The story of the tiki cocktail and tiki culture dates back quite a while (but probably not as far back as you may think). Its story is wrapped in history, America’s perception of the world and the evolution of that perception. As a result, this will be an unusual review of one such tiki bar, Three Dots and a Dash, that quite plainly understands that history, revels in it and pays homage.
The foundations of tiki culture can be traced back to the time immediately following the first World War. During this time, the United States underwent an international reawakening. Soldiers returning home from Europe had acquired a taste for the multicultural. New foods, new fashion and new ways of thinking broke down Americans’ provincial attitudes and opened minds to novel experience for the first time in the U.S. Furthermore, as a result of the brief moment of relative global political stability and unprecedented technological innovation in the 1920s, international travel emerged as safer and cheaper than at any time in history. Americans with the means took advantage and began to explore the world: American tourism was born.
With the onset of the Great Depression and the hardship that followed in the U.S., the numbers of those with the means to travel greatly diminished. However, tastes for multiculturalism and the exotic had not changed. This was the era of maverick dispatches by globetrotting American journalists to bring the world to America when America could not go to the world. It was also the era of Robert Ripley, the famously well-traveled American cartoonist and amateur anthropologist of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” fame. Ripley ingratiated himself in the most seemingly eccentric souvenirs from his travels. This was the start of New World kitch and America loved the easily consumed, literal caricatures of multiculturalism that Ripley offered.
Many other travelers were less well known, however, and among them was a Texas adventurer named Ernest Gantt. Fascinated by island cultures, Gantt picked up in 1926–at the age of 19–and traveled across the South Pacific and Caribbean (supposedly earning his way as a bootlegger of Caribbean rum). Ultimately finding himself in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Gantt revelled in a booming Hollywood culture aimed at exploiting American tastes for kitchy international armchair adventures. Hollywood in this era was famous for the cartoonish jungle adventures of Tarzan and King Kong. Americans wanted more and Gantt would give it to them, opening “Don’s Beachcomber Cafe” in 1934, the first ever tiki bar and restaurant, in Hollywood. It was here that Gantt single handedly created the tiki cocktail.
Contrary to appearances, Polynesian culture has little to do with original tiki culture. The classic food staples of tiki–including the “pu pu platter”– were merely dressed up versions of Cantonese-American immigrant food (so-called “greasy Chinese food”). The strong rum drinks that Gantt served found their roots in the Caribbean. Gantt didn’t even open his first Hawaiian location until the 1940s after his divorce from his wife and tour of duty in World War II. It was here that tiki acquired a following among Hawaiian emigrants and tourists (not so much among the natives).
The tiki fad came and went by the 1950s on the mainland, but remained strong in Hawaii in the interim. It wasn’t until the 1990s when Jeff Berry began publishing his series of tiki cocktail books that tiki culture began to catch on again. As the resurgence has taken hold, the influences have become more muddled than the pineapple in a maitai.
Which brings us to Three Dots and a Dash (you knew I’d get here eventually). TD&D, which took nearly three years from concept to doors opening, is the brain child of bartender extraordinaire Paul McGee and the folks at Lettuce Entertain You. The name, which is morse code for “V,” I suspect stands for “Victory!” given how long and hard McGee had to work to make this a reality. But it wasn’t all in vain! TD&D is perhaps one of the most fully developed concept bars I have come across in Chicago. Entering the bar is like finding your way onto the set of a Hollywood B-movie, complete with alley-way entrance and skull encrusted and mood-lit descending staircase. The beautifully lit bar dramatically highlights wooden tiki totems and over 150 bottles of rum. The bartenders underwent two weeks of training to prepare for a cocktail menu of exotic drinks, many of which contain as many as 10 ingredients. The mood is one of tiki kitch with a bit of refinement.
The cocktails themselves tend toward the sweet side. Although they are well mixed and often quite strong (depending upon one’s selection), a great tiki is never excessively sweet. That said, I understand the need for having a substantial number of sweet drinks on a River North menu. My favorite cocktails on the menu (and by now I’ve had most of them), generally tend to be the ones with the skull emblem next to them (an indication of booze content and, as a result, less room for sugar). I’d recommend sticking to these, which include the rum-based and spicy “Jet Pilot,” which delights with an absinthe note, and the tequila and genever-backed “Aloha, Mexico.” For a bit of history (and extravagance the way TD&D serves it up), try the classic “Zombie,” a Gantt original recipe. Served in a crystal skull with dry ice (when requested for two), it is not to be missed.
But TD&D is not all about cocktails, they also serve up a small selection of elevated Hawaiin-style bar bites. The fat content of the foie gras masubi, coconut shrimp and pork belly buns (not pictured) should provide a good balance to the sweetness, acidity, and (yes) large quantities of booze found in the drinks here. To be sure, while you won’t visit TD&D for the food, to stay lucid you will need to eat. And in that vein of thinking, the bar menu does its job quite well.
Overall, TD&D is a great place to get cocktails all year round (despite the theme), it’s open late (2am Sunday through Friday and 3am on Saturday), and it’s fun with a group of friends or date. Happy drinking folks!
Three Dots and a Dash
435 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654
Entrance is in the back alley around the corner on Hubbard St. Look for the orange cones.