Last year, when the news broke that bearded barman Paul McGee was leaving Chicago’s The Whistler, which bills itself as a bar, gallery, record label and music venue, there was a public outcry.
It’s understandable, given the popularity of his Sunday-afternoon bartending classes and monthly book-club series paying homage to vintage cocktail tomes.
McGee, who started slinging Frozen Margaritas at 19 in a Houston seafood restaurant, did not anticipate that the arty watering hole on a then-bleak street in Logan Square would become a top mixology destination. During The Whistler’s first evening in business, he gave away Pabst Blue Ribbon to friends and family; by his final shift, guests clamored for 500 cocktails a night.
But fortunately, McGee was staying in the Windy City and working on a new venture, a River North tiki joint in collaboration with Jerrod and RJ Melman of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant empire.
Located below the Melmans’ country-and-western eatery Bub City—McGee dreamed up its beverage list as well—the soon-to-open Three Dots and a Dash promises to be a refined tropical haven, on par with New York’s PKNY and San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove.
“Chicago has a great drinking culture, and it’s cold most of the year. How did we not have a craft tiki bar, one that took those classic drinks back to the way they used to be?” a baffled McGee wondered.
Naturally, patrons will gravitate toward his well-made Mai Tai, Zombie or Scorpion Bowl, but McGee also plans to enlighten imbibers with obscure tiki creations like the namesake Three Dots and a Dash, a 1940s Don the Beachcomber recipe that references World War II-era Morse code. In addition, original concoctions like the Tall as a Tree and Twice as Shady (Scotch, batavia arrack, orgeat, lemon juice, pineapple juice) will pepper the menu.
“People are not tired of drinking pre-Prohibition cocktails,” McGee assures me. “But it’s gotten too serious. Drinks should be delicious—some straightforward, some complex with layers of flavor. It’s about sharing and having fun.”
Three Dots and a Dash, outfitted with antique poles from the now-closed Chicago Trader Vic’s, is reminiscent of the tiki palaces of yesteryear. Think of it, McGee says, “like the luau you used to get dressed up for.”
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.
(Photo courtesy Anjali Pinto)