You can describe mixologist Paul McGee in a number of different ways: cultishly beloved, iconically bearded, preternaturally talented when it comes to slinging booze. Just don’t call him a sellout.
When it was announced in early 2012 that McGee would leave trailblazing Logan Square cocktail bar the Whistler for a then unnamed lounge underneath a soon-to-open upscale barbecue joint in River North (both bankrolled by behemoth restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You), the news was likened to the sound of “a thousand coupes shattering.” This wasn’t hyperbole—or at least, not by much.
The Whistler, in addition to serving innovative and imaginative drinks to the Warby Parker set, functioned, and functions still, as a breeding ground for experimental bands (see the Whistler’s record label), a showcase for DIY art (see the Whistler’s mini storefront gallery), and a superpacked underground dance party for the LGBTQ crowd (see the Whistler’s monthly Slo ‘Mo series).
River North, of course, was and is the antithesis of those things.
But here’s the deal: While there’s only one Paul McGee—and while Logan Square scenesters were understandably distraught about their favorite bartender crossing over to the other side—there are plenty of hip, able drink makers who remain rooted in that neighborhood. In fact, some might say there are a few too many of them there, and that it’s time to share the artisanally bittered love.
A spot like Three Dots and a Dash could never have opened in Logan Square, anyway. (Well, at least not for another, oh, three years, when all the current residents are displaced by transplants from . . . River North.) McGee’s cosmopolitan tiki bar is suavity meets Disney—007 with a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s not.
As a River North interloper, you might be shocked to find that Three Dots has only one open table at 6:45 PM—on a Monday. You might be underwhelmed by its menu of one-note (that note being sticky-sweet) bar snacks. You might be overwhelmed by the business-attired party next to you partaking of the $385 “treasure chest” (McGee’s answer to bottle service, which serves six to eight and includes a neon-lit bottle of Dom poured into the liquor-filled vessel, the contents of which are sucked through cartoonishly long straws). But who cares about any of that. You came here for two things: to sip transcendent drinks and revel in tiki chic. And on those fronts, Three Dots delivers.
The menu offers 16 cocktails—eight classics, sourced to various historic tiki bars and/or tiki culture’s forefathers, and eight modern cocktails, sourced to McGee. In an attempt to cover as much territory as financially feasible, we partook of two classics and two moderns: one rum-based, one rye-rum combo, one gin-based, and one tequila-genever combo. To make sure we made it to work the next day, we allowed only two of the four drinks we ordered to bear the menu’s skull icon, which denotes drinks of “impressive strength.”
Round one: Jet Pilot (an impressive-strength classic hailing from the Luau Restaurant in Beverly Hills) vs. Poipu Beach Boogie Board (impressive strength, modern). Both were sweet up front, followed by alternating and balanced layers of acidity and bitterness. Both were delicious. I figured the Jet Pilot would be the more complex of the two—three rums, lime, cinnamon, grapefruit, falernum, absinthe, and Angostura bitters—as compared to the Poipu Beach’s slightly more pared down mix of rye, overproof rum, guava, maraschino, grenadine, pineapple, and lemon. But the layering of flavors in the Poipu Beach was more distinct, the overall taste cleaner than that of the Jet Pilot, and not as sweet as the ingredients suggest. You win, McGee.
Round two: Saturn (a regular-strength classic created by 1967 IBA World Cocktail Champion J. “Popo” Galsini) vs. Aloha, Mexico (regular strength, modern). We opted for the Aloha because at that point in the evening we were reaching maximum fructose capacity, albeit as much from the food as from round one. It was our fault for ordering the coconut shrimp (what did we expect?), though we wrongly assumed the Thai fried chicken with garlic-chile sauce would present a much-craved dose of salt and heat (it provided neither). And the Aloha’s more palate-cleansing components—tequila, genever, pineapple, mint, tamarind, and hellfire bitters—positioned it for what I assumed would be a flavor-profile advantage over the Saturn—navy-strength gin, passion fruit, lemon, falernum, almond. Oh, but the Saturn! This classic truly wowed us. There was perfect calibration between the ingredients. These cocktails are not small, and the Saturn continued to intrigue through the last sip. It was by far the best in show.
But the show isn’t even a quarter of the way over! While my budget prohibits exploration of the treasure chest, I intend to soon sample one or more of the three large-format punches, accessibly priced between $45 and $65 and suggested for sharing among a group of two to five imbibers. I also plan on drinking my way through the other 12 classic and modern cocktails in as short an order as possible. I’ll take any excuse I can to bask in Three Dots’ dazzling thatched-and-bambooed environs, especially as we enter these dismal months.
Yes, I’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time and money in River North. But that doesn’t make me a sellout either.