There was much rejoicing after the announcement in September 2021 that after being closed for nearly a year, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale would reopen in 2022 under a new ownership team that will pump millions of dollars into an extensive refurbishment and renovations. A devastating roof collapse in the kitchen in October 2020 had shut down indoor service indefinitely. Click here for our full story on the announcement and the ownership transition.
Now, as we move forward in 2022, fans and supporters are eager to learn details on the plans and progress. While we follow The Mai-Kai’s social media pages for updates, we’ll keep a running list of news on this page for easy reference. Please bookmark and check back for the latest info on the refurbishment of the historic Polynesian restaurant.
This is the first time we’ve seen a reference to specific time periods in comments about the refurbishment. It also reaffirms speculation that The Molokai lounge, which is located in the front of the building away from the damaged kitchen, would reopen before the remainder of the restaurant.
Although at times 2021 seemed like 2020 all over again, we made some great strides toward a return to normalcy amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic. Many live events returned, albeit in abbreviated or scaled-down formats. Regular virtual and online events continued, giving many a safe way to interact. The Tiki Times, The Atomic Grog’s ongoing event guide, documented many of these happenings over the past year. Check below for artwork and links to official sites, plus images and videos from social media. Stay safe and remember to follow all COVID guidance as we face further challenges in 2022. THE WEEK IN TIKI 2022: Latest upcoming live and virtual events Support Tiki bars:Visit their online stores, buy the latest merchandise Social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
The Halloween season is usually a special time at The Mai-Kai. The 62-year-old Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale has seen its fair share of wild and crazy parties over the years, but not many can come close to the annual Hulaween bash.
Following flooding and roof damage right before Hulaween 2020, last year’s party moved to the parking lot for the first Hulaween Drive-In Movie. The historic Tiki temple remains closed for renovations, and there will sadly be now Hulaween in 2021 after 12 straight years of hijinks.
Despite this apparent doom and gloom, spirits are high among the staff and longtime fans of the family-run operation after last month’s announcement of a new partnership that will not only pave the way for the reopening, but also pump money and energy into making The Mai-Kai better than ever.
Another parking lot party is just not in the cards this year, but we eagerly await the day in 2022 when those doors will swing open and we’ll be back in The Molokai bar for happy hour, followed by dinner and the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
It won’t be long after that before we’re ready for the lucky 13th Hulaween, featuring crazy costumes, live music, and those delicious Mai-Kai cocktails. In the meantime, here’s a look back at the past 12 years of Hulaween madness in The Molokai. Click on the links for full coverage and photos.
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.
Among the most loyal followers of The Mai-Kai are the thousands of guests who flock to Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau, an annual celebration of Polynesian Pop culture that established a foothold in the historic restaurant in 2003 and remains inextricably linked.
The recent announcement of The Mai-Kai’s planned refurbishment and reopening sent joyous shockwaves throughout the Tiki community, but especially among The Hukilau’s longtime “villagers,” as they’re known. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, but we were able to get a taste of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau in September 2021 during a special event in the porte-cochère. It was comforting to sip authentic cocktails and enjoy the musicians performing outside the front entrance, but many still longed to be inside.
When it was announced during the event that a deal had been struck and The Mai-Kai would be reopening, it made the experience even sweeter. Full details were released the following week (see story below), and the rest is history.
While the timeline is not clear on a reopening date, hopes are running high that the 20th anniversary of The Hukilau in 2022 will indeed include at least a partial return to indoor activities. The synergy is guaranteed to continue with the news that one of the investors in the new ownership team is The Hukilau’s head honcho, Richard Oneslager.
Beyond taking in all the activities – from the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue to live bands in The Molokai bar – a ritual for many villagers during The Hukilau includes walking the sacred grounds and taking photos of their beloved Mai-Kai.
Below you’ll find a collection of those photos, shared with The Atomic Grog over the years. Many are appearing on the blog for the first time. Let’s enjoy the eye candy and look forward to once again returning in person for the grand reopening.
The Hukilau returned to the picturesque Fort Lauderdale area oceanfront for an 18th time for four days of Polynesian Pop paradise in America’s vacationland. After missing in-person festivities in 2020 due to the pandemic, many of the event’s loyal “villagers” looked forward to getting back to The Mai-Kai and checking out the new host hotel. UPDATED:See daily social media photos below: Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday
The Beachcomber on Pompano Beach is a throwback to earlier years, a smaller venue with lots of outdoor space that works perfectly in the current environment. And while The Mai-Kai has remained closed for extensive refurbishment and repairs since last October, the historic Polynesian restaurant once again hosted a Saturday evening gathering as it has since 2003, a year after The Hukilau made its debut in Atlanta.
GUEST BARS & BARTENDERS: Among the cocktail offerings were drinks from Ayme Harrison (Death or Glory, Delray Beach, Fla.), Luau Lads (Jacksonville, Fla.), Marie King and Ian Yarborough (Tonga Hut, Los Angeles and Palm Springs, Calif.), Scotty Schuder (Dirty Dick, Paris), Greg Schutt (Tropics, Cocoa Beach), and Kimberly Platt (Honu, Dunedin, Fla.).
A limited number of tickets are still available for The Hukilau 2021, scheduled for Sept. 16-19 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach, according to an email announcement. The 19th Tiki weekender will also include a special event at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
Regarding concerns over safety and COVID, the email announcement noted that “all signs still point to a fun, safe, outdoor event.” It added: “In the event that The Hukilau 2021 must be cancelled, or at any point you would prefer to hang back, we are offering full refunds for all passes and tickets, including service fees.” Have questions? Check out the online FAQ at TheHukilau.com or email organizer Richard Oneslager.
Ticket options range from all-inclusive passes to à la carte events. Here are the highlights:
Beachcomber Pass ($269): Villagers buying the entry-level pass receive admission to Friday and Saturday’s Rum Island Pool Parties, Saturday’s Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus a “Bungalow Party Pass” at the Beachcomber. The pool parties and bungalows will feature complimentary drinks from top Tiki bars and bartenders from around the country, plus live entertainment and sponsor booths. Also included is Saturday’s Save Paradise Party at The Mai-Kai, which will feature a private seating in the outdoor porte-cochère and access to buy authentic Mai-Kai cocktails along with a special announcement on the future of the historic restaurant. Entertainment will be provided by Polynesian Islander Revue performers. Passholders can also add a rum tasting pass ($25) and symposiums ($10 each) à la carte. (Symposium tickets sold on a space-available basis.)
Aloha Pass ($299): This mid-level pass includes all of the Beachcomber perks, plus admission to Thursday’s kickoff party featuring live music and cocktails. Beachcomber passholders also receive a complimentary rum tasting pass and access to all symposiums, plus free transportation to The Mai-Kai. Both Beachcomber and Aloha passholders can also buy à la carte tickets to Friday’s luau on the beach ($49 cocktails only, $129 food and drinks) and Sunday’s Tiki brunch ($49).
South Seas Pass ($599): Villagers at the top tier receive all of the same benefits that the other passholders receive, with the cost of the Friday luau (cocktails and dinner) and Sunday brunch included in the pass. They will also get early admission to the luau and bazaar, plus priority seating at symposiums. South Seas villagers will also be treated to a small custom Tiki created by Tiki Tony, plus a special reception at Saturday’s Mai-Kai party.
As The Mai-Kai works behind the scenes on a potential reopening, locals continue to enjoy a taste of the historic Polynesian restaurant with regular to-go cocktail offerings as well as occasional Tiki marketplaces in the parking lot.
An announcement on the future of the 64-year-old Tiki temple in Fort Lauderdale is expected to come during The Hukilau weekend in September, if not sooner. In social media posts, The Mai-Kai makes it clear that they do not currently have a reopening date, but “hope to announce one soon.” The owners urge fans to sign up for the newsletter at MaiKai.com to receive official word on future plans.
Guests arrive at The Mai-Kai Tiki Marketplace on July 18, 2021.
In the meantime, here’s a look back at the most recent Tiki Marketplace in July, which proved to be just as successful as the first one in May. All photos are from The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog.
At The Mai-Kai’s booth, manager Kern Mattei shows off some of the restaurant’s many items available for sale while guests enjoy the restaurant’s authentic cocktails.
Many were just happy to be on the grounds of The Mai-Kai with like-minded fans. Tropical drinks were available to take home or imbibe under the shade of the porte-cochère. The Mai-Kai Trading Post booth was a highlight, offering new glassware and apparel along with a vast collection of collectibles and branded merchandise.
The Mai-Kai’s entrance-exit area was turned into an oasis for tropical treats. Or just a cool place to relax.
Performers and musicians from The Mai-Kai’s long-running dinner show were part of the festivities.
Members of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue were on hand to entertain attendees, providing a much-needed taste of what makes the restaurant distinctive and historic. Until closing in October after flooding and kitchen damage caused by a vicious storm, it was considered to be the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
Robert Korhonen shows off original artwork he created in tribute to the July 18 marketplace host.
Once again, the event was expertly organized by Pia Dahlquist, The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, who flawlessly took care of all the logistics so everything went off without a hitch. And although the usual South Florida summer heat made itself known, skies were clear and there was a constant flow of guests all day.
Quarts of The Mai-Kai’s most popular cocktails were available at the July 18 marketplace.
It was great to see members of the Thornton family and their small staff working behind the scenes and taking care of guests at the front entrance, where an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were available. The restaurant was founded in 1956 by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton, two young transplants from Chicago. Bob Thornton’s widow, Mireille Thornton, still serves as owner and choreographer of the Polynesian show while her children and other family fill other roles in the operation.
Hurricane Hayward picked up a Tiki mask from Tom Fowner (left) along with some cool artwork from the N! Satterfield booth.
The vendor marketplace opened at 11 a.m. (running until 4 p.m.), and we arrived early to get our first pick from the art booths. I was happy to snag a mask carved from palm wood by local artist Tom Fowner, a longtime contributor to The Mai-Kai perhaps best known for creating one of the three carvings in the porte-cochère that guests see when they arrive.
The Luau Lads (left) and Sandbar Sauce booths featured a tasty collection of cocktail mixers and accessories. The Atomic Grog’s booty included a selection of these goods along with Mai-Kai glassware and art by South Florida’s Nik Satterfield and Tom Fowner.
It was also a priority to pick up some craft cocktail syrups from two highly recommended purveyors: Jacksonville’s Luau Lads and Miami’s Sandbar Sauce. It was nice to finally meet Jose Salcido and taste his fresh syrups. We hope to see Michael Bloom back in Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau in September along with his fellow Lad, Kurt Rogers.
After a 27-month hiatus, The Hukilau is returning to the picturesque sands of Fort Lauderdale beach in September with a four-day takeover of an oceanfront boutique hotel, plus a main event at The Mai-Kai that could kick off a new beginning for the historic Polynesian restaurant.
“It will be a smaller, more intimate event. Almost everything is outdoors,” said The Hukilau’s owner/organizer, Richard Oneslager. “We won’t be packed into a ballroom,” he noted, citing COVID concerns. All state and local guidelines will be followed, he added.
The Hukilau was last held in June 2019 at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, which has since gone down for extensive renovations that could last several more years. Only the iconic tower and marina will remain when the resort reopens. The 2020 event, scheduled for the B Ocean Resort, was waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic.
Luckily, Broward County’s famous highway A1A beachfront also contains many smaller and more appropriate venues for 2021. One of these is the Beachcomber Resort & Club, located just north of the Fort Lauderdale strip in Pompano Beach. The Hukilau has reserved the entire boutique hotel for the weekend, creating a complete Tiki takeover. With pandemic protocols still fresh in everyone’s mind, most of the activities will be held in various outdoor spaces on the resort’s grounds and private beach.
Of course, The Hukilau would not be complete without its heart and soul, the historic Mai-Kai in nearby Oakland Park. The restaurant remains closed after a massive flood caused extensive back-of-house damage in October 2020. But Saturday’s traditional main event will return to The Mai-Kai, taking place in the sprawling parking lot just a 15-minute drive from the Beachcomber.
Tickets, hotel rooms available soon
Previous 2020 passholders who rolled their tickets into 2021 were given priority and early access to confirm hotel rooms. Remaining rooms can be booked now only by phone by calling (954) 941-7830.
Event tickets – from all-inclusive passes to à la carte events – are available now via TheHukilau.com website. Sign up for the email list to get future updates, which will also be posted on Facebook.
Tickets will be limited to keep the event safe and intimate. However, if space is available and the Beachcomber sells out, The Hukilau has arrangements with several nearby beachfront properties to offer special rates to spillover guests who are shut out of Beachcomber rooms. Locals can also pick up event tickets and not worry about accommodations.
In a change from past years, The Hukilau will offer all-inclusive tickets that encompass all events – including symposiums and special experiences. South Seas passes are the top-tier passes, giving Hukilau villagers access to all weekend events, including reserved seats at symposiums. Beachcomber and Aloha passes offer most of the experiences, with extra events available for an additional fee.
A new beachfront hotel near The Mai-Kai
The Beachcomber Resort & Club is a family-owned hotel with 140 rooms, suites and villas that sits right on the Atlantic Ocean in Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The property also includes a cluster of apartments across A1A for event staff and participants. It’s roughly half the size of the B Ocean, so expect a more cozy event.
The resort offers “sweeping ocean views, two pools, tiki huts, full beach access, and more amenities, all reserved for our beloved villagers,” The Hukilau’s official announcement said. While many of the most popular activities will return to the schedule, organizers have made adjustments based on past feedback.
A conscious effort is being made to allow for more beach and social time with friends, a top request from villagers. The resort “is custom-made for us,” Oneslager said in a recent phone interview. He noted that the Beachcomber is blocked out for event attendees only, including the private beach.
The main event space is an open-air thatched hut where symposiums and performances will be held. The space is often used for weddings and other special events. Bands, solo musicians and DJs will be disbursed in outdoor areas around the resort. Performers will include musicians who lost their gig at The Mai-Kai when storm damage forced the restaurant’s closure in October.
Rum companies and other sponsors will host parties in a cluster of bungalows around a grassy area ideal for comfortable mingling. Pop-up cocktail bars and live performers will be spread out around the property, including poolside, Oneslager said.
On Thursday, The Hukilau’s opening day, guests “can expect welcome cocktails and cabanas filled with boozy libations from our roster of guest bars,” according to the official website. “Friday will be stacked with symposiums, pool parties, a grand luau, and guest bars.”
Catered by the Beachcomber and guest bartenders, the Friday night luau will be held in a private area just off the beach from 7 to 10 p.m. The cost of the feast is included in South Seas passes, while other ticketholders can add it for an extra fee.
In a change from years past, there will be no additional charge for symposiums (except for the lowest level passholders, who can pay $10 for tickets). There may be capacity limitations, but the top-tier South Seas passholders will receive priority seating. Most of these events will be outdoors under the large tiki hut, which can be modified to protect guests from gusty wind and rain, Oneslager said.
The Beachcomber will host the Tiki Treasures Bazaar as well as a pool party on Saturday. On Sunday, The Hukilau bids farewell with a beachside Tiki brunch and themed cocktails from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It will be a festive sendoff with pop-up bars and live music.
While most of the weekend everts are scheduled to be outdoors, contingency plans are in place in the event of inclement weather. The Beachcomber has enough indoor restaurant and lobby space to host the luau if necessary. And the tiki hut area can shield guests during typical rainy days. Plans also call for a tent to be installed over the resort’s croquet lawn, Oneslager said.
If a severe storm hits, there are guarantees from the hotel that all reservations are 100 percent refundable. Event passes are also refundable if a named tropical storm sparks watches or warnings in the area within seven days of The Hukilau. Regardless of the weather, all rooms come with a cancellation window up to 10 days before the event. For more detailed information, check the online FAQ.
Like past years, The Hukilau will celebrate its Saturday main event at the historic Polynesian restaurant that has been part of every event since the move to Fort Lauderdale in 2003. Unfortunately, the closing for renovations has forced the owners to adapt since ceasing dinner service in October.
So what’s in store for The Hukilau? Passholders are invited to an exclusive “Save Paradise Party” on Saturday in the restaurant’s thatched outdoor porte-cochères space where guests has previously entered the restaurant. Free transportation will be provided for South Seas and Aloha passholders. The Mai-Kai’s famous cocktails will be available for purchase.
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.”