The Mai-Kai is here to stay: 10 reasons why we love the historic South Florida restaurant

There’s no doubt that The Mai-Kai restaurant has had long-lasting appeal and success. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014 and celebrated its 60th anniversary in December, when it was honored by the Broward County Commission with its own special day.

Despite what you may have read in a local business journal, South Florida’s Polynesian palace is not going anywhere. Owner Dave Levy assures us not to worry and that everything will be fine. There has been no change in the daily operations of this classic establishment that promises to entertain, fascinate and satisfy us for years to come. In a tribute to its widespread appeal, Levy was recently interviewed for a feature story in The New York Times.

As a reminder of what makes this Fort Lauderdale landmark special, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why we love The Mai-Kai:

A view from Federal Highway of The Mai-Kai in 1969 and today. (Photos from Tim "Swanky" Glazner  / <em>Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant</em>)
A view from Federal Highway of The Mai-Kai in 1969 and today. (Photos from Tim “Swanky” Glazner / Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant)

1. The architecture and design. This was a big one that helped it gain historic status but may go unappreciated by many. It was state-of-the art Tiki in 1956 and remains so today. Designed by noted South Florida architect Charles McKirahan, it was “a futuristic Polynesian A-frame 40 feet tall with wings on either side for dining rooms and inside and outside transitioning together via waterways and an open room,” wrote Tim “Swanky” Glazner in the book Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, released in September. Following several expansions over the years, the size and scope of the restaurant today is jaw-dropping, seating more than 600 in the bar and eight dining areas both indoors and outdoors amid lush gardens and waterfalls.

The Mai-Kai's Moorea dining room. (Photo from Tim "Swanky" Glazner  / Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant)
The Mai-Kai’s Moorea dining room. (Photo from Tim “Swanky” Glazner / Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant)

2. The style and décor. Nationally-renowned designers George Nakashima and Florian Gabriel helped ensure the authentic Tiki experience. The dining rooms and gardens are a sensory overload, featuring thousands of details that continue to enchant and amaze. Founding owners Bob and Jack Thornton brought back countless artifacts from the South Seas. And while many pieces ended up in museums, others are still on display. If you think you’ve seen everything, you haven’t. In just the past year, five new large carvings have been added by Florida artists Will Anders, Tom Fowner and Jeff Chouinard.

The Polynesian Islander Revue performs at The Mai-Kai's 60th anniversary celebration on Dec. 28, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)
The Polynesian Islander Revue performs at The Mai-Kai’s 60th anniversary celebration on Dec. 28, 2016. (Atomic Grog photo)

Explore The Mai-Kai in 3-D

Filmed by Google in the fall of 2015.

3. The Polynesian Islander Revue. If it weren’t for this acclaimed stage show, The Mai-Kai may not have survived all the lean years and slow off-seasons. What makes it so beloved? It’s truly authentic, from the traditional dances and choreography to the costumes, still personally overseen by owner Mireille Thornton. The performers are all natives of the South Pacific, and many stay with The Mai-Kai for years. A spectacular new show and costumes made their official debut on Dec. 28 during the 60th anniversary celebration.

Revelers at The Hukilau in June 2015 enjoy the Deep Sea Diver cocktail, once again served in its vintage glassware thanks to Jeff
Revelers at The Hukilau in June 2015 enjoy the Deep Sea Diver cocktail, once again served in its vintage glassware thanks to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry and his line of Cocktail Kingdom products. (Atomic Grog photos)

4. The classic cocktails. With secret recipes that date back to Don the Beachcomber’s groundbreaking libations in the early days of Tiki, The Mai-Kai’s vast menu of tropical drinks is considered to be among the elite, and the National Register recognized this. “The Mai-Kai has a permanent place in a holy trio of old-school holdouts dedicated to the careful construction of their libations,” it says. Many of today’s top bartenders and authors recognize The Mai-Kai as “the mothership” of Tiki cocktails. “Armed with Donn’s sacred recipes, The Mai-Kai’s drinks became justifiably famous,” wrote Martin Cate in Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki, released in June. Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of six influential books exploring the history of tropical drinks, calls original mixologist Mariano Licudine a “human Rosetta Stone – a living key to the tropical kingdom.” Look for the enhanced, 10th anniversary edition of Berry’s Sippin’ Safari this summer featuring an entire chapter on Licucine and The Mai-Kai.

The Mai-Kai and chef Mark Rivera have one of the few ancient Chinese ovens in the country. (Mai-Kai photo)
The Mai-Kai and chef Mark Rivera have one of the few ancient Chinese ovens in the country. (Mai-Kai photo)

5. The traditional food and service. One of the last old-school holdouts still providing tableside service and mid-century menu favorites, The Mai-Kai is both retro and classy. In an age when casual dining rules, it’s comforting to be treated like a special guest in a special place. From the maître d’ to the table captains to the various staff (all wearing specific uniforms, from white suits to Hawaiian shirts), everyone contributes to your enjoyment while dining at The Mai-Kai. And the dishes are modernized and upgraded under the guidance of an outstanding young chef, Mark Rivera. He has added a new tapas menu to The Molokai bar and is in the midst of perfecting the extensive dinner menu.

The Mai-Kai's Kona Coffee Grog was featured in a video on The Cooking Channel in 2014 The Mai-Kai’s Kona Coffee Grog was featured in a video on The Cooking Channel in 2014.

6. The rituals. The seductive Mystery Drink, the flaming Kona Coffee Grog and Bananas Bengali, the hot towels after every meal. The list is endless and speaks to The Mai-Kai’s dedication to tradition and history. The Mystery Girl became such an alluring figure that she was invited by Mai-Kai regular Johnny Carson to appear three times on The Tonight Show in the 1960s. At the initial 1962 appearance, the Mystery Bowl “remained on Johnny’s desk for the entire night,” Glazer wrote in his book. “He and all of his guests continued to drink from it and got a little bit tipsy.”

The timeless main showroom. (Mai-Kai photo)
The timeless main showroom. (Mai-Kai photo)

7. Time travel. The Mai-Kai is much more than a “theme restaurant.” It allows guests to literally transport themselves to another era. If you squint hard enough (and drink enough Zombies), you’ll swear you saw Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon, quaffing Rum Barrels at the bar. The Mai-Kai “is a virtual Taj Mahal of Tiki and stands today in its original form – which makes it the last grand Tiki temple still in existence,” wrote seminal author Sven Kirsten in his 2014 book, Tiki Pop.

A guest is treated to a dance from The Mai-Kai's Mystery Girl after ordering a Mystery Drink during The Hukilau in June 2015. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
A guest is treated to a dance from The Mai-Kai’s Mystery Girl after ordering a Mystery Drink during The Hukilau in June 2015. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

8. Sex appeal. From The Molokai bar waitresses to the Mystery Girl to the stage show performers, there’s something primitively seductive for everyone. And done with class. The Polynesian Islander Revue is designed to show off the traditions of the islands, including the romantic Hawaiian wedding dance and the thrilling Samoan fire knife dance. Clad in their traditional sarongs, the Molokai “maidens” are a welcoming sight for many during The Mai-Kai’s popular happy hour. In the early days of the restaurant, many of the waitresses and Mystery Girls moonlighted as models, and some went on to famous careers, as detailed in Glazner’s book.

The Mai-Kai's managing owner, Dave Levy, celebrates his 60th birthday on the final day of The Hukilau in June 2015 with friends and family including mom Mireille Thornton, who took over the restaurant from her late husband, co-founder Bob Thornton. (Photo by The Tanabi Group)
The Mai-Kai’s managing owner, Dave Levy, celebrates his 60th birthday on the final day of The Hukilau in June 2015 with friends and family including mom Mireille Thornton, who took over the restaurant from her late husband, co-founder Bob Thornton. (Photo by The Tanabi Group)

9. The owners and staff. The Mai-Kai is still family owned and operated, and it shows. From managing owner Dave Levy to the wait staff and Molokai girls, everyone exudes warmth and dedication. Levy’s mother, Mireille Thornton, is still a regular fixture in the restaurant, greeting guests and checking in on the show. Her daughter Kulani Gelardi is also part-owner. Kern Mattei is a second-generation manager, occupying the same job and office as his father. Director of Sales and Marketing Pia Dahlquist is a 26-year veteran. Some staff have been there for generations, such as maître d’ Angel Vega, who started as a busboy in 1958 and just retired.

A group photo during the opening night of The Hukilau in June 2016. The event celebrating Polynesian Pop culture has been held at The Mai-Kai since 2003. (Photo by Go11Events.com)
A group photo during the opening night of The Hukilau in June 2016. The event celebrating Polynesian Pop culture has been held at The Mai-Kai since 2003. (Photo by Go11Events.com)

10. The loyal customers. Everyone has their own reasons, but what’s important is we keep coming back. Drawn in by the magic, we remain hooked for life. For the past two years, The Mai-Kai topped the list of the Top 10 Tiki bars in the world rated by the users of the influential Critiki.com website. “As The Mai-Kai has carried the genre of the American theme restaurant to its highest level, its existence will undoubtedly continue to delight generations to come,” Kirsten wrote in Peter Moruzzi’s 2012 book, Classic Dining: Discovering America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants.

The Mai-Kai is at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, on the west side between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Call (954) 563-3272 for more information or to make dinner reservations. Valet and paid self-parking.
* MaiKai.com | Facebook page | Instagram
* Friends of The Mai-Kai Facebook group
* Google Maps: Explore The Mai-Kai in 3-D

More on The Atomic Grog
* The Okole Maluna Society: The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
* The Mai-Kai turns 60 with special history presentations, celebration
* New giant carved Tiki added to The Mai-Kai’s outdoor garden
* A hauntingly good time at historic Mai-Kai’s 8th annual Hulaween party
* ‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai
* 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 manager Kern Mattei
* More Mai-Kai history | All Mai-Kai posts

About Hurricane Hayward

A professional journalist and Florida resident for more than 30 years, Jim "Hurricane" Hayward shares his obsession with Polynesian Pop and other retro styles on his blog, The Atomic Grog. Jim's roots in mid-century and reto culture go back to his childhood in the 1960s, when he tagged along with his parents to Tiki restaurants and his father's custom car shows. His experience in journalism, mixology, and more than 20 years as an independent concert promoter make him a jack-of-all-trades in the South Florida scene. A graduate of the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications, Jim is a longtime web producer for The Palm Beach Post. In his spare time, he has promoted hundreds of rock, punk, and indie concerts under the Slammie Productions name since the early 1990s. In 2011, he launched The Atomic Grog to extensively cover events, music, art, cocktails, and culture with a retro slant. Jim earned his nickname by virtue of both his dangerous exotic drinks and his longtime position producing The Post's tropical weather website.
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One Response to The Mai-Kai is here to stay: 10 reasons why we love the historic South Florida restaurant

  1. Frank A.Serena Jr. says:

    So glad to hear the closing rumors are false….I started coming to the Mai-Kai for my birthday back in 1965 on St.Patricks day….I can recall only around maybe 6-8 years if that in missing celebrating my day with you all…..This past March I turned 67….nearly 50 years and counting.I hope to be celebrating at the Mai-Kai.Til I can’t any more.Thankyou one and all especially Angel Vega,Toti and the staff.To say the Mai-Kai is very special to me is a major understatement….I look forward to continuing Birthday celebrations come March of 2018 and beyond…..”Mahalo nui loha”.

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