About 14 months ago, celebrated cocktailer and two-time Eater Award-winner Paul McGee shocked the Chicago bar scene when he exited Chicago's largest restaurant group and his nationally-renowned pet tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash. McGee headed back to his Logan Square roots to open...another, different, smaller tiki bar and adjoining Chinese restaurant, Lost Lake and Thank You, in a mom-and-pop partnership with his wife under the new company Banana Daiquiri LLC, as well as the lauded Land & Sea Dept group.
After one year in business, Lost Lake managed to match or arguably pass the success of Three Dots (case in point: being named Imbibe magazine's cocktail bar of the year), but on their terms on an unassuming corner serving their regulars in an 85-capacity space that was turned around in a mere 88 days. McGee and his wife, former publicist Shelby Allison, chatted about why the neighborhood bar is so successful after one year in, McGee's national reputation as a tiki god, why he left Lettuce Entertain You, and how they opened the bar so quickly.
With the success of the first year, has Paul and Lost Lake become a tiki ambassador to people around the country?
Paul McGee: I think so.
Shelby Allison: It's an exciting new bar but there are people in the tiki pantheon who have done many more years of work than Paul has done with tiki. Without them we would have nothing to look to and I think it's fun that we're getting to do things with our own little spin. The unique aspect that (Paul) has to offer is the recipes and the way (Paul) approaches the flavor profiles. Fruit juices taste differently now, rums taste differently now.
Where would people place Lost Lake in this tiki pantheon?
PM: It's in a neighborhood that when we moved to Chicago is where I first started making drinks (at The Whistler) and the guests that came in in 2008 never asked me to dumb down the drinks. It's really satisfying to come back to the same neighborhood even though some of the people may have moved on but the spirit of the neighborhood (is still here). We're not trying to appeal to 250 people in one fell swoop. We have 85 people (capacity) and most of them are friends and family that come in and want to have a good time.
How did it come about that you left Lettuce, went with Land & Sea, and eventually opened Lost Lake?
We're not trying to appeal to 250 people in one fell swoop.
PM: I've always been friends with Robert McAdams (of Land & Sea Dept.) and (Shelby and I) for the last few years have gone to Longman & Eagle two or three times a week every week. So we always run into those guys. When I was at The Whistler and they were opening Longman & Eagle they originally asked me to help them with their cocktails. And then again with Parson's (Chicken & Fish), I came over there and gave them a little bit of guidance when they were opening.
SA: But the timing just worked out—the third time was the charm, and that was (Lost Lake).
Why was it the right time?
SA: It just was. We had learned so much working for a large restaurant group (Lettuce Entertain You) and I think Paul and I were just ready to work together.
PM: We have been unofficially working together since 2008. She would always give me the best advice, help me with my drinks, and we were just perfect working together. As we got busy at The Whistler she started handling the press inquiries (but) we knew from then that we would pretty much always be working together.
SA: We had made a path in both of our separate careers and we were ready to come back together (and open our own place) and the opportunity to work with Land & Sea came up and everything lined up to make a big leap of faith. And it worked out.
And working with Robert McAdams has been the most amazing thing ever. He built the bar and bar top at The Whistler and he turned this place, the presidential-themed bar called The Previous Administration, into this all-encompassing tropical hideaway in less than 90 days. We just found a really wonderful work environment and partnership and I think the product is my favorite bar I've ever been to.
PM: I pretty much just mapped out how the bar should be laid out and we saw some images that (Shelby) and Cody liked, and that was the Martinique wallpaper, and Robert was like "I got this." 88 days later, this is it. It's crazy. This space just popped up very all of a sudden.
Why another tiki bar?
SA: It's a style of cocktail and a kind of environment that is very personal to us. We both fell in love with it and it only felt right that we would keep this type of concept as part of our lives and part of our work as we moved forward.
PM: And again, it's neighborhoody. We won best neighborhood bar in Playboy magazine this year, which just happened to be a tiki bar. We're proud that not only is it a tiki bar and a rum bar, but it's very welcoming and you feel that when you walk in the space you get a feeling that you're comfortable here and you belong here and everyone that works here is welcoming.
SM: And staff (at Three Dots) had worked very hard learning everything about tiki and rum and the history and allure and we were very grateful that they wanted to continue their work with Paul.
Do you feel the neighborhood aspect of Lost Lake changed Chicagoans' perception of tiki?
PM: Chicagoans had, for the most part, the big palaces. Yes, this bar has changed perceptions of what many Chicagoans thought a tiki bar could be. It's casual, it's intimate and it's escapist in only the way that a tiny little place on a corner could be.
But on the other end of the spectrum, it's also not a dive tiki bar. A lot of neighborhood tiki bars (in other cities) are divey and they're not garnishing the drinks this way and squeezing fresh juice and not thinking about the rums. We have reimagined how a neighborhood tiki bar doesn't have to be a dive. This place has nice finishes but isn't overly nice. It's more of a thoughtful neighborhood tiki bar.
How did you turn the space around in just 88 days?
We have reimagined how a neighborhood tiki bar doesn’t have to be a dive.
SA: Every day we were terrified that you would email or drive by. I'd say "today's the day that Daniel will be like, "umm, I heard this..." We kept paper up in the window, we were extremely secretive about it, we were militant about the people that knew about it.
PM: We never took anyone in here while it was being built out. (The speed of the turnaround) is Robert McAdams' dedication.
SA: Partner Pete Toalson was walking around with his toolbelt on stapling things, bartenders from Longman were wrapping rope overhead, we began training our bartenders in a construction zone. It was a real team effort. There were people in here 24 hours a day for 88 days.
What were your expectations of success going in?
PM: Obviously when you write a business plan you have expectations of what you think you're going to do but I was pleasantly surprised at how many people came in January when it first opened—(the cold) was brutal. I was really surprised at the number of people that would wait to get in and how full we get during the week.
It's easy to come back to a place where people have fun at work. It doesn't happen like that all the time. You go into other places that are busy, especially a year in, and (staff) looks like they're beaten down already.
Just how busy were you when you opened?
SA: We were pretty busy. There are always growing pains when you first open and we definitely had lines when we first opened. That's just a matter of learning your rhythm, learning your way around the space, learning how much your bar can handle. But our lines have really shrunk. We're really able to accommodate guests in a very timely manner now. We'll have lines on Fridays and Saturdays but other than that it's just full and fun.
PM: We're much more efficient now than when we first opened. That first weekend we let more people in than we should have and (were) trying to figure out that magic number of where can we hold the door and give great service (so) people aren't just sardines. This is supposed to be escapist and relaxing and not clustered in like it can be at some other bars.
Were the lines around the block then?
PM: Yeah, they were.
SA: That's wonderful but it's also something that can hurt you later because you get a reputation for having a line when you're brand new and then people think they can't get in. If you want to sit at the bar and have a quiet conversation, come early before 6 p.m. or on a weeknight or come late and make us your last stop after dinner, 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. That's when you can walk right in and sit right down.
Do you give people anything while they're waiting outside?
PM: The one thing that's really cool is inside Thank You is also our little holding area and you can get whatever you want. When we first opened people were ordering snacks, like an eggroll and a beer, and waiting. So we definitely have people order beers in line.
What's been the most surprising aspect of Lost Lake in the first year?
SA: That people are into it to the level that they are. We've gotten a lot of accolades and that's been really surprising to me.
PM: This is a relatively small bar and it's amazing to get national and international accolades for this bar on Diversey and Kedzie. You'd expect that downtown or in New York or L.A., big major markets, and we're a major market too, but you don't think about this 85-person bar on the border of Avondale and Logan Square getting that. That's been a pleasant surprise for all of our staff here.
SA: Another pleasant surprise has been the way that our bar team has really gelled. Paul and I have worked in bars and restaurants our entire lives and I've never from any perspective I've had in this industry seen a team of employees work together in the way that these people do. It's really a family here.
How many banana dolphins have you made in the first year?
PM: 13,102 for the year.
So more than 1,000 a month and more than 300 a week.
SA: (The banana daiquiri) is a fun and personal drink for me because it's called "Bunny's Banana Daiquiri" and really the full name is "Bunny's Birthday Banana Daiquiri." It's a drink that Paul made for me for my birthday in 2011 or 2012, adding lime to an entire banana, rum, nutmeg; it was the most incredible drink that I've ever had and I love that it's so popular.
You've already opened two tiki bars, so would you ever open another?
SA: You can never say never but this one is so right. Not in Chicago.
PM: This one feels so special and you just want to enjoy it. I live a block away and we're very ingrained in the neighborhood.
What do you have coming up?
SA: Our rum club is very close to launching, finally. Martin Cate, one of our partners here, developed this incredible new perspective on the rum club he has at Smuggler's Cove (in San Francisco). There will be a small membership fee, you'll become a member, and then we'll give you a guide for you to drink your way through our entire selection of rum.
PM: You'll track your rum so you know exactly what you've already sipped, you'll have a book with your own tasting notes and stuff like that. It's a lot of sipping, training yourself to understand the different styles of rum and different producers. It's something we do every week at our rum class for staff.
SA: In the coming year we'll grow our (secret 100-drink) whisper menu as well, that will always be expanding with more drinks to try. We'll have a new cocktail menu out probably in the next couple months. We are taking our bar staff to Martinique in February for six days to learn about distillation, because there is simply no way to speak passionately about rum unless you're standing on the side of a volcano in the Caribbean. And we're just going to continue to establish ourselves in this community as a terrific cocktail bar in addition to a great tiki bar.