Chicago’s 153-Year-Old Palmer House Reveals a Prohibition-Era Speakeasy-Style Lounge

Must read


A light cocktail with a lemon twist. Palmer House, a Hilton Hotel

Potter’s Bar features classic cocktails and spicy tater tots topped with birria

Chicago’s 153-year-old Palmer House Hilton is the latest venue to tap into a glamorized legacy of Prohibition. Potter’s Bar is a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge that will require an entry password. It replaces the hotel’s seven-year-old burger bar with a scheduled opening date of Tuesday, April 16 on the hotel’s lobby level at 124 S. Wabash Avenue.

Potter’s Bar won’t shy away from the theatrically of historic speakeasies with quirks like a secret password (hotel staff can playfully slip it to guests via text; locals can suss it out by asking around). Tucked slightly back from the hotel’s grand main lobby, the lounge space will seat 136 and its layout won’t differ much from the burger bar that preceded it, says Palmer House hotel manager Henry Dornelas. Instead, staff have worked to differentiate the space with a deep dive into historical photographs, including images from Chicago’s anti-prohibition protests depicting marchers wielding signs bearing the phrase “we want beer.” Once operations are in full swing, the team hopes to add live musicians playing tunes from the 1920s and 1930s.

Cocktails, naturally, will get top billing on a menu divided into sections that include “classics” like Black Velvets (Guinness, Champagne) and vodka gimlets; “bathtub gin” drinks like the South Side (gin, lime, mint, soda) — allegedly a favorite of Al Capone; whiskey cocktails (think Side Cars and Boulevardiers), and “rum runners” like Hemingway Daiquiris and Mary Pickfords. The team will also feature a small food menu of reliable crowd-pleasers such as Potter’s Sliders (bacon jam, aged white cheddar) and spicy tots with beef birria and queso blanco.

Prohibition-themed bars have long enjoyed a niche in the city where the likes of Capone and Bugs Moran once brawled and bootlegged, with numerous riffs on the notion springing up in recent years. But if there’s any Chicago hospitality spot that has a solid argument for leaning into the era’s oft-romanticized history, it’s the Palmer House.

A wedding present from founder Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha, the Palmer House debuted in 1871 and a year later, it burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. As the story goes, Bertha was not about to let her new spouse off the hook regarding her present, and by 1873, the rebuilt hotel reopened to the public. Save for a pandemic-era closure from March 2020 through June 2021, it’s considered the longest continuously operating hotel in all of North America.

Over that time, the hotel has accumulated covert passageways, vaults, and a little-known museum and the Empire Room, where celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong once performed. “Rumor has it that tunnels were used to smuggle liquor into the hotel,” Dornelas says. “We saw an opportunity to tie that history into the Prohibition era when Chicago was the place with the most [illegally] transported liquor.”

Patrons will have to work a little harder for dessert and solicit a “secret” menu of slightly gangster-themed cocktails and sweet treats. Tied together for their allusions to the hereafter, drink options include Blood and Sand (scotch whisky, sweet vermouth, Cherry Heering) and Death by Morning (absinthe, Branca Menta, cold brew, sea salt, orange peel).

There’s also the Al & Mae, a pairing of chocolate pot de creme (apricot, walnut, vanilla whiskey ice) and a Revolver cocktail (bourbon, coffee liqueur, orange bitters). It’s a twofer of a reference, nodding to both the brownie — allegedly invented in the Palmer House kitchen in the late 19th century — and the improbable romance between the notorious gangster and his wife, Mae Coughlin.

To Dornelas, there’s a charming parallel between the Capones’ nearly 30-year romance (they were married from 1918 until Al Capone died in 1947) and that of the Palmers, who spent 32 years together. “It’s quite a love story that really ties into the love story behind the Palmer House,” he says.

Potter’s Bar at Palmer House, 124 S. Wabash Avenue, lobby level, scheduled to open on Tuesday, April 16.

Potter’s Chicago Burger Bar

124 South Wabash Avenue, , IL 60603 (312) 917-4933 Visit Website

Palmer House – A Hilton Hotel

17 E Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60603 (312) 726-7500 Visit Website

More articles

Latest article