As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.
In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.
Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant.
While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.
Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.
The structural footprint of The Mai-Kai changed dramatically last month with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building, which will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and fully immersive tropical-themed parking lot, outdoor seating area and porte-cochère at the historic South Florida restaurant.
Amid the ruckus outside, the restoration efforts inside the main building advanced quietly but deliberately. Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and fellow Orlando-area artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed the New Guinea dining room, a vintage space that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening. They also restored the ceiling and walls near the Tonga dining room, and by the end of the month were full immersed in the Hawaii room.
Laser-focused on The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of custom lamps, they cranked out replicas and refurbished many originals created 50 years ago. After they finish, it will be impossible to tell which lamps are rebuilt and which are vintage, an over-arching theme of the restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, the back-of-house area was a total construction zone as crews prepared for the installation of a new bar and kitchen. Up on the roof, workers were busy sealing the main A-frame and working on new vents, along with the structures to hold the new air-conditioning system.
After electrical work was done, a painting crew put the finishing touches on the men’s restroom. Electricians continued an infrastructure overhaul, preparing for the upcoming installation of a new circuit breaker system.
It’s no surprise that April saw an acceleration of renovation work on multiple fronts. In March, The Mai-Kai officially began the $8.5 million project after three permits cleared the way for three major projects:
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing.
* Removal of the Bora Bora building.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen.
The repairs and refurbishments became necessary after the 26,000-square-foot restaurant suffered a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen in late October of 2020. The plans – which include both restoring the main building and upgrading and enhancing the parking lot and back of house – became clear after the founding Thornton family sold a majority interest to a new ownership team led by the Barlington Group and historic preservationist Bill Fuller.
The permit approvals restarted the roof thatching project in March. By April, thatching was completed on the porte-cochère as well as the A-frame roofs over the back dining rooms. All that remained was detailing and finishing work, which will happen later.
As April progressed, The Mai-Kai applied for three new permits that will keep projects moving quickly. On April 25, the city of Oakland Park issued a mechanical permit that will allow for the installation of the new kitchen. It won’t expire until Oct. 23, which fits in with the timeline we’re hearing about a reopening coming in the fall.
A mechanical permit for “fire suppression” was applied for in April, then issued in May This likely covers not only a new sprinkler system, but a fine-tuning off The Mai-Kai’s elaborate rooftop exhaust system that pulls smoke from the main showroom after the fire-dancers perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in the early 1960s, it’s the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).
There was no fancy groundbreaking or ribbon cutting, but March 6 was a significant date in the long journey toward the restoration and reimagination of The Mai-Kai, southeast Florida’s historic Polynesian restaurant. That’s when work officially began on three different projects that had been stalled for months awaiting building permits.
The city of Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee approved the site plan at a Jan. 26 meeting, but details remained to be ironed out as they made their way through the governmental process before permits could be issued. Committee approval was considered to be the final hurdle, so the wait to get started seemed interminable for the owners and staff, who have been planning the massive renovations for nearly a year while working on smaller restoration projects.
But even those projects became bogged down due to The Mai-Kai’s status as a local and national historic landmark. For example, work on replacing old thatched roofing, which began in late summer, had to stop in October and await multiple approvals. On Jan. 11, the city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the ambitious $8.5 million project.
That left the 10-member Development Review Committee, composed of officials from various departments and disciplines across the city, to weigh in and give the project a green light. The approval, also unanimous, ended up being a flashing red light for five weeks as the general contractor and others waited at the starting line, engines idling.
The three long-awaited permits finally came through on Friday, March 3, joining an earlier approval that will together enable The Mai-Kai to move full-steam ahead in an effort to re-open the beloved restaurant in late 2023. It has been closed since Oct. 25, 2020, when a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen rendered the 26,000-square-foot restaurant unable to serve diners for the first time in its 66-year history.
After more than two years of downtime, not a minute was wasted in kick-starting work on multiple fronts last week. While you may not yet notice anything new as you drive by the 2.7 acres at 3599 N. Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) northwest of coastal Fort Lauderdale, there’s a lot going on inside and to the rear of the property. Work started on Monday, March 6, and by the time I visited on Thursday, March 9, the property was abuzz with activity. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind” since the permits were approved, said manager Kern Mattei, who deals with most of the on-site logistics. “We’ve been super busy.”
Guests picking up take-out cocktails this week should be able to get a peek at some of the action. Just be aware that construction may require the closure of some areas of the parking lot, so keep an eye out for updated directions and those ubiquitous orange cones.
Mattei gave me an overview of The Mai-Kai’s current state along with plans for projects relating to all three permits, graciously allowing me a peek behind the scenes on March 9. Many of the photos above and below were taken during that visit. Here’s a synopsis of the three permits issued March 3 and the projects they encompass:
* Removal of the Bora Bora building. An essential first step in the total reimagination of The Mai-Kai’s entry and parking lot experience, this will be the first project to be completed. Mattei said that the demolition job is out for bid by the general contractor. Once a firm is selected, the removal of the building will likely happen quickly, since the permit expires May 2. In the meantime, Mattei said, he and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller are overseeing the removal of all salvageable pieces from the historic building, which dates back to the early 1970s and has been vacant since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Once the building is removed, the massive landscaping project can begin.
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing. Already underway since last year but now four months behind schedule after work was halted, this project was quickly re-started last week. Workers on hydraulic lifts were busy shoring up the crossbeams of the soaring A-frame structure. Allsmiller will lead an effort to repair the stylized extension on the peak of the A-frame, restoring it back to its original design. Realistic synthetic thatch approved by the city will then cover the entire roof. The thatching project will also include The Mai-Kai’s massive main A-frame, along with the two smaller peaked roofs over the back dining rooms that are nearly complete. Wood, thatch, and other materials were already on site March 9, awaiting installation by South Florida’s Tiki King. The porte-cochère permit doesn’t expire until Aug. 30. A separate re-roofing permit is “in review,” the step before approval. The previous roofing permit expired March 2.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen. Also running through Aug. 30, this over-arching permit allows The Mai-Kai to install a temporary kitchen in space that onece contained back-of-house offices. A permit that was issued last May (expiring Aug. 8) covers the installation of a new air-conditioning system on all of the completed roofs. Steel beams that will go onto the roof to support the AC units are ready and waiting, painted to blend in with the decor. The general contractor was working in the old staff locker rooms March 9, peeling off the drywall and ceiling. I did not get a look at this, since it was a hard-hat area, but we know from the plans that this will be the location of the new permanent back bar. The provisional kitchen is a stopgap measure to get the restaurant up and running as quickly as possible, albeit with a limited menu. The buildout of a full kitchen will be part of Phase 2, estimated to be a year or more down the road. The second phase will also include the event center, which will be built next to the kitchen in what was once storage space.
Tiki fans packed a conference room early on the first day of Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend on Jan. 20, eager to hear and see details of the upcoming multimillion-dollar refurbishments planned for the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida. The Atomic Grog was happy to oblige, presenting exclusive photos, renderings and video of the project that is poised to shift into high gear in the coming months.
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward sprinkled the presentation on the 225-seat room’s large screen with new images and architectural plans. Appearing via pre-recorded video, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller took viewers on 10-minute walk-through of his work in The Molokai bar, one of the restaurant’s oldest dining rooms, plus a stroll through the gardens. The video received a great response after the interior designer and craftsman urged attendees to enjoy their Mai-Kai cocktails after the presentation.
Other upcoming projects were detailed for the first time, including new Mai-Kai mugs and other merchandise by contemporary Tiki artists, plus a signature rum blend from two historic Caribbean distilleries. After digesting all the news, the approximately 175 guests were invited to quench their thirst with authentic Mai-Kai cocktails in a poolside VIP lounge for a meet-and-greet event.
The fourth Inuhele event was held Jan. 20-22 at the Atlanta Sheraton Downtown, just two blocks from the historic Trader Vic’s location, where many attendees paid a nightly pilgrimage. Highlights included a wide array of presentations all three days, an authentic luau, rocking live bands, a marketplace featuring many top artists and craftspeople, daily room parties and special events, plus more. Check out our event preview for an overview of the diversity and creativity of Inuhele’s offerings. Event recap and more photos coming soon!
It was a pleasure to share all the latest exclusive information on The Mai-Kai refurbishment plans with an enthusiastic audience. It was the first presentation on the first day, and the line to enter the “Jungle Room” stretched down the hall and into the lobby.
Mahalo to Jonathan and Allison Chaffin and their expert staff for the great event. And okole maluna to hospitality director Lucky Munro and Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner for their help with the cocktails. The support staff at the presentation was also very gracious, helping us solve a few technical issues and get the event on track as fast as we could. We hope to see y’all next year!
Inuhele, which started in 2018 as the Atlanta Tiki home bar tour, means “cocktail journey.” So I thought it was only fitting to kick off the show by talking about my personal cocktail journey at The Mai-Kai. My fascination with the delicious drinks, and the Tiki revival in general, started there around 15 years ago and is still going strong. Go to The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide to see the results of this journey.
Past presentations at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai have included deep dives into the cocktails, the menu, and the restaurant’s historic rum collection. In 2022, we turned our attention on the blog to the massive renovation project, posting exclusive news and photos as work progressed. When the opportunity arose to share our insights at Inuhele, we jumped at the chance.
None of this would have been possible without the crucial cooperation and assistance of several key members of The Mai-Kai team who have be extremely helpful over the years with all of our coverage: General manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Also mentioned at the top of the presentation was the leader of the new ownership team, Bill Fuller, a founder of both real estate development firm Barlington Group and restaurant management group Mad Room Hospitality.
I thanked Fuller for having the vision to restore and reimagine The Mai-Kai, and for providing access and graciously answering all my questions as I continue to cover the most magical restaurant in the world.
CHAPTER 1 – The Legacy
While most Tikphiles in attendance knew quite a bit about the 66-year history of The Mai-Kai, we couldn’t discuss the significance of the current renovations without a brief tour through the past. Opened Dec. 28, 1956, in the small Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, The Mai-Kai became a local and national historic landmark in 2014.
The dining rooms were outfitted with authentic artifacts from Polynesia, along with much work by budding restaurant decor firm Oceanic Arts. Massive Tikis by legendary carver Barney West were installed in the early 1960s. Sadly, only one survives. But it’s due to be restored as part of the refurbishments.
The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue was the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing due to a roof collapse over the kitchen and back-of-house area. The show’s original bandleader, Toti Terorotua, came from Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and continued to perform until shortly before his death in 2020. Inuhele guests were treated to the sounds of Terorotua & His Tahitians, his band from the 1950s, before and after the presentation.
Launched in 1962, the stage show is poised for a comeback under the leadership of Mireille Thornton. She started as a dancer, soon became the show producer and choreographer, then married owner Bob Thornton. The family, led by daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi, remains part of the ownership team and will continue to run the restaurant and serve as its creative force.
The Mai Kai was already considered a landmark when it expanded in 1970. The $1 million project (see image above) included new dining rooms, lush landscaping of what is now the Tiki gardens, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that was compromised in October 2020. Also added were the kitchen’s rare Chinese wood-burning ovens, which were saved and will be relocated.
Also added: A redesign of The Molokai lounge using decor salvaged from the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The nautical theme extends to the entrance area and back of house. One of the bar’s signature features is windows that are covered in a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.
The 1970 additions would be the last major construction project at The Mai-Kai until 2022. For the next five decades, the restaurant cemented its reputation as the most grand Polynesian palace built during the mid 20th century.
CHAPTER 2: The Deluge
The Mai-Kai managed better than most during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. While indoor service shut down, cocktails and food were available to go, and the restaurant fully reopened after two months. But the old adage “when it rains, it pours” proved to be true (literally) when a massive storm hit in late October at the same time a pipe burst in a main sprinkler system line, leading to the collapse of the roof over the 1970s-era kitchen.
The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the 66-year-old restaurant one step closer to final approval.
In a nearly two-hour public hearing in the City Hall Commission Chambers and streamed online via Zoom, the board members OK’d The Mai-Kai’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” to make a wide range of changes to the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark. City code requires such an approval for work to proceed on “any alteration requiring a building permit which may change the exterior appearance of an individually designated historic building or structure.”
The approval came with a list of six recommendations by city staff that will still need to be adhered to. But those addenda to the plan likely won’t require a return to the full five-member board. After the meeting, the head of The Mai-Kai’s ownership group, Bill Fuller, told us that he was pleased that the city and board were able to “collaborate with us on the restoration plans.” He described the hearing as “very productive” and “the culmination of what The Mai-Kai will look like” when it reopens.
The overall plans are now headed to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee, which could give it the final go-ahead. This next step covers many other details not related to the historic status, such as parking, Fuller said in an interview Thursday. His team is eager to move forward “as quickly as possible,” he said.
The committee is scheduled the review the project at its Jan. 26 meeting. After that, it should be full-steam ahead for the renovation plans. “We’re going to be guns blazing to get it open,” Fuller said. The Mai-Kai has been closed for 26 months and counting, so the owners and investors are eager to begin operating the cash registers again.
Fuller said the benchmark goal is to open in time for the June 9-12 return of The Hukilau, the Polynesian Pop weekender that draws thousands to The Mai-Kai from around the world. That would fit in with the announced goal to be back in business by the time summer starts.
To meet this deadline, however, the initial site plan will not include every piece of the project, Fuller said. The new event space, for example, will come later in Phase 2. Since that space, along with the adjacent new kitchen, entail new construction from the ground up, they will be pushed back until after the initial reopening, he said.
Fuller said The Mai-Kai will employ a “provisional kitchen” until the permanent structure is completed. This will mean that a limited food menu will be offered at first, but Fuller promised a full beverage menu.
The approval of the certificate of appropriateness, or COA, was crucial in allowing The Mai-Kai to lock into the most important elements of its reimagining of the South Seas themed tropical paradise on Federal Highway. Without it, they were unable to obtain building permits for the major enhancements.
The restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a torrential rainstorm and malfunctioning sprinkler system caused a massive roof collapse over the kitchen. A large chunk of the back of house had to be demolished, but most of the historic guest areas of the sprawling, 450-capacity venue remained unscathed. It’s the first extended closure since The Mai-Kai’s opening on Dec. 28, 1956.
When the scope of the restoration became evident, the founding Thornton family embarked on a joint venture with Fuller, the developer and historic preservationist who leads Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. The partnership paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage, according to reports of the sale in October 2021. Another $1 million was added to the budget for crucial enhancements, Fuller revealed at The Hukilau in June.
Fuller and Barlington Group have a wealth of experience with commercial properties in South Florida, many of them historically significant. Tenants include Fort Lauderdale’s Toasted Bagelry & Deli, plus Little Havana’s Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory, and the 87-year-old landmark Ball & Chain music venue. Mad Room Hospitality, which operates Ball & Chain, will run The Mai-Kai along with the Thornton family.
To ensure both the economic viability of The Mai-Kai and the restoration of all its classic elements, Fuller and a team of architects and designers mapped out a creative plan to modernize the kitchen, add an event space and reimagine the property while keeping most of the historic elements intact. Initial artwork and renderings were unveiled at an Oakland Park neighborhood participation meeting in late April.
The new ownership group requested the COA approval “for the renovation and improvement” of the property at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The initial plans were first submitted to the Development Review Committee in May, but due to a number of delays they did not come up for approval before the Historic Preservation Board until this week.
Work inside on restoring the elaborately themed dining rooms and Tiki garden has been ongoing since July. But updates, changes and additions to the exterior and grounds were stalled while awaiting the plans to be approved in their entirety.
Among the key elements of the plan presented to the board:
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.”