Raising the Bar: Paul McGee
Last year, when the news broke that bearded barman Paul McGee was leaving Chicago’s The Whistler, which bills itself as a bar, gallery, record label and music venue, there was a public outcry.
It’s understandable, given the popularity of his Sunday-afternoon bartending classes and monthly book-club series paying homage to vintage cocktail tomes.
McGee, who started slinging Frozen Margaritas at 19 in a Houston seafood restaurant, did not anticipate that the arty watering hole on a then-bleak street in Logan Square would become a top mixology destination. During The Whistler’s first evening in business, he gave away Pabst Blue Ribbon to friends and family; by his final shift, guests clamored for 500 cocktails a night.
But fortunately, McGee was staying in the Windy City and working on a new venture, a River North tiki joint in collaboration with Jerrod and RJ Melman of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant empire.
Located below the Melmans’ country-and-western eatery Bub City—McGee dreamed up its beverage list as well—the soon-to-open Three Dots and a Dash promises to be a refined tropical haven, on par with New York’s PKNY and San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove.
“Chicago has a great drinking culture, and it’s cold most of the year. How did we not have a craft tiki bar, one that took those classic drinks back to the way they used to be?” a baffled McGee wondered.
Naturally, patrons will gravitate toward his well-made Mai Tai, Zombie or Scorpion Bowl, but McGee also plans to enlighten imbibers with obscure tiki creations like the namesake Three Dots and a Dash, a 1940s Don the Beachcomber recipe that references World War II-era Morse code. In addition, original concoctions like the Tall as a Tree and Twice as Shady (Scotch, batavia arrack, orgeat, lemon juice, pineapple juice) will pepper the menu.
“People are not tired of drinking pre-Prohibition cocktails,” McGee assures me. “But it’s gotten too serious. Drinks should be delicious—some straightforward, some complex with layers of flavor. It’s about sharing and having fun.”
Three Dots and a Dash, outfitted with antique poles from the now-closed Chicago Trader Vic’s, is reminiscent of the tiki palaces of yesteryear. Think of it, McGee says, “like the luau you used to get dressed up for.”
(Photo courtesy Anjali Pinto)