Updated Jan. 20, 2014
NEW: The new cocktail menu made its public debut on Jan. 17. Check out our review and recipe for the new drink, the Tiki Swizzle.
The Mai-Kai celebrated its 57th anniversary with a customer celebration party that not only recognized the landmark Polynesian restaurant’s storied past, but also looked ahead to the future.
* See below: New tropical drink menu sneak preview
There was much to celebrate at the Saturday, Dec. 28, event: The recent historic designation by the city of Oakland Park, the 50th anniversary of a longtime employee, and the screening of a new PBS documentary filmed at The Mai-Kai. But attendees were also given a sneak peak at what’s to come: The first major redesign of the Tiki palace’s iconic cocktail menu in more than 30 years.
The celebrating actually started on Friday night, with a rare South Florida performance by instrumental surf band The Novarays in The Molokai bar. The Orlando band ripped through three sets of classic covers and original tunes. On Saturday, the bar was nearly full at 1:30 p.m. for an early happy hour to kick off the day’s special events.
The several hundred guests then filled the main dining room, which sits beneath the original, awe-inspiring A-frame structure built in 1956 by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton, a couple upstart restaurateurs from Chicago who envisioned the world’s grandest Polynesian palace in Tiki’s mid-century heyday.
Seven years later, Puerto Rico native Angel Vega took a job busing tables at the wildly successful restaurant, which became famous for both its celebrity guests (Johnny Carson, Joe DiMaggio, Omar Sharif) and prodigious rum consumption (it was the No. 1 independent user in the United States). Vega quickly move up to seating captain, then became the face of the front of the house as maître d’ until late last year. He’s now working part-time, overseeing The Molokai three or four nights a week.
Honored for his 50 years of service, Vega made it clear he’s not going anywhere anytime soon: “One customer asked me: ‘Are you going to go for a few more years?’ And I said I feel like Tom Brady when he won the Super Bowl. Let’s go for 10 and take if from there.” After thanking The Mai-Kai staff and his wife, Angel said: “I believe that we have the best customers in the world, and that’s what keeps me working.”
* See a profile and interview with Vega from The Hukilau’s 2010 program
The Mai-Kai’s marketing manager and spokeswoman, Pia Dahlquist, then said a few words about the historic status granted by Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale: “Next, we are going to the state, and we are going for national recognition. When we get there, we’re having a big party.” But the local designation is perhaps the most significant. It will prevent the inappropriate alteration or demolition of the site without approval by a historic review committee.
Dahlquist then showed off the new tropical drink menu, which should be ready for the public sometime in January along with a newly designed dinner menu. “The Mai-Kai is known for its rums, and there are a lot of rums you can order,” she said. “What’s also new with this menu is there are actually photos of all the drinks instead of drawings.” [Check out my synopsis below]
Filmmaker Gaspar Gonzalez of Common Machine then took the stage to introduce, Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession, which has been shown on PBS stations across the U.S. since its premiere in September. It will debut on KCET in Los Angeles in prime time on Jan. 28, he said, and hopefully air in New York by March or April. [See more on Plastic Paradise]
Of the 30 interviews in the film, about 20 were shot at The Mai-Kai, he said. “We never used the same spot twice.” Most of the footage was filmed at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau, the annual Polynesian Pop celebration, in 2011 and 2012. The film got a very respectful response, but the crowd broke out in laughter at several points when the late Ron Licudine, son of original Mai-Kai mixologist Mariano Licudine, shared stories from The Mai-Kai’s early days.
It was Mariano who created the original cocktail menu, inspired by his 20 years working for Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and Chicago. Most of the drinks that are on the menu 57 years later are Licudine creations, closely based on Don the Beachcomber classics [See the history]. Though he retired in 1979 and passed away the following year, the elder Licudine’s secret recipes and high standards and are still being followed more than 30 years later.
The Mai-Kai updates its classic cocktail menu for the 21st century
Along with the drinks, one thing that changed little over the years was the menu design. Its look remained virtually unchanged from 1956 [see menu] until the 1970s, when it was expanded to divide the drinks into “mild,” “medium,” “strong,” “after dinner” and “non alcoholic” sections that have remained for the past 30+ years. For example, you’ll find very little difference, design-wise, between this 1979 menu that was on display at the customer celebration party and the current menu [see photo from April 2012].
The current menu facelift is the brainchild of managing owner Dave Levy, one of two children of longtime owner Mireille Thornton, who took over for her late husband Bob in 1989. (Her daughter, Kulani Gelardi, is also part of the ownership team.) The menu, which was lovingly created by Levy and designer Adrianna Cupples, pays tribute to “Mrs. T” with a vintage photo of her adorning the centerspread. She was a dancer in the original Polynesian Islander Revue (circa 1961) and continues to oversee the longest running authentic South Seas stage show in the U.S., including Hawaii.
It’s an awesome centerspread, featuring a background map of Polynesia and all 47 of The Mai-Kai’s classic tropical rum-based cocktails on one page. Graphically, it’s a vast improvement over the smaller, multi-page menu. It measures 20 inches wide by 22 inches tall when open, 10×22 when closed. It’s also a much more logical layout, with an eclectic list of 50 wines on the back and a vast new rum list on the front.
While the old rum offerings were available only on a separate table tent, the new menu puts them front and center at the very top. It also has grown from the previous 22 to a massive list of 33 “Rums of Exceptional Quality and Value” plus 18 more top-shelf offerings that made the “Mai-Kai Selection of Elite Rums.” That’s a total of 51 excellent rums, including such top brands as Appleton, Bacardi, Botran, Cockspur, Diplomatico, Mount Gay, Papa’s Pilar, Ron Zacapa, Zafra, and many more.
The front also features the same six non-alcoholic tropical drinks that have been a staple on the menu for decades, along with (gasp) The Mai-Kai’s first official selection of martinis. The Cosmopolitan, Appeltini, Key Lime Pie Martini, Espresso Martini, Watermelon Martini, White Chocolate Martini, and Mango Martini can be ordered with either vodka or rum. While Tiki cocktail purists may cringe, these drinks do fill a large void and give tourists and those who may be intimidated by some of the more flamboyant offerings an easy entry point. Consider them a gateway drug in the tropical universe.
That vast universe unfolds when you open the menu to reveal the 47 classics, most of which date back to the 1956 opening and remain virtually unchanged. Don’t worry, nobody is adding vodka or tarting up these celebrated cocktails, though one huge change is obvious: Gone are the vintage mid-century drawings that have identified these drinks for the past 57 years, and in their place are beautiful photographs that show off just how colorful and creative these concoctions are.
The kitschy artwork was a direct link to Don the Beachcomber (the same artist reportedly did both menus in the 1950s), and it’s a bit sad to see it relegated to history, but I have to admit these pictures really do sell the drinks so much better. They give customers a true look at the mouth-watering offerings like no line drawing can. One retro element that remains is the classically cryptic drink descriptions, which have graced the menu since the 1970s. They tell you just enough about the drink to tease, never completely spilling the beans like today’s trendy craft cocktail bars. In mid-century Tiki tradition, drink ingredients are still closely guarded secrets here.
The photos were shot during the same sessions that yielded a great selection of promotional shots featuring The Molokai Girls (see below) that are featured on The Atomic Grog’s homepage. Cocktail photography is a burgeoning field, and lots of great work is being published in books, magazines and online. It’s good to see The Mai-Kai join its craft cocktail brethren in embracing this new art form.
The photo shoot was a whirlwind of activity, Mai-Kai general manager Kern Mattei told me. The bar cranked out many of the elaborately garnished creations without alcohol, but quite a few of the powerful rum drinks had to be made at full strength to ensure the proper color. The photo crew gladly accepted them as fruits of their labor, he said, resulting in a lively afternoon.
A closer look at the drinks reveals a few more changes. Gone from the after dinner offerings is the Mai-Kai Cappuccino, which has been moved to the dessert menu. But you’ll also notice that there are now 17 strong drinks, the stars of this menu as aficionados are well aware.
Making its debut in 2014 is the Tiki Swizzle: “Made with Kahakai Tiki Rum, fresh juices and homemade syrups, this concoction is sure to please.” This tasty new offering, which should appeal to fans of sweet and tart drinks like the Mara-Amu and Sidewinder’s Fang, actually made its debut at The Hukilau last June and has since been featured on its own special table tent menu. But it’s now an official member of an exclusive group.
How does it stack up against the competition? Click here for a full review. Also coming soon to The Atomic Grog’s Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide: More “tribute” and “ancestor” recipes, news and special features including a closer look at The Mai-Kai’s cocktail menus though the years, tracing the history of all the classic drinks with sample menus from every decade dating back to 1956.
Official site | Facebook page | Flickr group
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