Bar Sotano

  • Location(s): Chicago, IL

Rick and Lanie Bayless and the team at Frontera asked us to reinvent the basement space below Frontera Grill as a Oaxacan-inspired speakeasy with small plates and mezcal forward cocktails and youthful vivacity. He challenged us with the task of emulating the mezcal making process in the built environment. The smoky flavors of the liquor are represented in the charred wood tables where diners nest, as well as the through the gradient glow effect along the stone foundation walls of the space. The diamond pattern created by cutting the leaves off of the agave “pina” before roasting, also became a major theme throughout the restaurant. This pattern is visible on items such as the modern tufting at the residentially inspired banquettes and the hot pink elevator gates used as dividers to create more intimate settings amongst guests. This pattern is also evident in the millwork and decorative metals throughout the space, including the custom laser cut metal panels enclosing the stairs and bar die wall clad in reclaimed wood lath. The mural painted by artist Juan de la Mora was also inspired by the mezcal making process and his time as an apprentice in Mexico.
With a focus on authenticity, we incorporated other Mexican inspired touches throughout the space. The large cluster of decorative ceiling lighting was inspired by paper lanterns used as decorations at a fiesta or celebration in Mexico. The back bar shelving mimics the look of stacked crates holding various mezcals and tequilas. And the colors used throughout the space are drawn from colors seen throughout modern Mexican architecture.
The space itself did pose issues with being a basement and having very low ceilings – which required an intricate HVAC system. With the aid of Advance Consulting Group, C.E. Anderson & Associates, and ADE Restaurant Services Inc. — the MEP engineers, structural engineers, and kitchen consultants — we were able to create a functioning and comfortable space for guests, despite the building’s original conditions. Kern Konstruction was contracted to construct the space and did so successfully taking into account the height constraints and other site specific concerns. With the help of the construction team and the consultants, we were able to successfully design and build an intimate speakeasy environment.
As with all projects we’ve completed with Rick Bayless and the Frontera team, we’ve enjoyed the challenge of emulating the visceral descriptions Bayless and his team hope to entice with every space. Collaborating with a true culinary artist and everyone at the Frontera Group continues to be an inspiring process.