauce being an excellent complement to the tropical libations. Some dishes are a little more bland (ahem, the pork fried rice) but overall, the reasonably priced carbs, salt and fat are much appreciated to help balance the boozy beverages.
The Devil’s in the Details: Especially in the colder months in Chicago, Lost Lake is a welcome refuge from the gray skies and low temps. A thatched roof and tiki-adorned staff provide the baseline ambiance for tropical respite. After a few sips of a cocktail that is as tasty as it is pretty, patrons are well on their way to a few hours of paradise in the unlikely setting of the Upper Midwest.
Photo credit: Clayton Hauck (bar shot); imbibemagazine.com (drink shot)