When The Mai-Kai completes a multimillion-dollar renovation, guests of the historic restaurant will be treated to several major enhancements, including a more immersive arrival experience and a new banquet hall.
The head of the new ownership group broke the news and unveiled artist renderings during an online presentation for the city of Oakland Park and The Mai-Kai’s neighborhood residents in late April.
Also crucial to the reopening plans for the 65-year-old Polynesian palace, the refurbishment includes upgrading the aging roofs and air conditioning system, along with the ground-up construction of a new kitchen.
Fans of The Mai-Kai’s vintage look and feel should not fear these changes, however. The chief executive who leads both the land management firm that bought a controlling interest and the hospitality company that will be operating The Mai-Kai says there are no plans to alter the experience once guests walk through the doors.
This includes a planned revival of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. From the nautical-themed Molokai bar to the dining rooms named for South Seas islands, a night at The Mai-Kai will remain a transportive time capsule considered to be the last grand mid-century Polynesian supper club in the world.
“There are thousands of beautiful historic properties all over the world that are sitting vacant without their proper use, said Bill Fuller, managing partner of Miami’s Barlington Group “This is just an amazing example of a historic property that is sustainable.” Fuller’s real estate development company specializes in revitalizing cultural institutions and neighborhoods across the country.
In a question-and-answer session after the April 26 meeting to share the “plans and visions” for the reopening, Fuller spoke in realistic terms about how to best preserve The Mai-Kai: “Although we are restricted based on the historic preservation, it is absolutely imperative that we are successful from a business perspective so that we can preserve all the other great attributes of The Mai-Kai,” he said. “Not just the architectural features, but the entire immersive experience including the shows, the music, the food, the drinks.”
The new ownership team, led by Fuller’s Tiki Real Estate LLC, paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage. The real estate purchase is valued at more than $16 million. “Over the last few months, we have been developing plans and securing permits,” Fuller said at the start of the neighborhood participation meeting. “We anticipate reopening in the fall of this coming year.”
“We care deeply about the community of Oakland Park and are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve had,” Fuller said. After the presentation, a neighborhood resident praised the plans and said he was thrilled that The Mai-Kai will be returning as a staple destination in the area. “It will be a great day to see it open,” he added.
A blessing in disguise? Roof collapse leads to ownership change, renovations
The Mai-Kai is a local and national historic landmark, a beloved Polynesian restaurant that opened on Dec. 28, 1956. For more than six decades, it resolutely withstood the tests of time and gained a loyal worldwide following among of generations of guests.
But all that changed suddenly and dramatically in October 2020, when a blast of intense tropical weather led to the collapse of the aging roof over the kitchen. The damage rendered a large swath of the back-of-house beyond repair. This rear addition, which featured a flat roof and was not part of the original A-frame, was built during an expansion in the early 1970s.
Facing the biggest crisis in the restaurant’s history, The Mai-Kai owners signed a deal late last year that ensures both the future of the enduring brand and the family legacy started by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton. The family matriarch and widow of Bob Thornton, former Polynesian Islander Revue performer Mireille Thornton, will remain the show’s creative director as well as The Mai-Kai’s heart and soul.
Key family and management will continue to steer the ship, but the future of The Mai-Kai is now in the very capable hands of Fuller and his companies. Several Barlington Group properties – including Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s historic Calle Ocho – are also managed by Mad Room Hospitality.
“We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the family said in the announcement of the sale in September.
Fans and followers of The Mai-Kai have been on the edge of their seats ever since, wondering what was going to happen to their beloved Tiki temple. Now, finally, we’re about to find out what Fuller and his team have in store for us.
“For over 60 years, The Mai-Kai has hosted millions who enjoy an immersive Polynesian experience,” Fuller said at the top of his Oakland Park presentation. “My companies formed a partnership with the Thornton family and we are collectively investing heavily to restore The Mai-Kai so that we can all enjoy it for the next 60 years.”
After 11 months of uncertainty, loyal patrons of The Mai-Kai finally have a reason to raise a Barrel O’ Rum and celebrate. The founding owners have announced a joint ownership agreement that will not only infuse at least $5 million into the refurbishment of the 64-year-old Fort Lauderdale landmark, but also allow it to reopen in all its historic glory.
It’s been a rough year since a vicious October 2020 storm collapsed part of the roof and debilitated the kitchen and back-of-house operations. But the family that has operated the iconic Polynesian restaurant since 1956 has charted a new course with the help of a South Florida real estate investment and development company that specializes in restoring historic properties.
The bombshell was dropped Sept. 28 in an email and social media announcement titled “The Mai-Kai update you have all been waiting for.” The owners made public their joint venture with Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. No strangers to reviving beloved cultural institutions, the companies have been instrumental in revitalizing Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s famed Calle Ocho.
“We really understand what it’s like to be stewards of an older brand, where authenticity and heritage is very, very important,” Bill Fuller, a founder of both companies, told TV news station CBS 4 in Miami. “It’s outstanding to see the outpouring of folks and feedback from all over the world about how meaningful and how important The Mai-Kai has been in their life.”
The Mai-Kai began looking for partners in late 2020, when the scope of the damage and extent of the needed repairs became clear. After “considering numerous interested parties,” the announcement said, the search ended with the Miami group “when we met their team and recognized the passion they share for honoring and preserving the legacy of The Mai-Kai.”
That’s sure to please the restaurant’s passionate followers, who continue to show their support by ordering takeout cocktails and attending special outdoor events at 3599 N. Federal Highway in the suburb of Oakland Park. Until Sept. 28, they had been sharing their fears and frustrations online almost daily. A “Save The Mai-Kai” petition has nearly 12,000 signatures.
The Mai-Kai thanks ‘devoted fans and guests,’ promises restoration to ‘former splendor and beyond’
While the news on the ownership change was the top headline, the founding Thornton family made sure to show its appreciation to its customers first and foremost: “Most importantly, we want to thank you, our devoted fans and guests, for your continued support even while our doors have been closed,” the acknowledgement said. “You are a part of The Mai-Kai story, and we’re humbled by the outpouring of love and concern we’ve received. Rest assured, we are doing all we can to restore this beloved local institution — our family’s three-generation legacy — to its former splendor and beyond.”
The news resoundingly dashed all fears of a corporate takeover – or worse, the fate of a bulldozer. To the contrary, it appears that The Mai-Kai will return fully intact. “We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the announcement said. “We’re excited to bring back The Mai-Kai better than ever before — and for you to be a special part of it!”
We won’t receive a reopening date until the restoration and repairs are nearing completion, but a member of the Thornton ownership team said during The Hukilau a week before the announcement that we could be back inside the historic doors in eight to 12 months. Kulani Thornton Gelardi also foreshadowed the big news by saying that the guest areas of the restaurant will remain “85 to 90 percent the way it is now.” Gelardi, daughter of family matriarch Mireille Thornton, said they “want to make sure the building can exist for another 64 years.”
Speaking to the crowd at the “Save Paradise Party” outside the entrance to The Mai-Kai on Sept. 18, Gelardi promised that “we will reopen,” adding that guests won’t notice much changed “when you walk in that door.” She also spoke of her family, and how much it means to pass along the business to her children and grandchildren.
The news on the ownership change was supposed to take place during the annual Tiki weekender that draws devotees to Fort Lauderdale and The Mai-Kai from around the world. But the ink wasn’t dry on the million-dollar deal until the following week, so the official announcement was delayed.
More details were unveiled Sept. 29 in an official announcement on The Mai-Kai’s official website: “This strategic joint venture will resurrect the renowned Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, the most unique dining and entertainment experience in South Florida since opening its doors over 6 decades ago.”
New owners ‘humbled’ and ‘honored’ to be able ‘preserve the legacy” of The Mai-Kai
The announcement introduces the new owners, led by Fuller – a Miami real estate and hospitality executive. “We are humbled to have been selected and honored to have the opportunity to restore this iconic landmark,” Fuller is quoted as saying. “We are committed to working with the family to preserve the legacy and expand upon its rich history for generations to come.”
Fuller co-founded Barlington Group in 2004 and Mad Room Hospitality in 2014. “We look forward to working with the Thornton family and Mad Room Hospitality, in doing the same with The Mai-Kai so that many more generations can enjoy this one-of-a-kind, beloved South Florida institution,” he said.
Similar to Ball and Chain, The Mai-kai is “truly is an iconic venue, not just for South Florida but for the United States and the world,” Fuller told Miami TV news outlet NBC 6. “It’s an opportunity to really preserve that legacy and that heritage.”
The Barlington and Mad Room Hospitality team, backed by investors, will assume majority ownership and management responsibilities. Their main focus will be on modernizing and streamlining the kitchen and back-of-house operations, not changing the style or look of the restaurant that remains chock full of vintage art and design flourishes, along with many South Seas artifacts collected by original owner Bob Thornton.
The decision to sell a controlling interest in The Mai-Kai to the Miami group did not come lightly. “We received interest from several investors wanting to partner with us in reopening The Mai-Kai,” Gelardi said in the website announcement. “We ultimately decided to select Bill Fuller and his companies because of their passion and commitment to maintain the authenticity and legacy of The Mai-Kai.”
Gelardi added: “We are very excited for this partnership and eagerly anticipate reopening our doors and welcoming back our loyal fan base to enjoy our delicious food, tropical drinks, thrilling entertainment, and unique ambiance that transports visitors to the South Seas.”
The website does not offer a firm timetable, however, stating that the “pending reopening date is scheduled to be announced after the restoration and repairs are complete.” One look at the state of the world today gives us a clue as to why the timeline will likely remain fluid. News reports are filled with stories documenting supply-chain disruptions, labor shortages, inflated costs and various other woes.
The repairs and renovations are challenging, but they should be manageable considering the team that has been assembled. The new joint venture gives The Mai-Kai a solid foundation and very capable partners with which to build a new future.
The Mai-Kai cost new partners $7.5M with renovations expected to boost value to $16M
The deal was backed by American National Bank, a Broward County community bank that provided debt financing. It includes a complete real estate transfer to the new ownership group, a transaction “in excess of $16 million, including artwork, intellectual property and future improvements to the business,” the website announcement says.
This is far more than public records indicated The Mai-Kai was valued at, which speaks volumes for the historical significance that isn’t always reflected in simplistic property appraisals. Property records show the building valued at a minimum of $3.97 million and the property valued at $570,000. The 2.69 acres fronting Federal Highway, north of Oakland Park Boulevard and south of Commercial Boulevard, includes a 150-space parking lot abutted by a bank and several furniture showrooms.
When the owners of The Mai-Kai announced in December 2020 that the historic restaurant and the several acres of land the mid-century marvel has occupied since 1956 were possibly for sale, the first reaction from most longtime customers was shock and fear.
Shock that the seemingly indestructible Tiki temple had been taken down, not by the coronavirus pandemic or hurricane-force winds, but by a vicious rainstorm that caused irrecoverable damage to the kitchen that was beyond the capacity of the family-run operation to fix. And fear that the announcement that the owners were seeking partners (or buyers) meant the end of the world’s most well-preserved example of a Polynesian supper club on the grandest of scales.
They flooded social media channels to commiserate, but those emotions did not lead to resignation or despair. Rather, it lit a fire under the legions of followers that had come to love and cherish The Mai-Kai over its many decades of operation.
UPDATE:‘Save The Mai-Kai’ petition tops 10,000 signatures
Primed by the don’t-just-sit-there ethos of the pandemic, these passionate boosters quickly turned their frustration into action. The most shining example of this united front of support can be found in a petition posted on Change.org on Jan. 23. After just two days, it topped 2,600 signatures. Three weeks later, the “Save The Historic Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show” petition was closing in on 10,000 signees. It passed that mark on Feb. 22 and has a new goal of 15,000.
The petition is aimed at Mayor Jane Bolin of Oakland Park, the Fort Lauderdale suburb that has always been an ally of its most famous business. Also named is Broward County Commissioner Lamar Fisher, whose district includes the restaurant that faces Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) just a few miles from the area’s famous beach.
It urges supporters to sign the online petition to let the officials “know that you don’t want to lose this iconic fixture that makes Oakland Park a global tourist destination and revenue source for so many.” On top of the signatures, more than 270 people took the time to post comments, lamenting the potential loss of a beloved part of their lives.
“The Mai Kai is an icon of authentic Americana in Fort Lauderdale, a place that visitors from across the U.S. and from abroad expect to find in this city – because there is nothing like it anywhere else,” wrote author Sven Kirsten, who featured the restaurant in The Book of Tiki, his influential treatise on Tiki culture.
For others, it was very personal. Holly Kriss wrote: “This is an important cultural landmark which must be saved at any cost! One of the reasons we moved permanently to FL was because of the MaiKai!!” Added Kathryn Pease: “My family and friends go to the Fort Lauderdale area specifically to go to the Mai-Kai.”
Julie Perkins summed up the feelings of many perfectly: “The Mai Kai is historically important architecturally and culturally. It is no hyperbole to say that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Other tiki restaurants exist, but very few have been in operation for over 50 years, and none with the combination of architecture, live show and gardens that attract visitors from around the world as the Mai Kai does. My family and I visit Ft. Lauderdale from Texas once or twice a year solely because of the Mai Kai.”
Fans gather on Facebook to offer support, share experiences
In addition to the petition, a new “Save the Mai-Kai” group exploded on Facebook, gathering more than 730 like-minded members in just two days and 1,400 four days after forming on Jan. 21. It’s now nearing 2,000 members and has become the site of shared emotions, from angst to despair to hope. Many take the opportunity to share family photos of their trips to The Mai-Kai, some from decades ago.
The description says the purpose of the group “is for tiki fans worldwide to band together and see what we can do to save this incredible treasure.” The group’s only rules are “Be civil” and “Be respectful.”
By all accounts, members are not just respectful but also reverential and reflective. One member shared a photo of his parents enjoying cocktails at The Mai-Kai in 1962, noting that “57 years later I finally went in 2019. Not sure why I waited so long to go.”
On April 20, The Hukilau announced that its 19th annual Tiki weekender scheduled for June 3-7 in Fort Laduerdale was being postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. In its place will be a series of events across the country aimed at raising money for Tiki bars devastated by shutdowns. Click the link below for more info.
Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber, famously came up with the idea of a lavish and immersive lounge featuring South Pacific themes and Caribbean cocktails in the 1930s. But it took two upstart restaurateurs and one of Beach’s top bartenders to take the Tiki concept to a whole new level when they opened The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale in 1956.
At The Hukilau, set for June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale, find out how the combination of the insightful ownership of Bob and Jack Thornton along with the mixology skills of former Don the Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine set a standard of tropical cocktail excellence that has stood the test of time for more than 60 years.
Sticking closely to Beach’s groundbreaking secret recipes, but putting their own more modern and accessible spin on them, the brothers and their head bartender envisioned a menu of some 50 elaborate libations that endure and are beloved to this day under the continued ownership of Bob Thornton’s family.
Learn how The Mai-Kai still follows Don the Beachcomber’s procedures and standards that were created nearly 90 years ago to maintain the mystery and allure of the modern tropical cocktail in the restaurant’s secret back bars.
Join Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog and some very special guests for an exploration of the passing of the torch from Donn Beach to the Thornton brothers, and the key role of Licudine in keeping these historic cocktails alive and thriving.
The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk about “Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon” during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled.
A big thanks to sponsor Lemon Hart & Son rum and brand ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis for all the assistance, including the photos below plus the promo materials featured at the event as well as a special Blackpool spiced rum package that was presented to a lucky charity raffle winner. The raffle raised $275 for the Humane Society of Broward County.
The event kicked off at 4 p.m. with an extra hour of happy hour that included our talk in The Molokai bar. There was a full house of close to 100 people on hand for the 30-minute presentation, plus two sample cocktails featuring Lemon Hart’s two traditional Demerara rums.
Lemon Hart 151 is a legendary Tiki cocktail ingredient and one of the world’s most distinctive rums. The Mai-Kai features it in seven of its most flavor-packed (and strong) cocktails, including the Jet Pilot and Zombie. Guests at the Jan. 19 event were treated to a mini version of the 151 Swizzle, a classic that showcases the rich and smoky overproof rum.
As a special treat, we also sampled the long-lost Demerara Float, perhaps the best of all the drinks from the 1956 menu that have been retired over the decades. It’s served only at special events, so it was a unique opportunity to try this Don the Beachcomber creation (originally known as the Demerara Dry Float) using Lemon Hart’s 80-proof rum, aka Original 1804.
Attendees received my handy checklist documenting all The Mai-Kai cocktails featuring Lemon Hart 151 and Hamilton 86, with the strong warning that I don’t advise trying all 13 in one sitting. Or two. Or three. Take your time and savor them. RELATED: See all the cocktails featuring Demerara rum at The Mai-Kai
Here are some nuggets of info from the 30-minute talk:
Mahalo to everyone who turned out to our talk on Lemon Hart and Demerara rum, plus all the festivities at The Mai-Kai Takeover from the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. The rum raffle raised $275 for the Humane Society of Broward County.
The Atomic Grog is joining forces with the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled for a special talk at The Mai-Kai on Saturday, Jan. 19: “Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon.” This event is sold out!
Here’s the schedule: 4 p.m. – Early entry for happy hour in The Molokai bar. Meet and greet, Demerara rum discussion and cocktails. 5 p.m. – Seating for dinner. * Advance dinner show tickets include early entry and sample cocktails. Happy hour tickets were also offered separately. * Facebook event
Attendees will enjoy two sample cocktails featuring sponsor Lemon Hart & Son rum, there will be a raffle to win a bottle of rum, plus an assortment of free goodies.
Everyone who bought tickets or RSVP’d will have their names listed at the door. Early entry and the sample drinks are included for those who signed up for dinner. For those attending happy hour only, there will be a $15 charge for the Demerara rum drinks, which will include a “lost cocktail” from the 1956 menu that is rarely served.
Among the topics we’ll cover: * What is Demerara Rum? * The History of Demerara Rum and Lemon Hart. * Tiki arrives with Don the Beachcomber. * The Mai-Kai, Mariano Licudine and mid-century Tiki. * Mixology magic: Demerara Rum’s greatest hits. * Lemon Hart at The Mai-Kai: Yesterday and today. Brand ambassador Miles Maximillian Vrahimis will also be on hand to answer questions.
If you’re not attending the dinner show, feel free to hang out for the remainder of happy hour and we’ll continue to discuss the finer points of Demerara Rum and The Mai-Kai’s historic cocktails. For a little background, check out this deep dive on the history of this distinctive rum: * Rums from Guyana star in The Mai-Kai’s classic cocktails
Updated Feb. 8, 2018
The Hukilau gave its loyal fans a New Year’s treat by announcing an expanded lineup for the East Coast’s largest Tiki-themed event, giving its regular “villagers” early access and discounts on tickets. The general public can now join the party at the 17th annual mash-up of Polynesian Pop and cocktail culture.
Here are the highlights of the announcement, sent via email and posted on the official website. I also spoke directly with the event’s owner and co-organizer, Richard Oneslager, to get all the scoop on 2018. NEW: As of Feb. 8, this preview is now updated with the late January announcement.
Party like it’s 2009: Los Straitjackets (left) will headline The Hukilau for a second time, while The Intoxicators will make their 13th appearance at the Tiki party in Fort Lauderdale. (Photos from The Hukilau 2009)
PREVIEW: The Hukilau 2018 highlights
* MUSIC: More headlining bands. The 2018 event will include some of the world’s top surf and exotica bands, including Los Straitjackets, The Madeira, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quintet and The Martian Denny Orchestra. Villagers will also be thrilled to see the return of The Intoxicators, who missed 2017 after 12 straight appearances. Other performers include The Exotics, Black Flamingos, Czarna Wolgastar, The Royal Pacifics, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, and The Hukilau’s one and only emcee during its previous 16 years, the ubiquitous King Kukulele. Look for more bands to be announced, along with special guest DJs. Bands will perform on all five days in various venues. [More details below]
* BARS: 12 Tiki pop-ups. Seven of last year’s 10 acclaimed bar teams are returning, joined by five new Tiki-themed pop-ups from around the world setting up shop all over Pier 66 at special events, tastings, and classes. Due to popular demand, a second afternoon pool party with complimentary cocktails has been added to the schedule. Back for more more rum and cocktails are bartenders from Dirty Dick (Paris), Flask & Cannon (Jacksonville), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Nu Lounge Bar (Italy), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), Pagan Idol (San Francisco), and S.O.S. Tiki Bar (Atlanta). Coming on board for 2018 are Death Or Glory (Delray Beach), Foundation Bar (Milwaukee), Frankie’s Tiki Room (Las Vegas), Tonga Hut (Los Angeles), and Trailer Happiness (London). [More details below]
Rum ambassador Ian Burrell presents a symposium at The Hukilau 2017 (Atomic Grog photo). He’ll be joined in 2018 by cocktail pioneer and influential musician/DJ Brother Cleve (Photo by Audrey Harrer).
* INDUSTRY VIPS: Cocktail influencer makes debut. Boston’s Brother Cleve will bring his vast knowledge of cocktails and music to The Hukilau for the first time. This prime mover of the craft cocktail scene in the 1990s and former member of the groundbreaking band Combustible Edison will present a symposium, make a special DJ appearance, and also have his own bar in the Tiki Tower Takeover event. In addition, rum ambassador Ian Burrell returns from London for a second straight year to host a symposium, two cocktail classes and a special rum tasting. [More details below]
* TIKI TOWER TAKEOVER: Signature cocktail party expands, returns for Round 4. Held on Thursday night in the hotel’s revolving Pier Top Lounge, the fourth edition of one of Tiki’s most exclusive events is likely to sell out just as fast as the previous three. Tickets are limited to passholders, so act now. The lineup will grow from four to five pop-ups (featuring six different bar teams), including returning participants Three Dots and a Dash and Daniele Dalla Pola of Nu Lounge Bar. Scotty Schuder of Dirty Dick also returns, teaming up with Pagan Idol for a special two-bar mash-up. The final two pop-ups will feature the craft cocktail stylings of Brother Cleve and the crew from the U.K.’s Trailer Happiness. [More details below]
* MERCHANDISE: Works of top Tiki artists on display. The official artists for The Hukilau 2018 are Joe Vitale and Donella Vitale, whose work can already been seen on the website and promo artwork. The couple is based in Orlando, where they both work for Disney in addition to being among the most recognizable artists of the Tiki revival. Fun fact: The Vitales are among a select few who have attended The Hukilau all 16 years, along with emcee King Kukulele and co-founder Tim “Swanky” Glazner. Villagers will get first shot at the event merchandise, including the 17th annual mug produced by Eekum Bookum. There will also be special items for some villagers, including a South Seas passholder pendant by Crazy Al Evans.
Bar teams from Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor (left) and Atlanta’s S.O.S. Tiki Bar will return for this year’s expanded Rum Island Pool Party at The Hukilau 2018. (Atomic Grog photos)
* ENHANCEMENTS: Feedback from villagers. The Hukilau listened to its attendees and will implement quite a few changes: Extended hours and a second pool party on Saturday (in addition to Friday) including live music, more bars and bands (see above), a “Villager’s Lounge” tent to “meet and hang with old friends and new,” a party featuring all exotica music, and more food trucks.
* MORE SPECIAL EVENTS: Symposiums, Medusirena Marina swimshows. Symposiums, craft workshops, Okole Maluna cocktail classes, hula lessons, plus more new additions were announced in late January. These include three swimshows featuring Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid in her home at the nearby Wreck Bar in the B Ocean Resort, plus symposiums on Disney’s Trader Sam’s Tiki bar concept and the heyday of Tiki on television. Craft workshops will feature a trio of noted Tiki artists, while cocktail classes will include bartenders and experts from across the country. UPDATE:The Hukilau 2018 symposiums to include Disney imagineer, Tiki on TV
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 / 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.
In a special 10-minute ceremony during a Dec. 13 public hearing, the Broward County Commission declared Dec. 28th to be “Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show Day” in the county. Owners, management and performers attended the signing of the proclamation at the commission chambers in Fort Lauderdale.
The proclamation reads: “Be it proclaimed by the board of county commissioners of Broward County, Florida: That the Board hereby designates Wednesday December 28, 2016 as “MAI-KAI RESTAURANT AND POLYNESIAN SHOW DAY” in Broward County, offers its gratitude for 60 years of historical hospitality.”
The proclamation was presented by Commissioner Chip LaMarca, who was then given a lei by owner Mireille Thornton. Mireille’s son, managing owner Dave Levy, was also on hand, along with director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist. Two Mai-Kai performers, guitarist Kainalu and dancer Hokulani, then serenaded Mayor Barbara Sharief and the commission in what may have been the county’s first traditional Polynesian performance during a public hearing.
* See a photo of the proclamation
* Watch the video of the public hearing (fast forward to the 4:00:00 mark)
It’s a testament to a restaurant’s historic status and popularity when not one, but two book authors are scheduled speak at an anniversary event produced by a longtime supporter. When The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale turns 60 on Dec. 28, the annual Customer Celebration Party will be enhanced to include two special presentations in the acclaimed Polynesian palace’s main showroom, home of the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
SPECIAL EVENT: The Mai-Kai’s 60th Anniversary Symposia Series & Customer Celebration Party – Wednesday, Dec. 28. Featuring presentations by authors Sven Kirsten and Tim “Swanky” Glazner brought to you by Tiki Kiliki Productions. Plus enjoy dinner shows, live music, and food and drink specials all night. Doors open at 1:30, symposia begin at 2, happy hour at 3:30, signings at 4, live music at 6, dinner shows at 7 and 9:30. Symposia tickets are sold out. For dinner reservations, call (954) 563-3272. [Facebook event]
Named to the National Register of Historic Places two years ago, The Mai-Kai is the last remaining example of the classic mid-20th century Polynesian supper club. Indeed, the restaurant’s many fans consider it the Tiki mecca. Since the venerable Critiki website began compiling its user ratings into an annual list two years ago, The Mai-Kai has been honored as the No. 1 Tiki bar in the world two years straight. The Mai-Kai was also just voted the best Tiki bar by readers of SouthFlorida.com. [See video]
One of those fans, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White, is producing a special Symposia Series for the 60th anniversary that features two authors who have written extensively about The Mai-Kai and Polynesian pop culture: Sven Kirsten and Tim “Swanky” Glazner. It’s that kind of reverence that makes The Mai-Kai a special place for many.
History symposia kick off party in legendary showroom
“The origin story of The Mai-Kai – its architecture, decor, and its influence on Polynesian pop on the American East Coast and beyond – makes it one of the greatest Tiki temples of all time,” wrote noted pop culture historian and author Kirsten in the forward to Glazner’s book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, released in September by Schiffer.
“Before the era of theme parks, this place showed the way,” Glazner wrote in his debut work. “It weaves its magic, if you let it. It is a place out of time: ancient, mysterious, lush, and relaxing.” The California-based Kirsten and Tennessee-based Glazner will make the pilgrimage to The Mai-Kai on Dec. 28 to host symposia on the restaurant’s unique and fascinating history.
The party starts early: Doors open at 1:30 p.m. for the presentations, which will include slideshows of vintage photos and artwork, plus a raffle for special giveaways. Your ticket also gets you early entry into The Mai-Kai for an unencumbered look at all the dining rooms and Tiki garden; plus appetizers and tropical drinks, including three special “lost cocktails” from the early days of the restaurant.
Lost cocktails announced
On Dec. 28 only, a special menu will feature three drinks that appeared on the original 1956 menu but were retired over the years. Guests can enjoy the spicy and deadly Last Rites, the sweet and sour Impatient Virgin and the rich and rummy Demerara Float.
Like many of the cocktails at The Mai-Kai, they can be traced back to topical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, who developed the faux Polynesian style in the 1930s in Hollywood, Calif. The Chicago location of the Beachcomber chain was a huge influence on The Mai-Kai, and many of its key employees came to Florida to work when the restaurant opened. The cocktail menu was spearheaded by bartender Mariano Licudine, a 17-year veteran who got his start at the flagship Hollywood location. He retired from The Mai-Kai in 1979, but his influence is still felt today.
At 2 p.m., Kirsten will present for the first time his research into the origins and history of The Mai-Kai’s iconic Tahitian cannibal carvings, which have served as the restaurant’s logo in one form or another since opening day. Founding owners Bob and Jack Thornton “showed themselves as standard-bearers of the coming Tiki generation by adopting these figures as The Mai-Kai’s trademark,” Kirsten wrote Tiki Pop (Taschen), his 2014 magnum opus.
In “The Tahitian Cannibal Carvings: The Logo Tikis of the Mai-Kai,” Kirsten will reveal how this specific Tiki design dates back to the early days of Polynesian pop, then marked the beginning of the Tiki period. This “cannibal trio” became the logo Tikis of important Polynesian restaurants across America, reproduced in a multitude of forms and materials. This will be a rare opportunity to see the influential Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki (2000) and Tiki Modern (2007), in South Florida. He last did a presentation at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau in 2012.
A 3 p.m., it’s Glazner’s turn to take the stage in the showroom, home of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue and part of the original A-frame structure built in 1956. Glazner, a longtime Mai-Kai fan and Tiki enthusiast, has been collecting memorabilia and stories from longtime and current employees for more than a decade. The resulting labor of love, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, is a lavish 176-page hardcover book featuring 440 color and black-and-white images, many revealed for the first time.
He’ll treat guests with a new symposium, “The Mai-Kai: Then and Now,” a look at how the restaurant has changed since it opened in 1956. Just announced: Glazner will be joined by a special guest, former Florida state Representative Randy Avon Jr., who will share first-hand stories of growing up at The Mai-Kai. Avon’s mother, Pualani Mossman Avon, ran the The Mai-Kai’s gift shop in the 1960s after performing in her family’s pioneering cultural Lalani Village in Hawaii. The song Lovely Hula Hands was written about her. Family members included singers George Kainapau and Alfred Apaka. Randy was also Southeast manager for Rums of Puerto Rico, which had a close relationship with The Mai-Kai and the signature Derby Daiquiri cocktail.
Glazner has been doing unique presentations at events across the country, including The Hukilau in June, Tiki Oasis in August, and a book release party at The Mai-Kai in September. His talks have covered topics such as how Don the Beachcomber influenced the Thornton brothers; the mastery of mixologist Mariano Licudine; the stories behind the iconic Mystery Drink, including its appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show; and the glamorous women who worked as Mystery Girls and Molokai Girls. His rare footage of Carson receiving the drink and meeting a Mystery Girl on national television is priceless.
All of the above – including Pualani Mossman Avon – are the focus of chapters in the book, which Glazner will be signing after the presentation at 4 p.m. in The Mai-Kai Trading Post, as the gift shop is known. Kirsten will also sign copies of his books, or any items that attendees may want to have autographed.
Tiki Kiliki says she’s producing these special symposia as her gift to The Mai-Kai. The co-creator, co-founder, producer and organizer of The Hukilau has been one of the restaurant’s biggest supporters over the past 15 years. “I’m so excited about the 60th anniversary of my favorite place on earth,” Tiki Kiliki said. “This will be the first anniversary I’ve attended in person and although every visit is dear to me, I think this one will be a bit more special with all the Tikiphiles coming from all over the country.”
60th anniversary specials: Extended happy hour, dinner show deal
At 3:30, The Molokai bar will open 90 minutes earlier than normal for an extended happy hour, which runs until 7. If you miss out on tickets, or can’t attend the early symposia, you can still come to the book-signing and early happy hour starting at 3:30 and running until 7 in The Molokai bar. The lost cocktails will be included in the happy hour, along with The Mai-Kai’s extensive cocktail and appetizer menus.
Like all Wednesdays, you can also enjoy two cocktails at 50 percent off all night: The Barrel O’ Rum and Planters Punch. Another regular feature in the bar, guitarist-vocalist Rose Marie will perform island and other classic music all night beginning at 6. Due to space limitations, however, there will be no regular Wednesday sushi buffet.
There will also be a $60 dinner-and-show special in honor of the anniversary. A special prix fixe menu will be available that includes the Polynesian Islander Revue (a $15 value), plus select appetizers and entrées. You can also see the show and order anything off the extensive menu ala carte. The dinner shows often sell out, so be sure to reserve you seat now by calling (954) 563-3272. Shows are scheduled for 7 and 9:30 p.m., with seating typically an hour beforehand.
Before dinner, there’s no better place to grab a cocktail than The Molokai, praised by such well-regarded Tiki bar owners and authors Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29 in New Orleans) and Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco ). Both have written books that praise The Mai-Kai as the “mothership” of the current Tiki bar revival.
Aside from the tiny Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, “The Mai-Kai is the last place on Earth where you can still sample a Don the Beachcomber drink more or less as it was prepared 70 years ago,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari (2007). An updated 10th anniversary edition of the influential book, which includes an entire chapter on Mariano Licudine and The Mai-Kai, will be released in 2017.
In the epilogue of this year’s most celebrated Tiki cocktail book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki, Cate wrote: “The Mai-Kai will take you back to dining as event, experience, and escape. Today, you can still stand at the entrance, or during the show, and look at the faces of first-time visitors as their eyes widen, mouths agape at the spectacle.”
“It will come as no surprise that The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar, with its heavy emphasis on the nautical while remaining true to Tiki tradition, was an inspiration cornerstone for me,” Cate wrote. Even without the expansive restaurant and grounds that surround it, The Molokai is one of the most distinctive Tiki bars in the world. On Dec. 28, like every day, happy hour will run until 7, featuring 50 percent off nearly all of the 50 signature tropical cocktails that have as much history as the restaurant, perhaps more.
Historic cocktails, eclectic food to match the stunning decor
“While The Mai-Kai’s food menu has adapted to changing culinary tastes, its drink menu, including the quality ingredients, has not changed since 1956,” says the official page on the National Register of Historic Places Program website. “As a result, the restaurant is renowned for its expert tropical drinks. … The Mai-Kai has a permanent place in a holy trio of old-school holdouts dedicated to the careful construction of their libations.”
The robust food offerings are also half-price during the happy hour, which is annually rated among the best in South Florida. The appetizer menu of traditional pu-pus (egg rolls, crab rangoon, soups, salads and sushi) pair perfectly with the signature cocktails. And new chef Mark Rivera has added a creative menu of signature tapas (charred octopus; fish tacos; duck, wagyu beef and pork belly sliders) that takes finger food to the next level.
While it doesn’t date back to 1956, The Molokai fits perfectly into the The Mai-Kai’s richly detailed environment and has its own fascinating back-story. With water cascading down the windows to simulate a rainstorm and elaborate nautical decor, it’s designed to make you feel like you’re in an 1800s Pacific seaport. This is not by accident. The current Molokai was designed during a 1971 remodeling using much of the actual props from the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlin Brando.
The items were acquired at auction when the MGM prop department closed in 1970. This includes not only the large set pieces on the walls and ceilings, but also other details such as model ships. MGM’s longtime prop master was even hired to personally make sure the rigging and other elements were installed as authentically as possible. Much of the bar’s decor remains exactly the same to this day.
Family, loyalty are cornerstones of The Mai-Kai culture
After happy hour, don’t miss The Mai-Kai’s signature Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in 1961, it’s still designed and choreographed by owner Mireille Thornton, widow of founding owner Bob Thornton and a former dancer in the original show. Mireille takes annual trips to the Pacific islands to research and come up with costume and theming ideas for new shows each year.
On Dec. 28, you’ll be able to see one of the first performances of the 2017 show. An all new show will be rehearsed the week before and make its official debut that night, said Mireille’s son, Dave Levy, who has guided The Mai-Kai as managing owner since his stepfather’s death in 1989. It remains a true family affair, with Mireille’s daughter Kulani Gelardi serving as the third partner and CFO.
Key managers, such as director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist and general manager Kern Mattei, have been with The Mai-Kai for decades. Mattei followed in the footsteps of his father, Kern Mattei Sr., working out of the same office. One employee has been around almost as long as The Mai-Kai itself. Angel Vega was supposed to slow down after he was honored for 50 years of service at the 2013 anniversary party, but you can still often find him behind the maître d’ stand.
On any given night, the more than 100 employees work their magic amid the controlled chaos, giving guests a sense of what true hospitality means. What other Tiki bar supplies you with hot towels to clean your hands in the most civilized manner? In another tradition from Don the Beachcomber and the early Tiki temples, both The Molokai and main bar that serves the dining rooms are behind closed doors. Bartenders work in secrecy, keeping their recipes close to the vest but also providing a total escape for guests who are immersed in the Polynesian paradise. Drinks are served by sarong-clad maidens in The Molokai, well-dressed servers in the dining rooms.
Take a tour of the lavish grounds, distinctive decor
Seats for the show include the main area in front of the stage, known as the Garden, along with four other distinct dining rooms named for South Seas islands (New Guinea, Tonga, Hawaii and Moorea). There are eight total dining areas, including the secluded Tahiti and Samoa rooms, plus the outdoor Lanai and tables scattered throughout the Tiki garden. The Mai-Kai seats 500 for dinner, half of those in the showroom, plus another 150 in The Molokai. To say it’s expansive is an understatement.
* Related: Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen
If you’re there early or late, take the time to stroll through all the rooms and paths that wind through the waterfalls and lush foliage of the garden. The entire lighting system was recently upgraded to add LED bulbs, which provide more consistent and reliable performance. Nothing about the look was modernized, however. Look up in the main dining room to the giant A-frame and marvel at the floats and other vintage lighting. It’s one of many seamless modernizations The Mai-Kai has made over the years to stay vital and remain one of the area’s most popular destination dining experiences.
Chef Rivera has revitalized the dinner menu, modernizing the plating and adding new twists to the classics. But many traditions remain, including the Chinese ovens that you can spot on the walking path toward the back dining rooms and Lanai. Few other restaurants in the United States use these ancient high-temperate ovens to cook steak, ribs, duck and other meats.
There is eye candy in every room: The outrigger canoe hanging from the rafters in Moorea that Bob Thornton used to serenade Mireille on their honeymoon in her native Tahiti; the black velvet portrait of Mireille in the Tahiti room; the shrunken skulls and other vintage artifacts on display in the Samoa room; the mysterious velvet painting high on the wall in Tonga that dates back to 1956. Just like Disney World, there are intricately themed details every where you look, even the gift shop and ladies’ rest room, which both have an ornate Asian theme. (The gift shop was formerly a dining room named Bangkok.)
You can go behind the stage and see the indoor Tiki garden (featuring works of noted artists from yesterday and today). Most of the Tikis throughout the property were recast by Fort Lauderdale artist Will Anders from their original molds, though several massive vintage pieces by mid-century artist Barney West still proudly stand out front on the edge of Federal Highway on opposite ends of the property. Another tip: Don’t forget to take a walk along the sidewalk from north to south, where furniture stores have encroached on the surrounding area that was desolate when The Mai-Kai was built in 1956.
And be sure to stop at the porte-cochère to see three new Tikis carved in 2016 by contemporary Florida artists: Anders, Tom Fowner and Jeff Chouinard. Anders also contributed a 10-foot-tall Tiki dubbed King Kai to the outdoor garden, making the recent infusion of large stylized carvings the biggest since the 1960s. More evidence of today’s enthusiasts working hard to keep the traditions of The Mai-Kai alive for another 60 years.
* Related: ‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai
Authors dig deep into the The Mai-Kai’s history, mystery
It will be fascinating to learn more about the three cannibal icons, which have been depicted over the years in artwork on everything from menus, to coasters to advertising to the streetside sign. The three cannibal Tikis from The Mai-Kai’s original outdoor sign were brought out of storage and displayed at The Hukilau in 2008. They’re a direct link to Don the Beachcomber, which featured the Cannibal Room bar and trio of Tikis in the Chicago location in the 1940s and ’50s. This restaurant was a major inspiration for the Thornton brothers, who were Chicago natives.
Glazner’s symposium should be just as enlightening and entertaining. Beyond everything in his book, he has a wealth of information to share though his contacts with current and past employees, many of whom should be in attendance. It’s always great to see past performers, such as Toti Terorotua, who was part of the original revue and only recently retired. He performed in The Molokai during the book release party in September.
Glazner’s vast research also gives us insight into the first 15 years of The Mai-Kai, before a 1971 renovation that expanded the dining areas, added The Molokai in its current form and defined what the restaurant looks like today. “In the 1950s, Bob and Jack Thornton went on a buying trip all over the islands, and they bought literally tons of Oceanic art to decorate The Mai-Kai,” Glazner said during a walking tour at the September book release event. Up until the 1970s, a great deal of that artwork was in the restaurant. But after the renovations in 1971, they had to change their insurance policy, Glazner said.
When the insurance adjusters came into The Mai-Kai, Glazner said, they couldn’t believe the million dollars worth of Oceanic art, some of it in the open-air garden getting rained on. The cost of insurance went so high, most of the authentic decor was removed in 1974 and donated to Stanford University, the alma mater of the Thornton brothers. Some of it is also housed at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. It was last shown as a full exhibit there in 2010.
The Mai-Kai remains a priceless experience, a commodity whose value is beyond the comprehension of insurance adjusters. Glazner sums it up succinctly in his book: The Mai-Kai is “a place that opened over 60 years ago, built on an idea that started more than 80 years ago from a dream that is eternal … paradise.”
Exciting news this week for fans of The Mai-Kai with the release of new Tiki mugs and pre-orders for a long-awaited history book. News on The Art of Tiki event in South Beach includes a new rum sponsor and the return of last year’s champ. We recap events from N.Y.C. to L.A., including new Doug Horne Tiki mugs. Upcoming events include a tribute to Steve Crane, South Florida’s Polynesian Cultural Festival, and a new Trader Vic’s seminar. In other news, a tree crashes the party at VenTiki, plus Bacardi and Havana Club duke it out. Regular features spotlight eclectic artist Sam Gambino; groundbreaking exotica ensemble Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica; Brooklyn bar Fort Defiance; and online group Poly Hai. The Rum of the Week, Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva 15, is featured in the Pineapple Express cocktail.
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Note: For 2016, The Week in Tiki will remain bi-weekly, but we’ve simplified the schedule. Look for blogs recapping the first and second half of each month.
New Mai-Kai mugs released, history book coming in July
In December, a limited number of artist proofs were released and quickly sold out. The mug, which comes with its own pendant, pays tribute to the historic Polynesian Palace’s iconic Tikis. Tiki Diablo, aka Danny Gallardo, has previously created mugs that pay homage to memorable Tikis at The Mai-Kai in 2014 and 2015 (see story). He’ll also be crafting the official mug for the upcoming book on The Mai-Kai by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.
UPDATE: The book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, will be released Sept. 28. The 176-page hardcover book (11 inches wide by 8 1/2 inches high) is being issued by Schiffer Publishing. It’s available for pre-order online via Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Glazner will be hosting a release party and special events at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 17-18. Advance copies of the book will be available at the release party.
In the book, the longtime Mai-Kai historian reveals never-before-seen photos and stories that he’s gleaned from more than 13 years of research on the 59-year-old Tiki temple, which was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a fascinating story of the brash young men who in 1956 created The Mai-Kai for a million dollars, making it one of the most expensive restaurants of its day. By sparing no expense and creating a one-of-a kind Tiki paradise, Bob and Jack Thornton created an acclaimed playground of celebrities and playboys during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian Pop.
Glazner also spotlights the beautiful women who worked there, many who used the experience as a jumping-off point for adventure and fame. The book includes exclusive first-hand stories on more than 400 images, documenting not only The Mai-Kai but the history, allure, and enduring legacy of the original Tiki era. Focusing on 1955 to 1971, the book traces the genesis of the restaurant and its key employees back to Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber. Many of The Mai-Kai’s original key managers and employees came from the Beachcomber outpost in Chicago, where the Thorntons called home. This includes bartender Mariano Licudine, who created the acclaimed bar menu (based on Donn Beach’s original “rum rhapsodies”) that remains intact at The Mai-Kai today.