Thanks to a dedicated group of artists and supporters, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale has been blessed with the arrival of a new clan of Tiki carvings, most notably the 10-foot “King Kai” that now holds court in the outdoor garden. It’s believed to be the most extensive infusion of large stylized carvings since the 1960s.
See below: Exclusive photo gallery of King Kai, new trio of Tikis | What else is new
King Kai, a Hawaiian Ku design carved by Fort Lauderdale artist Will Anders, was installed May 21 and christened during a special ceremony the next day. Anders had lots of help in realizing the project, which was the vision of The Hukilau’s Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White. She enlisted several key people to make the dream a reality: Securing two Florida Black Olive tree trunks and transporting them to South Florida, then erecting the finished carving at The Mai-Kai.
* See previous coverage
Those responsible are credited on a plaque that adorns King Kai’s base: White, Anders, Lonnie Dryden (who donated the heavy equipment used to transport the logs and helped install King Kai), Lee Cicchella of Paradise Found Landscaping (who donated the two trees), Pete Ginn (who also donated heavy equipment), plus Virginia Decker. That second giant log is sitting in Anders’ workshop, awaiting a future project. Stay tuned.
As if that weren’t enough, however, White also spearheaded a project to replace the three crumbling Tikis that greeted guests upon their arrival by car in the porte-cochère of the landmark restaurant, recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. In the first project of its kind at The Mai-Kai, three Florida artists joined forces to each carve a distinctive new Tiki.
The Tikis carved by Anders, Fort Lauderdale’s Tom Fowner and Tampa’s Jeff Chouinard were installed on May 28-29, just in time for The Hukilau. The Hawaiian Lono (Anders), Marquesan (Chouinard) and Tangaroa-style (Fowner) Tikis were carved by the artists from Central Florida Cypress. The Tikis they replaced were historic, believed to date back to the restaurant’s inception in 1956, but were in a serious state of decay. We’re told that the remnants might find a place inside the restaurant amid the many other South Seas artifacts.
As Anders and Fowner installed the new Tiki trio on the morning of May 28, The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner Mireille Thornton (wife of late founder Bob Thornton and choreographer/costume designer of the beloved Polynesian Islander Revue, arrived to see the new additions. “You guys are doing a great job,” she exclaimed when she first saw the Tikis.
The addition of the Ku and Lono by Anders are distinctive at The Mai-Kai since there aren’t many Hawaiian-style Tikis on the property. Bob Thornton, who founded the restaurant with his brother Jack, preferred other styles, Mireille said. If Fowner’s Tangaroa-style Tiki seems familiar, it’s because it was based on the design of The Mai-Kai’s vintage decanter. Chouinard, known for his public “guerilla” Tikis in the Tampa Bay area, previously donated a Tiki to The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2014. You can find it behind the stage in the main dining room’s garden.
The work of Anders, though largely uncredited, is ubiquitous at the 59-year-old Polynesian palace. For years, he has re-cast many of the smaller Tikis that are found throughout the property. Bob Thornton was wise enough to have molds made for most of the original pieces, but they sat in storage for decades until Anders volunteered to put them to good use. [See photos of Anders’ work on Tiki Central] He also created a giant Tiki based on The Mai-Kai’s Mara-Amu mug that can be found in another prime sport the garden next to King Kai. [More info and photos, Mara-Amu recipe]
The hot, wet and humid Florida weather is not kind to outdoor Tikis, but luckily The Mai-Kai’s molds and the work of Anders will keep the restaurant’s many Tikis in good condition. His latest project, completed just before The Hukilau on June 7, was the replacement of the stylized Tiki ash trays that guard the main entrance. They were stolen, so Anders jokes that his new castings contain a GPS chip. They’re also fastidiously secured in place (as are all the new Tikis), and cast using Anders’ usual method. Known as Portland cement (also called 123), it’s 1 part cement, 2 parts coarse sand, and 3 parts rock. He also puts steel inside for strength.
The wooden Tikis are a different story, however. Anders says he and Fowner hope to maintain them so they don’t meet the same fate as many of the larger carvings that date back to the early days of the restaurant. Famed California carver Barney West created many massive Tikis that were added in the early 1960s. Only two remain, both on the exterior of the property facing Federal Highway: An imposing 20-foot Moai stands just outside the fence near King Kai on the south side, while a smaller though no less impressive carving stands guard north of the main entrance. After more than 50 years in the elements, some worry how long these historic carvings may last.
Another historic Barney West carving once stood where King Kai now looms. Dubbed “Barney,” it was a popular photo op for decades before falling victim to the elements. In June 2009, it fell over backwards and crashed through the fence into the neighboring furniture store parking lot, smashed beyond repair. [More on the saga of Barney] The carving later became the inspiration for the official mug at The Hukilau 2010.)
Barney was quickly replaced by a Tiki that The Mai-Kai staff pulled out of their warehouse and that many noticed was familiar. This Tiki (carver unknown) formerly stood guard in the old Surfboard Bar, which was The Mai-Kai’s main bar in the years before The Molokai was built. You can also find it in a famous artist rendering that appears on a postcard and on page 136 in Sven Kirsten’s The Book of Tiki. Note the wings attached to his back. Managing owner Dave Levy revealed that that the wings are still in the warehouse, and they will be reattached when the Tiki is refurbished and installed in the indoor garden behind the stage.
That brings us back to King Kai, who replaced the winged Tiki on May 21 when Anders, Fowner, Dryden and other workers spent the day tediously positioning the new Tiki in the garden. They were joined by Levy, who personally guided King Kai into place. It was a job that required precision, the Tikis lifted and lowered over the fence via forklift from the furniture store parking lot. After several hours of work, King Kai was standing tall in his new home as an enthusiastic Tiki Kiliki looked on with a big smile.
The following evening, a special ceremony was held to bless the new Tiki, a tradition in the Pacific islands. To lead the festivities, The Mai-Kai called upon two performers from the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. The father-and-son team of Hoku and Kai, natives of Hawaii, stood on either side of Anders as they performed the ritual via song in their native tongue.
“It brings a lot of good to my heart because this is Hawaii,” Kai said of the Ku carving. “This is from Hawaii, this is of Hawaii.” After the ceremony, Anders told the gathering of friends and VIPs: “I hope everyone enjoys it for a long time.” Asked who he wanted to dedicate the Tiki to, Anders didn’t hesitate: “If the seed wasn’t planted by Christie, we wouldn’t be here. It’s all thanks to Christie.” Anders was also given a plaque by a fellow carver, recognizing his work that “demonstrated both his mastery of the art of Tiki carving and his commitment to the enrichment of our Tiki culture.”
Then began a parade of photos in front of King Kai, the newest in a long tradition of larger-than-life icons that greet guests walking through The Mai-Kai’s tropical, torch-lit garden. Thanks to the work of a small group of devotees, long may it stand. The pomp and circumstance complete, it was time for the group attending the unveiling to enjoy the rest of what The Mai-Kai has to offer. “Let’s have a drink!” Levy exclaimed.
PHOTO GALLERY: NEW TIKIS AT THE MAI-KAI
(Click on thumbnails to see larger images or to view as slideshow)
Photos by The Atomic Grog unless noted
What else is new at The Mai-Kai?
Guests of The Hukilau may want to keep an eye out for many other positive changes at The Mai-Kai that have been under way over the past year:
A new chef, Mark Rivera, is transforming the staid menu with his new spin on classic Polynesian fine dining. The the new tapas and sushi menu is his handiwork, and it’s drawing rave reviews. Dishes include a variety of super-fresh sushi, tuna poke, ceviche, fish tacos, beef short rib, charred octopus, Korean beef tacos, pork belly and duck sliders, chicken lettuce wraps, and more. We’ve had just about everything on the menu and loved all of it. A South Florida food blog specifically cited his passion for fresh ingredients and healthy options.
On the dinner menu, Rivera has revamped all of the Cantonese dishes using fresher vegetables. Next, he’ll be refreshing the seafood and Chinese oven dishes, owner Dave Levy says. The 30-something Rivera brings a whole new level of expertise and youthful enthusiasm to The Mai-Kai kitchen. He came from Miami Beach’s legendary Fontainebleau Hotel, where he was executive sous chef at Michael Mina’s Stripsteak. He was also executive chef at the now-closed Tatu at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, and worked with a number of notable chefts. He even catered an event at Gloria Estefan’s house for President Obama.
Look for big things to come at The Mai-Kai menu from chef Rivera. Among the projects in the works, Levy says, is a total re-do of the bar menu. It will become a tri-fold menu with many more options, he said, including eight salads. Most of the classics will remain, but they’ll be re-imagined. Along with the new food menu, a new cocktail menu is also in the works for the bar. (The latest version was introduced in January 2014, the first major update in decades.)
Another major change may not be as noticeable, but it’s just as important to fans of the vintage experience you can only get at The Mai-Kai. A complete refresh of the lighting throughout the entire building has been completed with an upgrade to state-of-the-art LED bulbs. Many of the old fixtures were not working, and the bulbs required constant maintenance. There are obvious benefits: The bulbs will last a lot longer, and they’re much more energy-efficient. An experienced contractor with an appreciation for The Mai-Kai was in charge of the project, and he took special care to ensure that the new lights have the same vintage look. He went so far as to paint the bulbs to match the original colors.
The updated lighting fixtures have never looked better. New features were also added, such as lights over seating areas tweaked to focus a small amount of white light onto customers, allowing them to more easily read menus without pulling out their smartphones as flashlights. Owner Dave Levy gave the contractor photos of how the lights looked back in the day, instructing him to make them look exactly the same. The lighting revamp covers the entire restaurant, from The Molokai lounge to all of the dining rooms.
* See more photos of the new lighting on Tiki Central
Other updates cited by Levy include:
* New decking was added to the entrance and garden area.
* The Polynesian Islander Revue debuted a new stage show in January. A new kids show, which is performed on Sundays, will debut on June 12.
Coming to The Hukilau: The Mai-Kai’s unofficial historian, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, will preview his upcoming book, Mai-Kai: History & Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant in a sold-out symposium on Friday, June 10, at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 hotel. The 176-page hardcover book, scheduled for release in September, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant’s early years though inside stories, plus more than 400 photos commemorating The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary in December.
* Pre-order via Amazon | Facebook page
More on The Mai-Kai
* MaiKai.com | Facebook page | Instagram
On The Atomic Grog
* The Mai-Kai cocktail guide: Reviews, recipes for all the classic drinks
* New Mai-Kai mugs released, history book coming
* 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