Updated June 2016
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Posted Dec. 28, 2011
After outliving the original mid-century Polynesian restaurant fad by more than 30 years, you would think that Fort Lauderdale’s legendary Mai-Kai would be ready for early retirement after turning 55 today. You would be dead wrong.
Photo tour: Jump to the gallery below
The grand old dame of Tiki is riding high as the torch-bearing icon of a new generation of Tiki-loving hipsters and cocktail lovers. Reinvigorated by this new wave of Tiki mania, a growing respect and interest in retro culture, continued support by regulars and tourists, plus a million-dollar refurbishment in 2009, The Mai-Kai is still pretty spry.
It may not be the same as the late 1950s, when The Mai-Kai was the largest independent user of rum in the United States (2,000 cases were poured in 1958), but with rum and cocktails in the midst of a renaissance there’s a growing buzz emanating from 3599 N. Federal Highway.
There are many reasons for The Mai-Kai’s continued success:
* Family ownership, loyal management and trusted employees, some of whom remain for decades;
* Jaw-dropping design and decor that cost $1 million to build in 1956 (it was the most expensive new restaurant in the United States that year), plus many additions and enhancements over the years;
* The Polynesian Islander Revue, established in 1961, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States;
* And the decadent food and a one-of-a-kind cocktail menu featuring secret recipes that date back to the early days of Tiki.
All of this has been well-documented and is hard to miss when you walk into the huge complex that seats more than 700 and features eight themed dining areas, a bar and lounge resembling a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon, a gift shop, plus indoor and outdoor lush tropical gardens with numerous waterfalls and untold number of Tikis and authentic artifacts brought back from Polynesia by The Mai-Kai’s late owners, brothers Bob and Jack Thornton.
But there’s another side to The Mai-Kai that guests rarely see: The inner workings of the massive 10,000-square-foot kitchen and service bars that at the restaurant’s peak served 1,600 diners a night for seven nights a week in season. Even with drastic changes in tourism and the economy, business is not off that much. On busy nights, a small army of chefs, mixolgoists, servers, performers and untold others serve as the heartbeat of The Mai-Kai. A total of 150 workers are on staff.
The Mai-Kai is still operated by the Thornton family – Bob’s wife Mireille Thornton, her son Dave Levy, and her daughter Kulani Gelardi. “Mai-Kai” means “the best” in Hawaiian, and I’d like to thank the Thornton family for keeping that dedication to excellence. And I would especially like to thank General Manager Kern Mattei for the following very special behind-the-scenes tour conducted between dinner shows on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.
The floor plan at right shows just how large the “back of house” really is. Note that the top of the map faces south and Federal Highway runs along the left from top to bottom. Most everything to the right of the main entrance is “backstage.” Tonga is the elevated room that overlooks the stage in the main dining area. The room called Bangkok in this 1970s drawing is now the gift shop. This was one of the last major changes made after The Molokai bar was added in 1970. The old gift shop is now a storage building on the north side of the driveway, not shown on the bottom side of this map.
To the left of the entrance, of course, is The Molokai and six other dining rooms. Moorea, Hawaii and New Guinea – along with the prime garden area – offer views of the stage show. Samoa is a cozy, private area with windows that face the indoor tropical waterfalls and path that leads outdoors. The Tahiti room faces the 30,000-square-foot outdoor garden of lagoons and giant Tikis plus the scenic Lanai dining area. This is the area that appears blank in the upper left of the floor plan.
You can follow our tour on the map as we enter through the main kitchen entrance across from the Moorea room near the exit to the outdoor gardens. The numbers designate the main stops and will be referenced below in the tour notes and photo gallery.
As frequent Mai-Kai guest Jackie Gleason would say, “And awaaaaaay, we go …”
Stop 1 was just inside the kitchen near the Cantonese and Mandarin wok stations. Mattei explained the difference: Cantonese is the more traditional style that dates back to the early days of Polynesian restaurants, while the smaller Mandarin woks produce food in more of a modern Chinese style.
From there, we headed to the Chinese ovens (stop 2), where steak, ribs, duck and other meats are cooked with indirect smoke at temperatures up to 800 degrees. The ovens are so hot, cooks use welding gloves to reach inside. You can see the ovens, which were added several years after the 1956 opening, through the windows near the path that winds through the outdoor gardens beyond the Lanai dining area.
The ovens burn Australian oak and seal the juices in the meats to ensure a great flavor. The same wood powers the adjacent flat-top oven, used to cook seafood such as lobster and fresh fish. It’s seared, then finished in the high-temperature oven.
We passed the sautee section, where dishes such as pan-seared fish, Lobster Bora Bora, escargot, and Oysters Rockefeller are prepared. Stop 3 offered a view of the wok stations from the opposite direction. Cooks must work fast on the Mandarin woks, which use high heat for a fast sear in contrast to the Cantonese woks that simmer food slowly.
One of the most famous bars in the world is tucked away deep inside the kitchen, stop 4 on our journey. Serving cocktails to all the dining rooms, it’s where legendary mixoligist Mariano Licudine plied his trade from 1956 until his 1979 retirement. We saw the two windows where servers gather up and garnish the drinks before taking them to customers. There’s a simple system: One window for even-numbered tables, one for odd.
At stop 5, we got a great peek behind the bar at The Mai-Kai’s famous rum collection. Seemingly endless rows of shelves contain the many rums and liquors used in more than 50 specialty cocktails, plus any drink that may strike a patron’s fancy. A variety of aged rums are also featured on an expanded menu of sipping rums (updated January 2014).
But the most amazing sight is the top shelf, where Licudine’s collection of now ultra-rare and nearly one-of-a-kind bottles still sits. Beachbum Berry compares it to discovering mummies in a tomb. Mattei showed us a nearly empty bottle of Bacardi from pre-Castro Cuba. The only other bottle known to exist is in the Bacardi offices in Miami. (See a photo of Licudine and his his rum collection in 1962, from Berry’s excellent chapter on The Mai-Kai in Sippin’ Safari.)
He pointed out the tropical mixology “speed rack” containing all the bar’s fresh juices and in-house syrups, still stocked in unlabeled bottles like they have for 55 years. This keeps bartenders from knowing exactly what each bottle contains and prevents them from stealing the secret recipes. “Bartenders have got to know what they’re reaching for based on color,” Mattei said.
Mattei showed us a dark Jamaican rum called Kohala Bay, which is served at only one other bar in Florida. It’s made in the same factory by the same company that previously made the Dagger brand, which was a key rum that Licudine used in some of his most famous cocktails. This elusive flavor has frustrated many home mixologists who have attempted to duplicate Mai-Kai cocktails over the years. Click here for more on Kohala Bay and the cocktails that feature it.
We then saw ice molds and other frozen glassware, which are kept in a special freezer in the bar. They were prepped long before the restaurant opened that day. Also prepped and kept in an adjacent walk-in freezer are pineapples used as serving vessels for the Pina Passion cocktail, plus the pineapple pieces for garnishes. Case after case are stacked and ready to go.
On the way out of the kitchen, we passed the employee locker areas (which also include showers) and said aloha to a couple dancers hanging out in the lounge, waiting for the next show. This part of our tour ended in the office (stop 6), where the walls are adorned with numerous trophies and awards to employee sports teams.
A framed photo of Bob Thornton taken on The Mai-Kai’s 25th anniversary shows him holding a special commemorative silver Rum Barrel, which has been on display at past events. Thornton passed in 1989 after buying out his brother in 1970, but his prescence is still strong at The Mai-Kai. Jack Thornton died in 2008.
Nearby is a painting of a proposed Mai-Kai expansion that never got off the drawing board in the late 1960s. It was to feature two stories and 1,200 seats. The image lived on, however, as one of the restaurant’s many postcards.
After heading back into the restaurant past the gift shop, we hit The Molokai for a few drinks. After the second dinner show, Mattei gave us a quick tour of the front bar that services The Molokai (stop 7). Bartenders typically work their way up to the kitchen bar by first working here. The same manager supervises both bars.
It’s a much smaller space than the back bar, with a more limited rum selection. There are two windows for The Molokai waitresses to pick up their drinks for customers, but the second window is used only on busy nights. There’s also a small kitchen area where appetizers are prepared for bar patrons. It’s a stand-alone bar that can make all the appetizers and drinks on the menu despite the close quarters.
I hope this inside look at the rarely seen bars and kitchen hasn’t “spoiled the magic” for those who love The Mai-Kai’s dark and mysterious atmosphere. In this age of open kitchens and flair bartenders on full display, it’s like stepping back in time when you enter The Mai-Kai’s world of vintage mid-century South Seas wonder. Here’s hoping it never changes.
Mai-Kai behind the scenes photo gallery – Nov. 12, 2011
Photos by Hurricane Hayward except where noted
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)