UPDATED (Jan. 4, 2014): See the event recap
Long considered a “Tiki temple” by its fans and followers of timeless mid-century Americana, The Mai-Kai can now stake a claim to being an official South Florida landmark. And to honor its 57th anniversary this month, the venerable Polynesian restaurant has scheduled several special events.
* Friday, Dec. 27: Surf rock party with The Novarays, 6-9 p.m. in The Molokai bar.
* Saturday, Dec. 28: Customer celebration party, 1:30-4 p.m., featuring a showing of the PBS documentary Plastic Paradise.
Where: The Mai-Kai, 3599 N. Federal Highway, between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Valet and paid self-parking. Call (954) 563-3272 or go to MaiKai.com.
In November, The Mai-Kai became the first commercial property to receive historic designation by the city of Oakland Park. While the restaurant is typically listed as being in Fort Lauderdale, it sits in the southeast corner of the small city to the north of its larger South Florida neighbor. The designation by the city’s Historic Preservation Board was in honor of The Mai-Kai’s history and architectural character. A national historic designation is also being sought.
When it opened in 1956, the small four-room restaurant stood alone on a barren stretch of Federal Highway. Most of its original structure remains, but it has since expanded to include eight dining rooms seating nearly 500, a 150-capacity bar, gift shop, and outdoor seating in lush tropical gardens. It continued to thrive decades after the mid-20th-century Polynesian restaurant craze waned, becoming a favorite of both tourists and locals. Now, 13 years into the 21st century, it has become an icon and torch-bearer of Tiki style among enthusiasts of the Polynesian Pop revival.
Many of those enthusiasts will be on hand Friday, Dec. 27, for a rare South Florida appearance of instrumental surf band The Novarays. The Orlando-based group last played at The Mai-Kai in June during The Hukilau, an annual celebration of vintage Tiki culture. The band will play three sets of classic surf and garage rock tunes between 6 and 9 p.m. This event is free.
The band members – Lewis Bailey, Geno Katko and Rob Fox – will also be celebrating their 10th year together, so it should be a festive occasion. And don’t miss happy hour from 5 to 7, when most of The Mai-Kai’s legendary tropical drinks, along with a tasty assortment of appetizers, will all be half-priced. If you plan on attending the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue, performances are at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended, and there’s a $10.95 show charge per person.
The Mai-Kai’s 1956 grand opening fell on Dec. 28, and that date is reserved annually for the popular customer appreciation party. This year’s bash starts early, with doors opening at 1:30 p.m. for several special events. In the main dining room, there will be a showing at 2 p.m. of the documentary Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession, which debuted on PBS stations nationwide this fall. [See story]
The hour-long film tells the story of America’s fascination with Tiki style, beginning in the days following Prohibition when rum fueled the tropical drink and Polynesian restaurant phenomenon. It concludes at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai, where modern adherents keep the original spirit alive. The film’s producer, Gaspar Gonzales from Miami-based Common Machine, will be on hand at the event.
Happy hour prices in The Molokai bar start when the doors open at 1:30 and continue until 7 p.m. The customer celebration party is typically a popular event, so get there early for a good seat. There will be three dinner shows (6:30, 9:30 and 11 p.m.), so make your reservations now ($10.95 per person). There’s no admittance charge for any of the Saturday festivities.
* Click here for the Facebook event
The intense devotion of The Mai-Kai’s clientele is matched by the loyalty of its employees, many of whom stay for decades. One such Mai-Kai institution is Angel Vega, who will be honored at the Dec. 28 party for a remarkable 50 years of service. Vega started as a bus boy in 1963 and is best known as the restaurant’s longtime maître d’ with the unflappable demeanor. Vega is now semi-retired and oversees The Molokai bar three or four nights a week.
A native of Puerto Rico, Vega moved with his parents to South Florida, where he has a large extended family. He became interested in The Mai-Kai when a friend told him he was making an unheard-of $30-$40 a night busing tables. Vega quickly impressed management and became a seating captain just months later. Vega epitomizes The Mai-Kai’s commitment to customer service. “The customer is precious to us,” he said in a 2010 interview with The Hukilau’s Christie White. “One-hundred percent is given to their needs, and it is our pleasure to go out of the way for our guests. … When they leave through the front door, we want them smiling. We want them to return.”
* See the profile and interview with Vega from The Hukilau’s 2010 program
The Mai-Kai also has two other employees nearing the 50-year mark, with 47 and 49 years respectively. In addition, three employees have spent 32 to 39 years there, and 11 have been employed for 20 to 29 years. The dedication of the staff is a byproduct of the tight-knit, family-run operation. Owner Mireille Thornton, who still oversees the Polynesian Islander Revue, came to The Mai-Kai in 1960 and was a dancer in the original show in 1961. She married owner and co-founder Bob Thornton in 1971 and took over after his death in 1989. Her partners for the past quarter century are her children from a previous marriage, Dave Levy and Kulani Gelardi.
If you still crave more of The Mai-Kai, consider making your New Year’s Eve a Polynesian party. A welcome respite from the normal noisy New Year’s parties, the Dec. 31 event features two special dinner shows plus a new feature for guests still wanting dinner but seeking a less expensive option.
Book seats at one of two special dinner shows (7:30 and 11:15 p.m.) featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest running authentic South Seas restaurant stage show in the continental U.S. Dinner is served before each show, which costs $21 per person for the early show and $40 for the late show, which includes the New Year countdown and special celebration. It’s possible these shows will sell out, so make your reservations now at (954) 563-3272, ext. 1.
New for New Year’s Eve this year is dinner in the secluded Samoa and Tahiti dining rooms with free entertainment provided by DJ Charles from 9 p.m. until 12.30 a.m. He’ll be playing a variety of holiday and tropical tunes, and there will also be a complimentary 15-minute show at 10:45. Another option is the quiet outdoor seating on the Lanai overlooking the tropical waterfalls and gardens. I also recommended an evening in The Molokai bar, which will be open from 5 p.m. until past midnight, as a great no-cover option to the usual boisterous New Year’s Eve bar bashes.
As we celebrate 2013 and look forward to 2014, there’s much to appreciate at the world famous The Mai-Kai.
More on The Atomic Grog
* Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide | Tropical drink family tree
* Heeeeeeere’s the rich history and lost stories of The Mai-Kai
* Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen (with photos)
* Interview with General Manager Kern Mattei
* More Mai-Kai history | All Mai-Kai posts