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Taste of the Tropics

Wanna get away from Chicago's frigid temps? These bars will take you to a totally different climate.
Tuesday Dec 22, 2009.     By Karl Klockars
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Castaways is closed, kids. Beaches from Evanston to 63rd Street are nothing but a distant memory by now, or at best a hope for months from now. Your summer glow has transitioned into the aura of winter fluorescents and you're finally shaking the last of that sand out of your shoes and undershorts. Face it - you need some sun! You need a beach, you need something spiced with jerk sauce and you need a drink with an umbrella in it - stat. Worry not! Centerstage is here to drop a little citrus zest into your comfort-food rotation.

<A HREF=/bars/trader-vics.html>Trader Vic's</a>
Trader Vic's
Okay, so this one is kind of a gimme. So let's get it out of the way quickly here. For the months when Trader Vic's was not a part of the Chicago tiki scene (small as it is, and even smaller without Vic's) there was a gaping hole in the collective tropical psyche of the city. With the reopening of the newer, improved Vic's in the Viagra Triangle, things were made right with the world once again.

Naturally, you'd be remiss not to dive headfirst into one of the signature Mai Tais, but given the chilly temps, were you aware that Vic's features hot drinks as well? At just under $10 the prices are recession-ignoringly stiff, but between the location and the necessity you might be willing to drop the coin for a Black Stripe made with rum and crushed cherries, or a Coffee Grog which features java mixed with Grand Marnier and coconut.

Pair those with a pupu platter (a tray of appetizers that'll make the inner six-year-old in all of us giggle just a bit) and an entree from the wood-fired oven, and relax in the knowledge that if the tropical interior won't help you through the winter, the layer of body fat you just added to your midsection will.

Uncle Fatty's Rum Resort
Visions of sand sifting through your toes may be nothing more than a dream at this point in the year, but it can be a reality if you choose to camp your wintry ass out at Uncle Fatty's. Crash out on one of the wooden crates in the indoor sandbox or relax in a lounge chair, bury your feet into the white sand beneath you and grab a bottle of Bohemia from the cooler. If you were to try the same thing on any of Chicago's beaches during January, you'd be a lot less comfortable, not to mention far more lonely.

Uncle Fatty's is a hypercolor version of a tropical getaway, complete with bamboo, thatched roofs, pastels and neon, a stuffed marlin over the bar and stuffed parrots mounted on the walls, and of course tropical drinks a-plenty. What it's not is a place for restraint, as is any locale that offers you cocktails in 30-ounce "fishtanks." Tastefully named concoctions called the Bitchy Blonde and the truth-in-advertising Booze Cruz will run you $15 and $20 respectively for almost a full quart of alcoholic fluid. Still not enough? If you've got a party of four, you can belly up to the bucket for a Tini Bikini, a mix of rums and fruit juices that will put you back $60 - but Fatty's will only serve it until 8 p.m., presumably to keep its mop budget to a minimum.

Admittedly the website, laden with the bar's wacky cartoon mascot uncle, reminds us more of the lamentable Dick's Last Resort, but any place that will just fill a cooler with beers and let you hang out and drink them at your leisure while kicking back in the sand is at least worth a shot. Depending on your demographic, the Thursday beer pong tournaments will get you out of your dorm room, or let you relive those magical college days; after a few fishbowls you'll all be slurring the same way anyway.

Calypso Cafe
While most of the destinations in this tropical-themed guide are admittedly geared more toward the Jimmy Buffet/Kenny Chesney duet that lives inside all of us (read: alcohol is the name of the game), it's worth taking a few minutes to recognize the fact that people actually eat in the Bahamas and Jamaica and Tahiti and such. Hard to believe, but it's true.

Hyde Park's Calypso Cafe recently had to retool its menu in order to accommodate a few selections from its now-closed neighbor, the Dixie Kitchen - which will surely thrill noted fan President Obama. But the Calypso side is still plenty stocked, and the restaurant will happily serve you a true "island feast"; entrees like jerk chicken or wings, seafood cakes and a pineapple-glazed tilapia will put you in an equatorial state of mind. Desserts like pineapple jump-up cake and sweet potato pie will help finish you off, and lest you think that Calypso Cafe can't pour a drink, offerings like the Funky Monkey, the Marley and the Bahama Mama will certainly challenge those conventions.

Trader Todd's Adventure Bar
For some reason, many a tropical joint seems to find its home in Lakeview. While there doesn't appear to be any definitive tie between equatorial climes and the Belmont and Clark corridor, could it be that the average Lakeview denizen is part of the same general demographic that flies to Cancun for Spring Break every March? Correlation doesn't imply causation, but the reason for Trader Todd's to exist just steps from the heart of the 'View is clear: karaoke.

After a half-dozen $8 tiki drinks at Todd's, all singing gets far more palatable, and the music pours out of this karaoke destination seven nights a week, rain or shine. The rooftop "Little Grass Shack" bar won't do you any good in the winter months, nor will the sailboat bar in the back patio, but hopefully the thatched roof indoors - along with dangling stuffed monkeys and bright colors - will boost your internal melatonin levels enough to get you feeling slightly tropical. The Monday-night slashing of everything to half-price will at least make your wallet feel a little more breezy.

Drinks stick to rum- and tequila-soaked mugs of booze mixed with fresh-squeezed fruit juices, with names like the Pain Killer, the Hurricane and the Coconut Lime Rickey. The menu sticks to bar/grill standards like buffalo wings, jalapeno poppers, burgers and chicken sandwiches. We suggest dining elsewhere first, throwing on the Tommy Bahama second and, thirdly, singing and drinking all night long.

Bartenders rock bikinis at Crabbby Kim's
photo: courtesy of Bridget Cicenia
Crabbby Kim's Bikini Sports Bar
Nothing screams summer like women in skimpy bikinis. And nothing exemplifies a rebellious, upraised middle finger to the unfriendly elements of winter like a bikini'd barstaff in the middle of winter. Sleet-filled November evening? Bikinis at Crabbby Kim's. February blizzard? Bikinis at Crabbby Kim's. Late April freak snowstorm? Bikinis at Crabbby Kim's. Which is not to say that the only appeal of Kim's is what the staff is or isn't wearing. The beers are cheap, the chow is frill-free but better than it has to be, and if you want the "lost in the middle of nowhere" appeal of a tropical vacation, the Crabbby Kim location on a fairly lonesome stretch of Western Avenue will fit the bill - and the never-packed interior will give you all the space you need.

Crabbby Kim's has been doing the "chestauraunt" thing since the Tilted Kilt was nothing more than an askew set of footy pajamas. Admittedly the joint is blue-collar to the core, and the other tropical touches are basically just the palm trees on the sign, the wooden shack interior and the surfboard dangling above. But more often than not, the tropics are a state of mind, and the daily drink specials, ranging from cheap well drinks to buckets of domestics, will certainly help you on your way.


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