Bartend Two Ferns: Paul McGee on Monday’s Fern Bar Popup at R.J. Grunt’s

A Sloe Comfortable Screw, by Paul McGee.
A Sloe Comfortable Screw, by Paul McGee. Photo: Roger Kamholz

Former Whistler barman turned Lettuce Entertain You resident cocktail expert and soon-to-be tiki torch-bearer Paul McGee will be back behind the stick on Monday, May 20, for his first public bartending shift since February 2012. From 9 p.m. to 2 a.m that evening, he’s taking over the drink menu at Lettuce mainstay R.J. Grunts to present “Fern Bar,” a one-night-stand ode to adorably gimmicky 1970s cocktails spawned by the era’s lowbrow singles’ “meet markets” collectively known as fern bars. Think Harvey Wallbangers, Tequila Sunrises, Sloe Comfortable Screws, and oh-so Blue Hawaiis— except of course that this will be a revisionist history lesson; McGee has goosed their (often sugar-laden and artificially flavored) original recipes, pulling in fresh juices and better-quality booze, in hopes of giving these now-derided drinks some newfound respectability. We spoke with him about why his path to the upcoming Three Dots and a Dash’s take on Tiki culture, which is due within a month or two, had to pass through the era of Mr. Goodbar first.

So, what was a fern bar? “A fern bar is a, ah…well, it’s typically defined by ferns,” McGee said with a laugh. He says the moniker stems from an iconic San Francisco bar called Henry Africa’s (1970 - 1986), which was decorated with faux Tiffany lamps, brass rails, and house plants. The concept was later appropriated by chains like T.G.I. Fridays and Bennigan’s. Countless innocent tchotchkes were were sold into slavery.

Opened in 1971, well-stocked with the requisite flora, and largely unaltered in the 42 years since, R.J. Grunts is a genuine fern bar. So when the Melman family, which operates the Lettuce empire, tapped McGee for ideas on how to expand the family-friendly restaurant’s late-night business, he jumped at the challenge. “One thing that I really like is to make fern bar drinks a little more complex, drinks that were actually pretty awful back in the day, and making them better. And what better place to do that than at an actual fern bar?”

Among McGee’s “Fern Bar” night drinks will be the Salty Dog, made with gin, Campari, grapefruit juice, plus an ingredient that nobody knew about in the 1970s heyday of such establishments: St. Germain, the elderflower liqueur. This twist on the straightforward original, McGee says, is “a little more floral and a little more complex than just a gin and grapefruit juice with a salted rim.” In the same vein, the White Russian will actually contain no vodka; instead there will be two kinds of rum, a quality coffee liqueur, and fresh cream from Fairbury, Illinois’ Kilgus Farmstead. And McGee’s take on the Rusty Nail includes Benedictine and Angostura bitters to enhance the drink’s obligatory duo of Scotch whisky and Drambuie. (Check out the full menu below.)

With Three Dots and a Dash—McGee’s subterranean tiki-bar project with the Melmans—somewhere between a month to two months from opening, McGee has been eager to “shake off the rust” with a full-speed bartending gig. Plus, he said, “I wanted to be able to do some of these fun pet projects before I got into the swing of Three Dots and a Dash. Once that gets up and rolling, [this kind of project] gets harder to do.”

That of course leaves one burning question: Will McGee be sporting any pieces of flair for the occasion? “I might have a gold necklace on,” he laughs. “I might be throwing out the ‘70s vibe a little bit—maybe some puka shells or something like that around my neck. Who knows.”

Bartend Two Ferns: Paul McGee on Monday’s Fern Bar Popup at R.J. Grunt’s