Tiki Time in Chicago

There are characters who will forever be associated with certain aspects of Chicago history: Al Capone and the Mob, Harry Caray and the Cubs (and Steve Bartman with their most recent collapse). But when food & drink historians look back on the early 21st Century, wondering how the city gave birth to a pair of tiki bars in the space of a year, they’ll most likely pin it on Paul McGee. The bespectacled, Smith Brothers cough drop beard-worthy bartender worked behind the stick at The Whistler, then got hired by Rich Melman’s kids to oversee the cocktails at Hub 51, Bub City, Paris Club and RPM Italian. His biggest achievement there was the launch of Three Dots and a Dash, in Bub City’s basement (entered via the alley). More recently, he left Lettuce Entertain You to join the Land & Sea Dept., the folks behind Longman & Eagle and Parson’s Chicken & Fish, to launch Lost Lake, the city’s latest Tiki Bar. But before you give McGee all of the credit, you have to start in the western suburbs.

In 1964, with a funeral home business and a failed bar behind them, Rose and Stanley Sacharski opened a tiki-themed bar a few miles south of O’Hare, in River Grove. Finding inspiration in a Dennis the Menace comic strip, in which Dennis visits a pineapple plantation called Hala Kahiki (the Hawaiian word for pineapple, by the way), the name stuck, and Hala Kahiki was born. To say the décor is kitschy, is like saying the bars in Wrigleyville have a few TVs. They piled enough bamboo, palms and Hawaiian prints to choke Don Ho while devising a drink menu jammed with coconut cream, pineapple juice and rum. I went back a few weeks ago, just to see for myself. Sharing a drink for two for $16 seemed like a steal compared to the downtown bars. The predominant flavors tasted like a typical American kid’s breakfast – heavy on the sugar, which led me to believe they’re not squeezing their own juices – with enough rum to knock me out after one round (I didn’t drive afterward; neither should you). There isn’t a lot of food coming out of the kitchen, save for some exotic chips and salty snacks, but you’re not coming here for dinner. You’re coming to get loaded.

The feeling at Three Dots and a Dash is similarly tongue-in-cheek, with the requisite Hawaiian statues, fun glassware (much of it purchased online) and bartenders in Hawaiian shirts, but it’s still quite a bit more modern. If Haha Kahiki is the suburban basement where Wayne and Garth hang out, Three Dots is the slicker condo downtown with the doorman. It’s rum bar with significant capital underwriting. The food here is somewhat more substantial. Last week, the raw tuna with avocado and chips had me coming back for more scoops than I had planned on, while the coconut shrimp hit all of the right crunchy notes you want from a rum-soaking snack. There’s also Polynesian spare ribs, crab rangoon and Thai fried chicken (price range $9 – $16). The depth of their rum list – more than 200 according to Beverage Director Diane Corcoran – is mind-boggling. I just want a fun, tropical drink in a glass with an umbrella! But even their garnishes go the extra mile, making Hala Kahiki look a tad lazy. Each station at the bar is overloaded with decorative picks, fresh flowers, bitters, freshly-squeezed juices and other tiki ephemera. It’s hard to go wrong here, and if you’ve got a couple of friends in tow, don’t be afraid to get one of their fun punches, with extra-long straws, simply prolonging the inevitable.

Lost Lake (pictured, above) has the same sort of backing – they didn’t spare a dime on the bar layout – and the bartenders are all trained like Navy SEALs, totally focused on their jiggers and Hawthorne strainers, measuring, pouring and occasionally jamming a metal canister up into a blender, whipping up tiki drinks with the utmost skill. The crowd is definitely scruffier than River North, with as many tats as there were skirts at Three Dots. The namesake cocktail is a tropical escape I could drink anytime of the year, but in the depths of a frigid winter, tasted even more refreshing. It starts with Jamaican rum, but also has freshly-squeezed pineapple, passionfruit and dried cherry liqueur, plus Campari, which balances out that sweetness from the juices. I didn’t love the food I ordered – egg rolls and egg noodles – but on my second visit I couldn’t stop digging into the peanuts with chewy garlic and bird’s eye chilies. I’ll give the menu another try next time, which will probably be at some point in the next few days. Any day is a good day for tiki. Cheers.


Hala Kahiki

2834 River Rd., River Grove; 708-456-3222


Three Dots and a Dash

435 N. Clark St.; 312-610-4220


Lost Lake

3154 W. Diversey; 773-293-6048


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