Bathed in an eerie blue glow, a narrow wall of tightly packed skulls looms over the staircase descending into Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago's newest tiki lounge and most recent Lettuce Entertain You venture. Evocative of the shrunken heads of campy tales of the tropics, these skulls are a warning, if only in jest. What lies at the base of these stairs is strange and exotic, they say.
Such atmospheric lounges once filled Chicago in the 1950s and '60s. Places like Kon Tiki Ports, Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber beckoned travelers and locals alike to exotic locales recreated in hotel basements. They weren't just downtown either. The Polynesian Village, once housed in the Edgewater Hotel on Bryn Mawr, and Cirals' House of Tiki in Hyde Park, which closed in 2000, were two of many other favorite tiki hangouts.
Judging by the popularity of tiki nights at his former bar, The Whistler, Three Dots and a Dash partner Paul McGee says he knew it was time for Chicago to get in on the latest tiki revival.
"The next wave of tiki had caught on in San Francisco and New York, but no one had really done it here," he says.
The new bar is named after a drink nearly lost to the annals of history. It's also his favorite of the selection of classics on the oversized, illustrated cocktail menu.
"It's a really cool drink that has a couple of different styles of rum in it, which was a trademark of Don the Beachcomber," he says. "It also has a nice spice element thanks to the Angostura bitters, allspice liqueur and a little bit of honey."
A limited offering of "Island Fare" includes crab rangoon ($11), which also appeared on the menu at the original Trader Vic's in the 1950s; Thai fried chicken ($10), battered chunks of chicken doused with a sweet and salty garlic and chili sauce; as well as foie gras musubi ($17), an upscale take on the Hawaiian favorite that's often made with spam and rice.
"We have such a long winter, and what better way to forget about the snow outside and the long seven or eight months of winter than to go down into a lower-level bar or a bar in a basement that takes you someplace else," McGee says.
But you don't have to wait for winter for a tropical escape. Here are some places in addition to Three Dots and a Dash guaranteed to whisk you away.
Hala Kahiki. Long beloved by Chicagoans, both tiki enthusiasts and those just looking for a taste of the tropics, this rattan and bamboo-bedecked lounge has more than 100 cocktails to choose from. Some are classics, like the strong and sour mai tai ($6.75), while others are offered as variations on a theme, such as the Ko Ko Mo ($7.50), a sweet and coconut-y concoction described as an alternative to a pina colada. It seems every surface is adorned with bamboo, hula girls and tiki masks, creating an atmosphere that makes up for the canned pineapple juice and sometimes too-syrupy drinks. For ages, Hala Kahiki only served pretzels for snacking, but the bar recently added taro chips and salsa, either pineapple or mango ($5.75), to its food offerings. 2834 River Road, River Grove; 708-456-3222
The Tiki Terrace. Catch dinner and a show (starting at $24 per person) every Friday and Saturday night, but be sure to make a reservation even if you plan on just sitting at the bar and skipping the Polynesian revue. That Tiki Terrace, lined with statues of Maori faces flanked with palm fronds, is tucked away in an unassuming strip mall only adds to its escapist appeal. 1591 Lee St., Des Plaines; 847-795-8454
Chef Shangri-La. Opened in 1975 by Suzie and Paul Fong, little has changed since in this North Riverside oasis, including the drop ceilings and tiled floor. The tropical drinks menu, including classics such as the Zombie and Scorpion and the house specialty, Dr. Fong, come in two sizes: a fairly sizable small ($6.50) and what would be more aptly described at extra large ($9). But for $20, your cocktail comes in tiki glass that you can take home with you. The dining room walls are adorned with tiki memorabilia, and the bar's ceiling resembles the interior of a thatched roof. 7930 W. 26th St., North Riverside; 708-442-7080
House of Wah Sun. Not a tiki bar but a Chinese restaurant that serves strong tropical classics ($6.95). Sure, the drinks are made with mixes, but they arrive in a variety of ceramic tiki mugs garnished with paper umbrellas speared through an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. Slurped alongside of some of the best American Chinese food Chicago has to offer, like the heavily seasoned, but lightly battered salt and pepper tofu ($10.75) or the sweet and smoky hot braised chicken ($10.95), it's clear House of Wah Sun doesn't just coast on charm. 4319 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-477-0800
Won Kow. Opened in 1928, Chinatown's oldest continuously operating restaurant is rumored to have been frequented by Al Capone. Cocktail snobs should steer clear, however, because while tropical drinks are listed first on the menu, they offer little, if anything, in the way of nuance. They're slight variations on a theme, if that theme is boozy and sweet. But the price is right. At less than $13 ($12.95 for the volcano, $4.95 for the individual serving), the drinks come in a volcano bowl with the center set on fire and extra long straws for sharing with one or two friends. 2237 S. Wentworth Ave.; 312-842-7500
The Aviary. The innovative lounge offers its own kind of escape in drinks that seem less like takes on vintage cocktails and more like they were created on another planet. The Luau ($18) arrives at the table deconstructed, then a glass beer bottle filled with a golden liquid evocative of a Corona is poured over an icy concoction of matcha, while brilliant floral and citrus garnishes say tiki. 955 W. Fulton Market; 312-226-0868
Billy Sunday. A homegrown variation on the Singapore Sling, Algren's Sling ($10) is a sophisticated nod to both summer and the Chicago author. Made with gin, pineapple, cherry Angostura and Three Pins, an herby liqueur, it's a balanced take on a tropical cocktail, served in a coconut, to boot. 3143 W. Logan Blvd.; 773-661-2485
California Clipper. With its low lighting and laid-back atmosphere, you don't even have to wander into the tiki room before the outside world melts away. But order a mai tai ($7) or Singapore Sling ($7) at the bar before slinking to the backroom, where rattan lounge furniture and vintage Pan Am posters beckoning travelers to tropical locales are reminiscent of a cool midcentury hangout, and you're halfway to paradise. 1002 N. California Ave.; 773-384-2547
Orbit Room. Judging by the frequent citing of peach schnapps and Malibu on the Orbit Room's tiki cocktail list, it could be easy to dismiss the vintage-inspired bar as serving tropical drinks you could only enjoy at a frat party. Enjoyed outdoors on the expansive, bamboo-lined patio, where a wooden figurine of a hula girl dances over a water fountain, you could be convinced otherwise. (All tiki cocktails are $9.) 2959 N. California Ave.; 773-588-8540Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun