At Stock we use time-tested methods of production and appreciate the fine details that make a garment built to last. For our At Work series, we focus on like-minded businesses and individuals who don’t do things the expedient way, but the right way. For our newest installment, we’re featuring the sublime Lost Lake. Drawing from 80 years of cocktail history, the Logan Square oasis delivers an authentic tiki experience in a setting fit for a Hemingway novel. For those of us who clamor for tropical vibes but are too impatient--or broke--to fly out to Maui, fear not. This place serves up libations good enough to make you believe you are the old man in the sea.
We spent the day with co-owner Shelby Allison who graciously allowed us to hang around and get a better look at why Chicago Magazine just named them “Bar of the Year.”
For those just hearing about Lost Lake, what is it?
Lost Lake is a tropical neighborhood bar with a friendly, knowledgeable team waiting to take you on a mini-vacation by way of a wildly garnished cocktail! Besides being delicious, your cocktails are visually stunning.
Where do you pull inspirations from to create drink experiences for guests?
We lean on the research of historian Jeff Berry to get our tiki classics right, and we use the classics as a springboard for our original recipes. But a drink experience is really only half about what’s in the glass — the decor, the music, the lighting, genuine warmth and hospitality all work together to make up the other half of a guest’s experience. When it comes to styling cocktails, I draw inspiration from the aesthetics of photographers and stylists like Shelby Edwards (@littledrill) and Sara Hillenberger (sarahillenberger.com), jewelry designer Melody Ehsani (melodyehsani.com), as well as vintage tropical menus and travel posters — and Carmen Miranda, of course!
Good music is so key to hospitality and Lost Lake crushes in that department. What are some of your favorite tracks?
I’m so proud of the music at Lost Lake — and I think it does so much work to define our personality, and there are different playlists designed to enhance the vibe and energy at different moments during an evening’s service. Here are ten of my favorite songs, from late afternoon to late night:
No, No, No - Dawn Penn
Ghost Town - The Specials
My Jamaican Man - Grace Jones
No Aloha - The Breeders
This Must Be The Place - Talking Heads
Falkenberg - Discodeine
Pass This On - The Knife
Love Yuh Bad - Popcaan
Passionfruit - Drake
Guatemala - Rae Stremmurd
Your staff is so engaging, passionate and informed. How did you build such a tight-knit and happy culture?
I am so, so lucky to work with a group of such talented, interesting, kind, generous people. There are so many things that go into creating a strong culture within a business, but I think one way we’ve been able to knit together such a tight crew is that we train up. I’ve only hired three bartenders from ‘the outside world’ since Lost Lake opened three years ago, while everyone else has worked their way up from positions as dishwashers or bussers. I think that has helped to create a real sense of ownership and community amongst our staff. The true, real friendships that exist between Lost Lakers comes from the encouragement they give one another and the ways in which they hold one another accountable — and a little bit of magic that’s just impossible to create. I’m deeply grateful to have such a hardworking, conscientious team; it’s something I’m very proud of and work hard to protect and preserve
You guys also offer island-inspired food. What are some must-trys on the menu?
Our executive chef Fred Noinaj is crazy talented, and his food is some of my favorite in Chicago, and has been since I first attended one of his pop-ups while he was cooking at Analogue. Our whole dinner menu is like a greatest hits album, and you really can’t go wrong — but if I had to choose, I think I could narrow it down to four must-trys: wings, tantanmen noodles, pork dumplings, and the pork bahn mi. Honestly, though, you could close your eyes and point at the menu and be totally assured that you’ll get something amazing, and you’re definitely gonna want seconds.
Outside of Lost Lake, you’re a Co-Founder of the cocktail conference, Chicago Style. Can you tell us more about it?
Chicago Style is a cocktail conference that I founded and organized with my partners Caitlin Laman (beverage director of Ace Hotel) and Sharon Bronstein (vice president of marketing for spirits company The 86 Co.), in order to create a forum within which we could address issues of inclusivity, safety, and sustainability within our cocktail community. Basically, we created the cocktail conference we always wished we could attend — one that is equal parts drink and think, celebrate and critique, party and platform.
We had seminars to address issues from community accountability to sustainable cocktail programs to adapting an intersectional approach to the practice of hospitality; a fitness series to encourage long, healthy careers; Speed Rack, the fiercely competitive, career-making women’s bartending competition; and parties like Bar Fight Club and Wasteland Paradise, celebrating bars and bar teams that are visions of a brighter future within our industry.
Chicago Style will return as an annual event in May 2019!
There are new restaurant/bar concepts popping up all over your neighborhood and yet you guys are consistently busy and have garnered some covetable press. What sets you apart?
Even though as tropical bar, Lost Lake is about as concept-y as you can get, I think our guests can feel that it comes from the heart. We’re passionate about creating a heavenly, escapist experiences for our guests, and because of that, Lost Lake’s personality and soul are evident — which is something that resonates with the folks that love us.
You’ve been open for three years. If you could go back and give yourself advice on day one, what would it be?
This is a tough question — it wouldn’t be like, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff,’ because I’m glad I sweated the hell out the small stuff. I think instead of advice, present day me would give 2015 me an affirmation: ‘I see you working! It’s gonna be worth it! Pretty soon you’ll get credit for your work and be able to take vacations!’
As a business owner, what are you most proud of?
I’m really proud that Lost Lake is a small business run by a team that’s majority women, people of color, and queer folks, and that we’re making waves in our industry. I’m proud to be a member of Chicago’s incredible food and beverage community.
I’m super proud of #SHIFTEASE, the monthly charitable party platform I co-founded with my best friend Allison Burque. #SHIFTEASE began as a pop-up party: While Lost Lake was temporarily closed by a kitchen fire early in 2016, our bar community hosted us for a series of pop-ups that kept tips in our pockets. ‘Shifties’ are the drinks we make ourselves after a long shift, and #SHIFTEASE was a way to ease the financial pain of lost shifts by sharing that breaking-down-the-bar experience with you. Now, on the last Tuesday of each month, we raise money for a grassroots, Chicago-based organization working for progressive gender, racial, and economic justice in our city. We’ve raised over $15,000 since we launched in January of 2017, and we’re in the middle of a great second year. In July we’ll be partying for the summer programming of 360 Nation’s Summer Freedom School, a community organization based out of the west side of Chicago that utilizes relationship-building, gifts, and talents to promote self determination in the Black community.
What other Chicago businesses should our readers know about?
Lula Cafe is the nearly 20-year old Logan Square institution that is still leading the way for the entire Chicago hospitality community. It’s the kind of creative, community-focused space that I aspire to create, and the exact restaurant I try to find in any and every city I visit. Lula is The One.
Humboldt House and Peach Fuzz are a pair of shops owned by Claire Tibbs, that also function as community spaces. Claire has impeccable taste, and stocks all my favorite Chicago makers: Leah Ball, Cities in Dust, Eye of the Sun — plus she’s next door to my favorite spot for plants, Adams + Sons Gardens.
Causing a Stir An organization founded by bartenders Alexis Brown and Ariel Neal, with a mission to diversify our hospitality industry through educational and career-driven programs — focusing on engagement, empowerment, collaboration and mentorship in underserved Chicago communities, specifically on the South and West sides of the city. They host lots of events (including an annual gala!) so follow them on social media and attend one of their parties.
X This soon-to-open Caribbean cocktail bar on Fullerton and Central Park is (wo)manned by partner Alexandra Wright, who I got to know as a bartender at Lula Cafe. I’m super excited to have another woman-own, intentionally inclusive rum bar in my neighborhood. I think there’s a really special sisterhood to be born between X and Lost Lake!
TEN THINGS w/ Shelby Allison