Updated June 2016
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The Mai-Kai: History, Mystery & Adventure
By Hurricane Hayward and Tim “Swanky” Glazner, February 2012
The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, now in its 56th year, is widely acclaimed as perhaps the last perfectly preserved mid-century Polynesian restaurant with its incredible vintage decor, acclaimed cocktails, authentic South Seas stage show, vast Asian-inspired menu and an ambience that makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
But not many are aware of The Mai-Kai’s direct links to Tiki’s forefather, from the concept to the cocktails to the decor.
In 1933, a small tropical and nautical themed bar in Hollywood, Calif., called Don the Beachcomber was one of many thousands that opened the day after Prohibition ended. Who would have imagined that former rum-runner Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach, had invented a new genre of mixology and a bar/restaurant concept that would be copied across the globe for decades to come.
Of course, we’re talking about the classic Tiki bar and its exotic tropical drinks. At the dawn of the cocktail era, Donn Beach was the undisputed king of tropical mixology. In an era of drinks with two or three ingredients, his secret recipes included up to a dozen, including two or three rums, resulting in drinks the world had never seen before.
At the peak of the Tiki craze in 1956, brothers Bob and Jack Thornton set out to open their own Polynesian restaurant. These brash Chicagoans were well-versed in the ways and tastes of the Don the Beachcomber chain, as well imitators such as Trader Vic’s and Steve Crane’s Kon-Tiki.
But their ideas for a location in what was then a rural area of Fort Lauderdale would far surpass those from whom they drew inspiration. When they teamed up with Donn Beach’s manager in Chicago, Robert Van Dorpe, they got an ally beyond their imagination. With his help, they not only hired away a top chef (Kenny Lee) and bartender (Mariano Licudine) from Donn Beach, they also got the source for all the glassware, artwork, kitchen equipment and – most importantly – secret ingredients to make those world famous cocktails.
When The Mai-Kai opened in late 1956, at a cost of a million dollars, it was the most perfect copy of Donn Beach’s grand vision imaginable, but taken to new heights. The Mai-Kai quickly out-shined its competition, earning the raves of critics and its loyal clientele alike.
It became the biggest seller of rum in the nation but was also the haunt of celebrities such as Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason. The “Mystery Girl” – a Mai-Kai invention – made her way onto Johnny’s Tonight Show … twice.
In 1989, both Donn Beach and Bob Thornton, who assumed full control from his brother in 1970, passed away. The last of Beach’s restaurant empire closed soon after. The Polynesian Pop era was all but gone.
For the next two decades, almost nothing survived … except The Mai-Kai. By the turn of the 21st century, there were only two places on Earth to get Donn Beach’s “rum rhapsodies” made the way he created them, and only The Mai-Kai still had the grandeur of those golden days.
Today, the craft cocktail is coming back in a big way. Those in search of great concoctions are returning to the recipes of the master, Donn Beach. They’re also returning to the cocktail Mecca that is The Mai-Kai, where they can taste his groundbreaking drinks as they should be, served in specialty glassware with hand-crated ice molds, or made of fresh pineapples and seasonal coconuts.
At The Mai-Kai, it’s as if Donn Beach and the Thorntons never left. It is time travel.
Coming soon: Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, a 176-page hardcover book by Tim “Swanky” Glazner, will be released Sept. 28, 2016, by Schiffer Publishing.
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