Thrilled by Three Dots and a Dash – Chicago

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Chicago’s suburbs have beloved tiki spots like Hala Kahiki, Chef Shangri-la and Tiki Terrace, but there hadn’t been much in the city since the new incarnation of Trader Vic’s closed in 2011. Yes, there’d been some tiki nights and menus at bars around town (The Terrace at Trump, Curio, The Whistler, etc.) but nowhere with a tropical setting to match.

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That changed in July 2013, when the much-anticipated Three Dots and a Dash opened in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. It’s a project from Paul McGee (formerly of The Whistler) and R.J. and Jerrod Melman of the Chicago restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You (Everest, L2O, Tru). (NOTE: As of December 2014, Paul McGee is no longer directly involved.) The bar’s name pays tribute to the drink Three Dots and a Dash. Don the Beachcomber, who also invented the Zombie (and tiki bars, for that matter), created it in honor of the end of World War II. (In Morse code, three dots and a dash means “V” — as in “Victory.”)

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The Clark Street address is sort of deceiving as the speakeasy-style entrance is actually down an alley off Hubbard, directly across the street from Paris Club (another LEY venture where you can valet, though apparently there are a few self-park garages nearby too.) Look for blue glowing lights and a couple heat lamps and you’ll find a blue door and above it a small sign for Three Dots and a Dash.

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You’ll enter a dark corridor and then go left down a set of stairs underneath an eerily lit wall of spooky skulls — sort of like you’ve stepped into an Indiana Jones movie. Keep going and you’ll find the host desk, which is one several relics purchased at auction after Trader Vic’s closed, and then the dining room is on the left.

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But before that is the semi-hidden entrance to the private room, decked out with leopard-print banquettes, lots of fake (but very realistic) pillar candles and a revealing black velvet painting on the wall.

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Blue and green fish float lanterns give a mysterious glow to the main space. Big round leather booths line the walls while four-top tables fill the center of the room. The showpiece is the gorgeous thatched roof bar with about a dozen barstools where you can admire the extensive rum collection.

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Some tiki bars cultivate clutter, but this one keeps things more minimalistic in some spots like this corner with just a few spotlit ukuleles and tikis above the sleek banquettes. (The tikis that McGee snapped up in the auction date back to the 1950s and the original Chicago Trader Vic’s at the Palmer House hotel.)

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According to Serious Eats, the Melman brothers visited some of “London’s famed tiki bars” before starting this venture. Clearly, Mahiki must have made an impression — though thankfully there’s no dress code or velvet rope attitude here. Three Dots and a Dash even serves their own version of the Treasure Chest, also topped with a bottle of Champagne and presented in a wooden chest made by Cheeky Tiki. (Reminds me of how both the Mai-Kai in Florida and Kahiki in Ohio had the ritual of the Mystery Drink presented by a lovely Mystery Girl, which the Mai-Kai still performs to this day.)

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Three Dots and a Dash has a capacity of 240 but it’s still a new place — and a fun novelty for Chicagoans suffering through the winter — so you’ll likely find a line on popular nights. If you arrive quite early like we did you shouldn’t have any issues and you might even get to hear some exotica music — much preferable to the DJ that goes on later when it becomes more of a nightclub scene. Reservations are now accepted online.

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The menu is beautifully illustrated in a vintage style with pictures of the drinks alongside their descriptions. Half are “classics” (Mai Tai, Jet Pilot, Three Dots and a Dash) while the other eight are “modern” concoctions from McGee. Each of these is priced at $13. Then there’s a section for shareable options like the Zombie Punch ($65 serves 3-4) and aforementioned Treasure Chest No. 1 ($385 serves 6-8). On top of all this there’s also a separate tome listing more than 200 rums for tasting, plus 16 classic rum cocktails (daiquiri, Navy Grog, Hurricane, etc.).

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My favorite — and Chicago magazine’s, too – was the Painkiller No. 3, a creamy, dreamy combination of Bajan rum, Jamaican rum, coconut liqueur, passionfruit and pineapple. Named after a lyric from “South Pacific,” A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea is a riff on the Mr. Bali Hai featuring aged rhum agricole, blackstrap rum, Indian rum, cold brew coffee, pineapple and lime. It’s labeled with a skull warning of its “impressive strength” and it’s no joke. Our designated driver asked for a recommendation on a drink to get sans alcohol and our server suggested the Poipu Beach Boogie Board. This sweet and tart tipple of guava, maraschino, grenadine, pineapple and lemon is usually given a kick with rye whiskey and overproof rum.

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I’m not a fan of bananas, but I still insisted we get Bunny’s Banana Daiquiri for the garnish, a half banana turned into a dolphin. Don’t expect too much sweetness when you sip this blend of fresh banana, coconut liqueur, lime, Jamaican rum, spiced rum and overproof rum. Of course we also had to order the namesake drink, here made with aged rhum agricole, Guyanese rum, honey, falernum, lime, allspice and Angostura bitters. It was a well-balanced winner, presented with three Luxardo cherries and a pineapple spear. (Three dots and a dash, get it?)

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Foodwise, there’s a small menu of about 10 small plates and we sampled almost all of them, starting with the “luau chips” ($9). The pineapple-flecked guacamole came with puffed rice crackers, though I probably would have preferred tortilla chips.

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The Thai fried chicken ($11), which is highlighted on the menu as a signature dish, was a hit with us and disappeared the fastest. The boneless nuggets were lightly breaded and doused in an amazing garlic-chili sauce. Crag Rangoon ($11) is usually heavy on the cream cheese, but the filling in this rendition was actually loaded with blue crab. It came with a tray of four dipping sauces: Thai chili, peanut (so good!), sweet and sour (also tasty) and hot mustard (not too spicy). The award for best pupu presentation would go to the coconut shrimp ($13), which are served in half a coconut perched on top of panko breadcrumb “sand.”

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The meat on the Polynesian spare ribs ($16) didn’t fall off the bone but the pineapple glaze was tasty enough. Also decent were the Hanali spring rolls ($12) and curry chicken skewers ($13) though with such steep prices for small portions I think next time we’ll pass on all three of these and stick with the Thai fried chicken and crab Rangoon.

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(Photo by Three Dots and a Dash)

I love when tiki bars come out with souvenir mugs custom made for them, and Three Dots and a Dash already has three designs produced by Tiki Farm. First was the blue sea urchin mug, definitely one of the most beautiful mugs I’ve ever seen, then came this golden bamboo mug and a likeness of McGee with seashell spectacles ($20 each). They also serve and sell several other styles of Tiki Farm mugs, including a few imprinted with the bar’s logo.

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Three Dots and a Dash takes the state of tiki in Chicago to a new level with its serious mixology, good food, signature mugs and swizzle sticks, and impeccable decor that provides the perfect setting for a bit of tropical escapism. It should come as no surprise that I’ve added Three Dots and a Dash to my list of the Top Tiki Bars in America.

Three Dots and a Dash
435 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60654
312-610-4220

Related Posts:
Reviews of Tiki Bars in Chicago

Three Dots and a Dash on Urbanspoon

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(Walking in a) Tiki Wonderland at the Tonga Hut

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Maybe you’ve already started taking down the holiday decorations, but I just have to sneak one more festive post in. (I guess my new year’s resolution should be to be more timely with my blogging…)

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Last month, the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood hosted their annual Tiki Wonderland event with tiki vendors, art, tunes and tacos.

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Mr. Hockey was a good sport and accompanied me, and I think he’s glad he did because the art show introduced him to Krampus. He loves the idea of this scary beast that kidnaps the naughty children at Christmas.

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Tonga Hut had some new merchandise available at their booth, including a T-shirt collaboration ($20) with Vintage Roadside and signature rum barrel mugs produced by Tiki Farm in two glazes ($20).

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Meanwhile, Trader Pup’s Outpost had these neat tapa-style print stockings with shell necklace details ($16). I picked up the red and green ones to hang under my Bamboo Ben outrigger mug shelf in our tiki room.

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Polynesiac Jim makes awesome tiki ornaments (featured in last year’s Tiki Holiday Gift Guide). One of this year’s new designs was based on the “tiki babies” that come down from the Tangaroa tree at Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I also loved these Kon-Tiki pirate pendants!

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When Bahooka closed last year, they sold some of the decor during their final days but there was still a lot left. A tiki fan named Steve made a deal with the new owners to purchase all the remaining barrel lamps, plastic parrots and other things. He has a thread on Tiki Central where people can contact him about buying some of these Bahooka artifacts. I talked with him quite a bit and he seems like a real stand-up dude.

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I spent most of the time browsing the wares in the parking lot, but we did duck inside the bar so I could sample the Tonga Hut Rum Barrel ($12), a recent addition to the cocktail menu made with Montanya and Demerara rums, juices, homemade falernum and pimento dram. It was smooth and a little spicy and — as advertised — “everything a tiki drink should be.”

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Related Posts:
Tiki Wonderland 2010 at Tonga Hut
Saying Goodbye to Bahooka
Reviews of Tiki Bars in Los Angeles

Top 5 Spooky Tiki Mugs

Frankie's Tiki Room Las Vegas Halloween Thurston Howl Mug

Tiki mugs have gone way beyond ersatz portrayals of Polynesian gods. Thanks to creative companies like Tiki Farm and Munktiki there are now ceramics in all sorts of shapes and styles. In the spirit of Halloween, I present this round-up of a few of my favorite spooktacular spirits vessels.

The mugs that Tiki Farm produces for Frankie’s Tiki Room are some of my all-time favorites, especially the ones with Las Vegas details like the dice eyes on the Thurston Howl mug designed by Mark T. Zeilman. The regular version of this mug is green and red but for Halloween 2010 there was a limited run of 100 “Halloween Howl” mugs made in orange and black. (This photo is from an eBay auction since I missed out on this one…)

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Trader Sam’s tiki bar at the Disneyland Hotel contains many references to Adventureland attractions like The Enchanted Tiki Room, Jungle Cruise and Indiana Jones, but this creepy collectible bears a resemblance to the Hatbox Ghost/tall Hitchhiking Ghost from the Haunted Mansion. Manufactured by Tiki Farm, it made its debut in 2012 but is still available as a souvenir when you order the Shrunken Zombie Head cocktail.

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One of the first mugs I ever ordered from Tiki Farm was The Gravekeeper (center), which was sculpted by Baron Shivers of the spooky surf band The Ghastly Ones. (Their song “Ghastly Stomp” is an infectious ode to “Grim Grinning Ghosts” from the Haunted Mansion.) This ghoulish guy was so popular that it was later released in another color: “Perilous Purple.”

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Another eerie locale-exclusive mug I like is the shrunken head mug from Psycho Suzi’s in Minneapolis. They commissioned it from Tiki Farm in 2011 for The Shrunken Head bar, one of the sections of the Shangri-La Cocktail Lounge upstairs. (Read more about this mug in my Psycho Suzi’s gift shop post.)

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The Southern California event Tiki Oasis has a signature mug every year, and Munktiki drew inspiration from 2008’s theme “Voodoo Vacation on Zombie Island” for this clever creation. (Here again, photo is from an eBay auction.) It’s a zombie-fied take on the Don the Beachcomber head mug — fitting since Don the Beachcomber invented the Zombie cocktail. Speaking of Zombies, if you’re in the mood to mix one up on Halloween (or any other night of the year), you should check out Professor Cocktail’s Zombie Horde: Recipes for the World’s Most Lethal Drink by David J. Montgomery. (Stay tuned for a full review of that e-book.)

Do you have a favorite tiki mug you’ll be imbibing from this All Hallows’ Eve?

Related Posts:
Tiki Halloween Decorations: Shrunken Head Pumpkin
Halloween Art Show at the Tonga Hut
Aunt Tiki’s Halloween-Themed Bar in New Orleans