Let’s Talk Tiki

Our intrepid reporter explores Chicago’s legendary tiki bar scene
By Dan Epstein

It’s only 6 p.m. on a Thursday, but the barstools and booths at Three Dots and a Dash are already starting to fill up. Outside, the sun is still hovering in the Chicago sky, but down here in this dimly lit subterranean tiki haven, it could just as easily be midnight.

“Keep ’em coming!” laughs a woman in one of the elevated corner booths, as a server in a tropical print dress delivers several elaborate-looking cocktails to her and her co-workers. Two booths away, a couple cuddles happily under some fake palm fronds, clearly feeling the life-affirming effects of the Polynesian Spell concoction that they’ve been sharing. Another server glides across the room, ferrying a flaming Pu Pu Platter to a table of Canadian tourists. Over at the thatch-roofed bar, Hawaiian-shirted mixologists deftly juggle drink orders while jovially fielding questions from curious patrons. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass trumpets festively from hidden speakers, and the wooden tiki gods on the wall seem to regard the whole scene with silent approval.

The Windy City’s love affair with tiki bars goes all the way back to the days before World War II. While tiki culture as we know it began in mid-1930s California, where visionary restaurateurs Ernest Baumont-Gantt and Victor Bergeron began serving exotic, Polynesian-themed cocktails to their customers — laying the foundations for their respective Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s empires in the process — the trade winds quickly blew the South Seas-inspired concept east to Chicago.

Ben Lanoff’s Bali Bali, believed to have been Chicago’s first Polynesian joint, opened in the city’s South Shore neighborhood sometime in the late ’30s; but when Don the Beachcomber arrived on the city’s moneyed Near North Side in 1940, the concept of consuming tropical beverages and Asian food amid luxurious Polynesian trappings truly caught on with Chicago diners.
Though a gritty Midwestern city known for its stockyards and skyscrapers might seem an unlikely place for tiki culture to catch on, Chicagoans loved the escapist fantasy that Don the Beachcomber offered: For an hour or two, you could leave the noise and grime and stress of city life behind, and retreat into an exotic world of pagan gods and magic lanterns, where your flagging spirit would be restored by a few hours of soothing music and strong libations. By the late ’50s, there were well over 20 tiki bars and restaurants doing brisk business in Chicago, many of them — like Trader Vic’s, the Shangri-La, the Tropics, Harry Eng’s South Pacific, Kon-Tiki Ports, and Pago Pago (which had three locations) — located within easy walking distance of each other in the downtown Loop and Magnificent Mile districts.

But as the ’60s melted into the ’70s, Chicago’s tiki bars began vanishing from the landscape, victims of changing tastes and demographics; once considered legitimate fine-dining destinations, they were now increasingly seen as little more than kitschy watering holes where traveling businessmen went to get tanked. By the time the worldwide “Tiki revival” of the ’90s heralded a renewed appreciation for Moai mugs and old-school rum cocktails, most of the Windy City’s Polynesian palaces were long gone. Thankfully, the city has enjoyed a tiki revival of its own in recent years, spearheaded by Three Dots and a Dash, Lost Lake, and the venerable Hala Kahiki.

Bartenders busily prepare drinks behind the scenes at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

Located in the northwest suburb of River Grove, a few miles south of O’Hare International Airport, the Hala Kahiki was the one Chicago landmark from tiki’s golden era that somehow managed to outlive all of its local counterparts. It remains a magnet for tiki-philes from near and far, thanks to its enchanting atmosphere, voluminous drink menu, and jaw-dropping collection of decorative carvings by legendary mid-century designer William Westenhaver, aka Witco.
Relatively unchanged since 1964, when Rose and Stanley Sachowski built the place, the sprawling, multi-room cocktail lounge — which also contains an outdoor seating area surrounded by giant tiki statues, and a gift shop filled with tropical tchotchkes — almost feels like it’s been preserved in a time capsule.

“From a purely business standpoint, I can understand why a lot of old tiki bars have undergone complete remodels,” says owner Jim Oppedisano, who, as the grandson of the Sachowskis, literally grew up in the Hala Kahiki.

“This motif is not exactly made for high traffic or Midwestern weather, and it’s a pain to keep a lot of this stuff, especially the Witco pieces, looking decent. But people love it — I’d say 90 percent of the people who walk in here think it’s cool, while the other 10 percent say, ‘Oh, this place is tacky!’ But I’ll take that!”

“Living out on the West Coast, I’d seen my share of tiki establishments, but nothing prepared me for the Hala Kahiki,” says Darian Sahanaja, keyboardist and musical director for Brian Wilson, and a serious student of tiki culture. “The place was massive, with very little about it that looked new or trendy. I found myself wandering through an endless maze of lava-lit goodness, sipping on a Lava Flow, and surrendering to the tropical trance of it all. Last thing I remember, I was in the gift shop trying to decide which hula girl doll I could stuff down my pants.”

The popular Bali Bali drink is served at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. The servers are pouring the liquid nitrogen which creates a smoke-like appearance. The drink costs $85 and serves 4-5 people. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia /Special to FAR

The Lava Flow (a frozen blend of dark rum, pineapple, coconut cream, fresh bananas and strawberries, and whipped cream) is one of more than 130 drinks on the Hala Kahiki menu, which also includes such house specialties as the Menehuna (spiced rum, coconut rum, curacao, melon liqueur, pineapple juice and sweet-and-sour mix) and the Hala Kahiki (a blend of three rums and various fruit juices) alongside such classic tiki cocktails as the Zombie, the Blue Hawaii, and the venerable Dr. Funk of Tahiti.

Server Asiye Bakirman gets ready to serve the popular Bali Bali drink at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. Below the drink holds the liquid nitrogen which creates a smoke-like appearance. The general manager said they serve that drink on an average of every eight minutes. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR.

“I actually found my grandparents’ original recipe books a few years ago,” says Oppedisano, “And that inspired us to go ‘back in time’ with our drink menu; we now make a lot of the syrups for our drinks in-house, instead of buying them premade.”

For a more 21st century tiki experience, paddle your outrigger over to Lost Lake, where owner and award-winning cocktailer Paul McGee serves up an ever-changing menu of inventive drinks that push the traditional tiki envelope hard while still remaining true to the exotic spirit of the classics. Housed in a drab-looking brick building on the north end of Chicago’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood, Lost Lake is a small treasure, a cozy L-shaped hole in the wall decorated with palm frond-patterned wallpaper, bamboo fencing and nautical-style glass floats. With a capacity of only 85 people, the place can get pretty packed in the evenings, though you can usually find an empty stool at the bar in the late afternoon or early morning hours.

Clay and Meredith Gregory of Chicago look through the menu together at the Lost Lake tiki bar on the north side of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR

“I’m not sure if it’s getting warmer, or if the rum’s taking effect,” laughs Chris Russell, as he sits at one of Lost Lake’s tables with three friends on a recent Sunday afternoon. A chef who moonlights as a drummer with several Chicago bands, Russell has never actually been to a tiki bar before today, but he’s enjoying the experience just as much as the pair of Hawaiian-shirted customers at the bar who are currently peppering the fearsomely bearded McGee with questions about rare rums.

Russell is drinking a Tic-Tac- Taxi, a popular and potent Lost Lake drink made with aged Guatemalan rum, overproof Jamaican rum and coconut, passion fruit and lime juices. His tablemates are sharing the Beachcomber’s Rule No. 2: Never Bet on Another Man’s Game, a delicious concoction made with overproof Demarara rum, overproof Jamaican rum, aged Jamaican rum, passion fruit, pineapple, lime, lemon, Falernum and Angostura bitters. Topped with flowers and a flaming lime, the drink is served in a large ceramic pineapple.


McGee opened Lost Lake in early 2015, less than two years after he helped Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises open Three Dots and a Dash in the city’s tourist-heavy River North district. Though McGee obviously takes his mixology seriously, he also takes pride in the way Lost Lake appeals to the neighborhood crowd as well as hardcore tiki fanatics. It’s not at all uncommon to see local artists and musicians stopping in to share a Fogcutter (a heady blend of dry gin, aged Demarara rum, cognac, sherry, lime, orgeat syrup, curacao and angostura bitters, served in a ceramic conch shell) or a Ruby Mae’s Second Surfin’ Bird (Reposado tequila, mescal, ruby port, Campari, pineapple, lime and passion fruit, served in a flaming volcano bowl) at the start or conclusion of their evening out.


The hanging display inside the street window at the Lost Lake tiki bar on the north side of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

If the Lost Lake is like a casual beach shack in an urban setting, then Three Dots and a Dash is like the tiki bar version of Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride. To enter, you must first traverse an alleyway in the hulking shadow of Chicago’s ancient Hubbard Street police station, before heading down a staircase lit by tiki torches and a glowing wall of skulls. Like a Disney attraction, the Three Dots is extremely popular with tourists; and every aspect of the experience, from the seating to the music to the drinks themselves, is managed to the nth degree — though it’s all done so smoothly and skillfully, you may not even notice the hard work that it takes to keep the place firing on all cylinders.


“The number of people that we get through the doors on a day-to-day basis is pretty staggering,” explains LEYE Beverage Director Julian Cox. “We serve anywhere from 1,300 to 1,700-plus cocktails a night, which puts us among the busiest bars in the nation, period — let alone tiki bars. We did about $4.7 million last year in cocktail sales alone!”


(L-R) Friends Will Brady, Alex Garrison, Nick Werle and Will Bonesso share in the “Fogcutter” drink at the Lost Lake tiki bar on the north side of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

That kind of volume would be challenging enough for most bars to handle, even without the pressure of making high-quality, state-of-the-art tiki drinks. Cox, who took over the reins of Three Dots along with fellow beverage director Kevin Beary in 2015, following Paul McGee’s exit in late 2014, reveals that one of the secrets to Three Dots’ success is having a behind-the- scenes service bar where mixologists can prepare drinks without the distractions of waiting on or conversing with customers.


“We can get the cocktails out three times quicker by having that service area, without giving up any quality to make it happen,” he says. “It’s a bit of an ode to Don the Beachcomber, who had a back area where people would be prepping the drinks, and then the bartenders up front would hand them out.”


Nick Flora prepares a drink in a rear area at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. For a Dan Epstein story on tiki bars. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

Cox says he finds a lot of inspiration in the classic cocktails of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s, while also finding ways to put a modern spin on them. For instance, the Three Dots version of the Missionary’s Downfall — a Don the Beachcomber recipe from the ’40s that involves aged rum, lime juice, crème de peche, pineapple juice, honey and mint — uses mint that’s muddled with liquid nitrogen. The Chief Lapu-Lapu, a popular rum drink of the ’50s, is served at Three Dots with a cloud of tangerine-and-lime foam that sits atop its mug like the crest of a wave.


“We’re rooted in the classics,” says Cox. “I love to dig in the crates and try to figure out how they were making the old recipes, but it’s also fun to play around with them.”

The popular Bali Bali drink as it's being prepared for presentation at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. The area below the drink holds the liquid nitrogen which then creates a smoke-like appearance when given to the patron. The general manager said they serve that drink on an average of every eight minutes. 
Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR
Jamie Estes, right, serves the popular Bali Bali drink at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. The servers are pouring the liquid nitrogen which creates a smoke-like appearance. The general manager said they serve that drink on an average of every eight minutes. The drink costs $85 and serves 4-5 people.  Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR
Jamie Estes prepares drinks on the bar at the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. At left is a "Bone Collector" drink. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR
Large photographs are hung near the back of the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago.  Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR
Patrons pass by skulls at the entranceway to the Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar in downtown Chicago. Photo courtsey of Alex Garcia / Special to FAR

As with Lost Lake, your experience at Three Dots and a Dash can vary greatly, depending on when you arrive. Though the place becomes a veritable “party central” on the weekends, you can still commune with the tiki gods in relative peace around 5 p.m. (when the bar first opens), or after midnight on a weekday.


“We know that we’re as close to straddling a line between a tiki haven and a club as you can possibly get,” says Cox. “We could create a den for the silent enjoyment of tiki, and it would be a much smaller and more intimate experience. But one of the great things about doing it like that is that we’re able to expose so many more people to great tiki drinks — and not many places around the country have the opportunity to do it at the level that we do.”


While it’s easy for customers to get carried away by a few good tiki drinks, sometimes the tiki drinks get carried away by the customers.


The Hala Kahiki, Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash all have a variety of whimsical (and collectible) ceramic mugs for sale; even so, it’s not unusual for customers to try to sneak out with a souvenir or two.


“It’s often the people you’d least suspect,” laughs Cox. “Like, some granny will try to walk out of here with a couple of mugs in her purse. We’ll be like, ‘Hey, can we get those back? They’re available to buy!’ ”

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