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Review: Three Dots and a Dash

Paul McGee is back--and he's brought cocktail umbrellas

August 06, 2013|By Kate Bernot, @kbernot, RedEye | RedEye

Review: Three Dots and a Dash

435 N. Clark St. 312-610-4220

Rating: 4 (out of four) Already hot

Back in 2011 when hotshot bartender Paul McGee still helmed The Whistler, the Logan Square bar threw its first tiki-themed party. Ironically, the bash fell on the same night as the epic snowpocalypse that steamrolled the city with 70-mph winds and blew the sign off The Whistler's façade—but no matter. Enthusiastic crowds still showed up in leis and Hawaiian shirts, and the party planted an idea in McGee's mind: One day, he would have his own tiki bar.

Two-plus years and a career move later, McGee opened Three Dots and a Dash in River North at the end of July with partners R.J., Jerrod and Molly Melman of Lettuce Entertain You. Partially in the style of West Coast bars such as Trader Vic's, which had a Chicago location for decades, and the city's own now-closed Kon-Tiki Ports, McGee embraces all the kitsch and fun of the tiki style while pointing to contemporary revivals in cities such as New York and San Francisco.

"It's hard to go over the top with tiki," McGee said. "The fun of tiki is that you expect it to be over the top." At Three Dots, that means jewel-toned lanterns, ukuleles on the walls and plenty of custom-made, totem-shaped mugs. But there's always one thing that's serious, McGee adds, and it's the drinks. Ready for rum and a yacht rock soundtrack, I followed the torches through the alley behind Bub City and descended some eerily blue-lit stairs to Mr. McGee's lair.

These aren't your grandma's cruise ship daiquiris

In fact, the menu is refreshingly free of frozen slushies, pre-mixed red nonsense and other saccharine-loaded crimes against the tropics. Cozy up to these real warm-weather cocktails (all $13), half of which are based on historic recipes from the great tiki bars of yore such as Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber. McGee—who sometimes circles the room charming tables—first directed me to the namesake Three Dots and a Dash cocktail, which began with a honey sweetness before sailing me into a rum-soaked sunset on a raft made of pineapple. (I think my eyes may have rolled back in my head a bit.) For my second round, I chose from the right half of the menu, which lists modern cocktails based on McGee's original recipes and riffs on classic styles. The Painkiller No. 3, a milky combination of Bajan and Jamaican rums plus coconut liqueur, passionfruit juice and cream, tasted like tropical eggnog—and I mean that in the best way possible. Though the descriptions of these two cocktails weren't accompanied by an adorable skull icon (which designates "drinks of impressive strength"), I had consumed four types of rum in the span of an hour and felt my head begin to buzz like a Maui mosquito. I stole a final sip of my date's A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea—one of those "impressive strength" offerings made with aged rhum agricole and black strap rum, plus cold-brew coffee—hoping the caffeine would help shake off the rum-induced drowsiness.

Bring your friends

Unlike McGee's former digs at The Whistler, Three Dots actually has room for large groups. Scoot your friends into one of the massive leather booths that line the perimeter and zero in on the "For Sharing" section of the menu. If your eyes haven't adjusted to the dim basement lighting, don't fear—the menu is the size of a newspaper, and it has pictures, which makes group decision-making easier. You'll have your choice of three punches ($50-$385, serving between three and 12 people), the most expensive of which arrives in a dry ice-filled treasure chest with a bottle of Dom Perignon—because why not? Though they weren't sipping any of the punches, the table nearest to me certainly was in high spirits. When one woman, a dead ringer for Heidi Montag, shouted "Dude, it's so dark in here, I sat down with the wrong people!" I wasn't sure that it was completely the lighting's fault. Another choice overheard snippet: "Spraaang breeeak y'all!"

There will be snacks

It's not wise to knock back multiple tiki drinks on an empty stomach; thankfully, Three Dots' small food menu isn't an afterthought. Fresh-from-the-fryer crab rangoon envelopes ($11) shatter upon biting and reveal a creamy, not-too-fishy crustacean filling. Coconut shrimp ($13) aren't the fist-sized monsters you'd find elsewhere; they arrive as piping hot curlicues primed for dipping in one of the four sauces. I liked them best with a housemade sweet chili sauce that I wish I could take home by the quart.

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