Rejiggering Tiki for the 21st Century

Welcome to "About a Bar," a column that explores America's most notable bars and cocktail programs. Today: Chicago's modern tiki mecca, Three Dots and a Dash.

tiki illustration three dots and a dash

Named after a famous Don the Beachcomber cocktail from the 1940s, Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash boasts all the trappings of classic tiki. Sleek tropical décor, complete with a thatched-roof bar, skull-lined walkways and rustic wooden carvings set a buoyant Polynesian tone for the dimly-lit space.

Yet despite the requisite bowls of overproof spirits and coconut shrimp platters, Three Dots and a Dash is a far cry from a strict homage to tiki tradition. If you look closely you’ll notice that head bartender and partner Paul McGee has subtly tinkered with tiki’s notoriously rigid framework to reinvent it for the 21st century. And by doing so, he’s also managed to pay tribute to the genre’s rich history in Chicago.

“Back in the ’40s and ’50s, tiki was a huge thing in Chicago,” says McGee. “It was one of the first times that Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic and Stephen Crane (known for the Kon Tiki chain) were all in the same city, all within a mile of each other. It had a huge hold here and then seemed to die out when trends changed.”

McGee attributes part of the death of tiki to over-franchising. With some chains running up to 25 locations worldwide by the end of movement’s heyday—a slow fizzle beginning in the late ‘60s and ending in the ‘80s—bottled mixes and synthetic powders were brought in to maintain consistency. Drinks started to lose their luster and real tiki dissolved into a niche category reserved for die-hard fans. “We’re bringing it back to the days when it was originally a craft movement by making well-thought-out cocktails with tropical ingredients that are fresh, and being mindful about using the right rums,” says McGee.

Three Dots has been open just shy of a year, and yet on the weekends the 240-capacity room is packed wall-to-wall with a line to enter the bar stretched through the tiki-torch lined alleyway above. On a Friday or Saturday night, McGee says the bar easily runs through more than 1,500 cocktails off the menu alone. Three Dots’ success has been a sign for many that the tiki genre is far from fading.

For the traditional tiki congregation, the tribute to classic recipes, flamboyant custom-made mugs and oversized “tiki tacky” garnish art puts Three Dots safely within the comfort zone of the most devout. Yet unlike other nouveau tiki bars, Three Dots sheds the mindset of exclusivity, opening up the club to a wider audience.

To help usher in the new era, liberties are taken on the “modern” half of the menu. McGee’s riffs and rogue concoctions include the hip Dr. Funkhouser—a “drink of impressive strength”—with smoky mezcal, arrack, Jamaican rum, blackberry, pomegranate, lime, pineapple and falernum. Others, like Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri, bring tomfoolery into the mix with a brilliant attention-grabbing garnish: a banana carved into the likeness of a dolphin, complete with cloves for eyes, pineapple leaves for fins and a maraschino cherry stuffed in its jaw.

“It’s not a place you have to ‘get’ or know a lot about before you go there,” says McGee. “That’s part of the fun.”

For the average craft cocktail nerd, the elevated drinks made with fresh ingredients and housemade syrups make Three Dots an enjoyable place to ride the rum wave; and for the average Joe off the street who doesn’t know falernum from Fernet, there is enough entertainment to warrant a return visit. Visitors don’t need to be well-versed in the Beachcomber Bible to pull up a stool.

In fact, the house attitude is quite the opposite. Where the old school tiki pioneers kept their recipes heavily guarded, McGee acts as an open book, happily divulging recipes when prompted. “It doesn’t do us any favors to keep things secret,” he says. “[Being open source] helps grow the entire category.”

According to McGee, he first developed the inkling that a full-blown tiki concept could find success with a Chicago crowd in 2008, during his tenure bartending at The Whistler in Logan Square. When he initiated a one-off tiki series to bring customers in on the slowest, coldest nights of the year, Chicagoans responded with overflowing enthusiasm. “It was freezing cold outside and we had people coming in wearing Hawaiian shirts,” he says. “Every time we did one, even though it was a Monday, it would surpass our Friday or Saturday night sales.”

While tiki is an obvious fit for the temperate climate and laid-back sensibilities of California and Florida, the genre has long found a warm welcome in Chicago as well, where, by the middle of winter, people are oftentimes desperate for a vacation. Three Dots, a glowing basement where the rum flows flush and the ukuleles croon, has become not only a beacon for modern tiki, but a tribute to tiki’s greatest, and most established, virtue: escapism.

TO DRINK

Classic: Three Dots and a Dash. Aged rhum agricole, Guyanese rum, honey, falernum, lime, allspice, Angostura bitters | $13

Modern: Dr. Funkhouser. Mezcal, arrack, Jamaican rum, blackberry, pomegranate, lime, pineapple, falernum | $13

Frozen: Golden Glove. Aged Jamaican rum, curacao, lime | $13

Stirred: Ports of Call. Aged Guyanese rum, rye whiskey, cacao, Fernet | $13

Etc.: Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri. Jamaican rum, spiced rum, overproof rum, coconut liqueur, banana, lime, nutmeg | $13

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