Since it opened on an undeveloped stretch of Federal Highway on Dec. 28, 1956, The Mai-Kai has stood proudly as an icon of mid-century Tiki culture, supported by some of the most loyal guests any restaurant could hope for. Every year on that date, the Fort Lauderdale institution gives back with its Customer Celebration Party, which includes live entertainment and great deals on food and drinks.
The Mai-Kai’s Customer Celebration Parties: Saturday, Dec. 27, and Sunday, Dec. 28. Featuring live music by the Aloha Boyz, plus food and drink specials in The Molokai lounge. Location: 3599 N. Federal Highway, between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Valet and paid self-parking. Call (954) 563-3272 or go to MaiKai.com.
For its 58th birthday, The Mai-Kai is adding an additional night to the festivities, making it a two-day bash in The Molokai bar with live music both nights beginning at 6 p.m. Food and drink discounts have also been increased beyond the usual 50 percent, with most items on the lounge menu available at 58 percent off all night long. (There are some restrictions, such as bottles of wine, champagne, and the large communal cocktails.)
Guests can also enjoy the eclectic trio the Aloha Boyz, featuring former musicians from The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue. Derek Suzuki (guitar/vocals), Buki Teheiura Itchener (bass/vocals) and Ty Olopai (ukulele/vocals) cover many styles including Hawaiian, pop oldies, reggae, calypso, and country.
The Molokai is noted for its nautical theme and decor, with design and artifacts from the 1962 Marlon Brando movie Mutiny on the Bounty. After arriving in your vehicle via the wooden plank bridge out front (which was designed to make a noise that simulates thunder), guests are swept into what appears to be the interior of the famed cargo ship HMS Bounty, complete with sails and rigging. The film’s set designer had a hand in making sure it was tied and displayed correctly.
Just as famous are The Mai-Kai’s food and drinks. The restaurant was recently featured on the Cooking Channel show Offbeat Eats with Jim Stacy. In an episode titled Day at the Beach, the Aloha-shirt clad Stacy steps into the kitchen with general manager Kern Mattei to see how the classic Lobster Bora Bora is prepared. He also gets a lesson on the inner workings on The Mai-Kai’s distinctive Chinese oven.
Stacy got into the aloha spirit as he joined the Polynesian Islander Revue on stage for a few dance moves. In a scene that didn’t make the final cut, he also sat down in The Molokai bar to see how the flaming Kona Coffee Grog is mixed and presented. Click here to see the web-only video that features a short clip of Stacy being served by Roro, one of the Molokai Girls. The full show will be repeated again in January. Click here for dates and showtimes.
The acclaimed tropical drink menu includes 47 classics, many of which date back to the early days of Tiki mixology in the 1930s. Of those, 32 are exactly the same as they were presented on the first menu in 1956. Over the years, The Mai-Kai never wavered from serving quality drinks made from distinctive rums, fresh juices and homemade syrups, earning it respect from Tiki cocktail devotees worldwide. Amid the past decade’s craft cocktail movement, these classic drinks have earned newfound appreciation from enthusiasts looking for the roots of farm-to-table mixology. The appetizer menu is the perfect complement, offering such Tiki bar classics as the Pupu Platter, Shanghai Chicken, Crab Rangoon, and many more.
If you can escape from the festivities in the 150-capacity bar, you’ll find an expansive restaurant that includes eight dining rooms seating nearly 500, plus an outdoor Tiki garden featuring waterfalls and an exotic plantscape. That’s a far cry from 1956, when the four-room restaurant opened on a desolate stretch of Federal Highway. Featuring artifacts salvaged from the South Seas by owners Bob and Jack Thornton, The Mai-Kai cost $1 million to build, making it the most expensive new restaurant in the United States at that time.
Bob Thornton took sole control and led the restaurant for decades. His influence is still felt strongly today among many of the staff that has spent their entire career there. At last year’s Customer Celebration Party, former maître d’ and current Molokai captain Angel Vega was honored for his 50 years of service. Also at the party, it was announced that The Mai-Kai was granted historic status by Oakland Park, the Fort Lauderdale suburb where it resides.
Since Bob Thornton’s passing in 1989, The Mai-Kai has been lovingly operated by his widow, Mireille Thornton, her son Dave Levy, and her daughter Kulani Gelardi. Even though The Mai-Kai is a huge restaurant, you can see and feel the family love and “aloha” everywhere. Bob met Mireille when she was a dancer in the Polynesian Islander Revue, established in 1961 and now the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States. More than four decades later, she continues to choreograph the show and design the costumes, visiting her native islands for inspiration, costume ideas and materials, and authentic performers.
Reservations are recommended for the stage show, which is performed twice on most nights [see schedule] and well worth the $11.95 per person show charge. Just as exotic is the restaurant’s dinner menu, which includes classic table-side service and Cantonese dishes, plus fresh fish, steaks, duck and The Mai-Kai’s take on such modern comfort food as lobster macaroni and cheese.
The Mai-Kai is also one of the best venues in South Florida to celebrate New Year’s Eve in vintage style. Tables are available for dinner only or for dinner and the show. The Molokai also offers a low-cost (no cover, no minimum), laid-back atmosphere to ring in 2015. Visit the official website or call (954) 563-3272 (ext. 1) for more information.
Official site | Facebook page | Flickr group
More on The Atomic Grog
* Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide | Tropical drink family tree
* Photos: A ghastly good time at The Mai-Kai’s sixth annual Hulaween party
* Special event at The Mai-Kai takes a flight back to classic ‘Potions of the Caribbean’
* Artists pay tribute to The Mai-Kai with one-of-a-kind mugs
* Historic Mai-Kai celebrated, new cocktail menu unveiled at anniversary party
* 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