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.
As the renovation of The Mai-Kai reaches a crucial point outdoors, work is progressing on the restoration of the historic South Florida restaurant’s guest areas alongside a near total rebuild of the back-of-house facilities.
It’s a two-pronged effort overseen by Kern Mattei, a second-generation employee who grew up at The Mai-Kai and is now in his 30th year as manager. An October 2020 roof collapse took out the massive kitchen and back bar. A change in ownership in September 2021 kick-started the renovation efforts, which now enter the final phases.
On the job since early 2022, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has brought both his passion for historic Polynesian design and his vast experiece as a theme park scenic artist to The Mai-Kai’s many restoration projects. For most of this year, he’s been joined by another central Florida artist, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, creating a well-oiled machine that can seemingly handle any task, no matter how challenging.
They were joined this summer by another multifaceted artist who has been crucial in helping them use inventive techniques to restore some of the areas most in need of TLC. Along with the woodworking crew tasked with repairing all of The Mai-Kai’s damaged walls and ceiling, Conrad Teheiura Itchener is a key member of the team bringing the Tiki temple back to life.
Meanwhile, the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller of Barlington Group is pumping all of its resources into modernizing the infrastructure, from new roofs to a revamped electrical grid and air-handling system. Helping Mattei rebuild the kitchen and back-of-house is Fuller’s sister company, Mad Room Hospitality, which oversees other historic restaurants including Miami’s Ball & Chain.
Following is an extensive recap of all the work done inside The Mai-Kai since our last stories in early July. Meanwhile, a related story contains up-to-the minute news on the reimagination of the parking lot as well as a projected reopening date.
SAMOA ROOM: One of the original dining areas meticulously restored
Over the past six months, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly have methodically brought many of The Mai-Kai’s elaborately themed dining rooms back to life: New Guinea, Hawaii, Moorea, and the lower areas of Tonga. But the completion of the one of the oldest dining areas, Samoa, remained elusive.
The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog are headed to Tiki Oasis! We’re honored to be joined by manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller at the world’s original and largest Tiki weekender Aug. 2-6 in San Diego.
The 23rd annual event at the Town and Country Resort features live entertainment (Man or Astroman, The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Messer Chups, The New Les Baxter Orchestra, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, King Kukulele, Medusirena), seminars (Sven Kirsten, Charles Phoenix, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Ian Burrell), artists, vendors, and much more.
Tiki Oasis guests will enjoy five nights and four days of poolside lounging, fashion shows, room parties, live bands and DJs, a curated art exhibit, a gigantic Tiki marketplace, tropical cocktails curated by top mixologists, plus much more.
Click here for event tickets, ranging from $40 for Wednesday to $499 for a deluxe Wednesday-Sunday pass. If you have kids in tow, don’t fret. Tickets cost just $35 for ages 6 to 17. Children 5 under are free.
Click below for tickets to the seminars, which must be purchased separately.
For the first time in event history, South Florida’s historic Mai-Kai will be on hand for not one, but two official presentations. Last year, designer and artist Allsmiller taught a sold-out, two-day shelf-building class shortly after diving into his work restoring The Mai-Kai. This year, he’ll be featuring one of his restored vintage lamps from The Mai-Kai in a lamp show that runs all weekend.
On Friday, Hayward and Mattei will present a seminar on one of The Mai-Kai’s most iconic cocktails, the Derby Daiquiri. On Saturday, they will be joined by Allsmiller for a presentation jam-packed with the latest information on the restoration and reopening.
Here are are more details on the events:
The Derby Daiquiri and Beyond: How to Create Your Own Classic
Hosted by Kern Mattei and Jim “Hurricane” Hayward
2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4, $45 [BUY TICKETS]
The Mai-Kai’s Derby Daiquiri was one of the most celebrated cocktails of the mid-century, a simple riff on the Cuban classic by master mixologist Mariano Licudine. Six decades later, it remains one of the most popular drinks on the historic restaurant’s menu. It also provides a case study on how a vintage recipe can be enhanced by just a few simple tweaks, creating something new and exciting. Join The Mai-Kai’s longtime manager, Kern Mattei, and cocktail blogger Jim “Hurricane” Hayward for an examination of Licudine’s genius as they guide you toward creating your own signature classic.
About Kern and Jim
Kern Mattei was born into The Mai-Kai family and has worked there since his youth, from barback and bartender to the past three decades as manager. His father was the GM before him, and his mother performed in the stage show. His unique position makes him intimately familiar with the restaurant’s famous cocktails, their history and the secret recipes. During the current refurbishment, he runs the takeout cocktail program, providing quarts and gallons of classics like the Barrel O’ Rum and Black Magic to thirsty locals. Blogger and journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward has covered The Mai-Kai for more than a decade, documenting and recreating the cocktail recipes in exacting detail. As we approach a late 2023 reopening, The Atomic Grog has become a key source of information on The Mai-Kai restoration project.
Seminar sneak preview
Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect during the first-ever official Mai-Kai cocktail seminar at Tiki Oasis:
Three different Daiquiris will be served by the Tiki Oasis cocktail crew, including the Derby, as we reveal and dissect each recipe.
Rare and never-before-seen images from the archives will be shown, including Mattei family photos.
We’ll take the most detailed look yet at the creation and explosive popularity of the Derby Daiquiri, known as “the $100,000 Drink.”
The seminar will conclude with the premiere of a new recipe created especially for Tiki Oasis and San Diego.
Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward with “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and Kern Mattei
2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, $20 [BUY TICKETS]
The Mai-Kai is a miraculous survivor. The South Florida historic landmark endured a near-catastrophic roof collapse in late 2020 but found new owners with deep pockets and an ambitious vision to preserve it for generations to come. When the restoration of the 66-year-old Polynesian palace is complete, it will be meticulously returned to its former glory and also include millions of dollars in enhancements that respect the past and charge boldly into the future. In this multimedia presentation, embedded journalist Jim “Hurricane” Hayward of The Atomic Grog blog will take you behind the scenes at The Mai-Kai. He’ll be joined by two key members of The Mai-Kai team: Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller will offer unique insights into the painstaking restoration efforts, while longtime manager Kern Mattei will provide up-to-the-minute news on the renovation project, along with his unique perspective on Mai-Kai history.
About The Mai-Kai team
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward is a veteran journalist and blogger, best known for The Atomic Grog blog – covering Tiki events, music, art cocktails and culture since 2011. Along with its popular Mai-Kai cocktail guide, the blog has become the go-to source of information on the landmark restaurant’s closing, sale, restoration, and reopening. Typhoon Tommy is a multiple Thea Award-winning scenic artist with 13 years of experience in the theme park industry. After turning his talents full-time to creating magical escapes in the world of Tiki, he became creative director and designer for The Mai-Kai renovation project in 2022. Kern Mattei grew up at the historic restaurant during its heyday and now leads the efforts to modernize the infrastructure while maintaining as much of its original beauty as possible. He has been general manager since 1993, following in the footsteps of his father, Kern Mattei Sr. (1964-1991).
Making this feat a reality is a team of artists and craftspeople under the direction of manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. This over-arching job is mammoth, encompassing the restoration of the Molokai bar, eight elaborately themed dining areas, plus other guest spaces.
In this update, we’ll catch up with the Orlando-area artists as they continue their mission to return The Mai-Kai to the same condition it was when the last major redesign was completed in the early 1970s. That’s when the last dining rooms were added and the building’s current footprint was solidified, some 15 years after its 1956 opening.
First, let’s walk through a chronological recap from May and June:
EARLY MAY: Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy refurbishing lamps in the Hawaii dining area, the 60-capacity room to the right of the showroom stage. “They touched almost all of them,” Mattei said. They also finished the ceiling in Hawaii, adding new panels.
They were assisted by longtime Mai-Kai handyman Gustavo in removing the window between Hawaii and Samoa, then adding new wood and lighting. The window was cleaned and put back in place, restoring this little-known feature to its vintage condition:
They also started on the adjacent Moorea dining area, a 40-capacity room that’s slightly elevated to offer the most distant views of the Polynesian Islander Revue to the north beyond Hawaii. The opposite southern glass wall, featuring rare yellow Chinese jade tiles, offers views of the outdoor garden. The crew immediately targeted the woodwork, matting and lamps for repair.
The lamp-builders also pivoted back to the Tonga Room, the elevated 80-capacity space in the back of the showroom. They had made great progress there in previous months, but the huge space still had many lamps that needed work.
Below at left is a restored tapa in The Mai-Kai’s Hawaii Room. A vintage turtle shell lamp will be returned to the center (note the electrical outlet). At right are some of the many restored lamps in the Tonga Room.
MID-MAY: Work wrapped up in the Hawaii dining room as Allsmiller and Scheidly put finishing touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. “Once the turtle shells go back on the walls, it’s going to be beautiful in here,” Allsmiller said.
In their workspace in the main showroom, the lamp brigade finished all of the low-hanging lamps in the Tonga dining area, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts. Those high in the A-frame will be touched later. Traditionally one of the darkest parts of restaurant, this area looks much brighter with all the lamps refurbished and featuring modern LED lighting.
In the left photo below, Allsmiller shows off a lamp project on May 18. At right, he points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa in the hallway near the Tonga Room and entrance to the kitchen. After the colors are touched up and it’s covered in Mod Podge, you won’t even notice, he said. “We’re trying to save them, bring them back.”
Back in Moorea, Allsmiller explained how they’re trying to restore the walls even though some of the materials are no longer available. He said they’re using materials salvaged from elsewhere, then changing the design slightly so chair backs will no longer damage the matting. “We’re saving material and reusing it,” he said.
He said the typical plan of attack for each room is to work on the walls first and save the lamps for last, or whenever they’re waiting for materials. On May 18, I found them in the nerve center – the main showroom workspace – buried in new lamp projects.
Both Scheidly and Allsmiller were working on total rebuilds of old lamps from the Tonga Room, found broken and in bad shape (see photo below). “I like the challenge,” Allsmiller said of not having the blueprints. He said he can make an educated guess of what the lamps should look like. Schematics for some of the Oceanic Arts lamps were found in The Mai-Kai warehouse, but many others are mysteries.
Work was also progressing into Samoa, a secluded dining area that seats 44 in one of the oldest rooms at The Mai-Kai. The “demolition crew” had been busy tearing out all the old, damaged wall materials. This is a big help to the designers, allowing them to concentrate on restoration. Work was also advancing on the refurbishing of the ceiling and beams.
By early July, significant infrastructure work was moving at a rapid pace. A complete electrical system overhaul was underway, including the installation of new breaker boxes that will pave the way for a new air-conditioning system.
Once the new electrical grid is operational and they flip the switch on the new AC system, the entire building will be cooled for the first time since the October 2020 roof collapse that triggered the restaurant’s closing and eventual sale in September 2021.
The expansive refurbishments are being driven by the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller. His real estate investment firm, Barlington Group, has a track record of restoring vintage properties, including Miami’s iconic Ball & Chain.
The Little Havana hotspot is run by sister company Mad Room Hospitality, which will also take the operational reins at The Mai-Kai. The founding Thornton family, which remains part of the ownership group, will retain a significant role along with some of its long-standing management team.
To make The Mai-Kai operational by a projected fall reopening, Mad Room and Mai-Kai managers are working feverishly to get a new kitchen up and running. The old kitchen was damaged beyond repair when torrential rains combined with a malfunctioning sprinkler system flooded the 1970s-era back-of-house roof, causing it to collapse.
The 7,000-square-foot space where the kitchen once stood remains an empty shell with walls but no roof, awaiting Phase 2 of the renovation project. Estimated to be completed a year or more after Phase 1, this ambitious plan includes not only a new state-of-the-art kitchen, but also a 3,500-square-foot event center with a soaring A-frame roof. It will fill a much-needed niche in servicing The Mai-Kai’s market for large groups and events.
In the meantime, the existing back of house area that escaped damage is being reconfigured to accommodate a new, temporary kitchen. It will also be upgraded to include new staff facilities and a new restroom for guests with special needs.
Last but not least, The Mai-Kai’s legendary back service bar will be reinstalled in a large space that formerly contained a locker room for staff and performers in the Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii). Smaller locker rooms are being built next to the existing back management offices, which are undergoing minimal refurbishments.
This year’s forecast calls for four days of Category 5 revelry at the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach, plus extracurricular activities that span nearly a full week.
It’s far too early in the year for any significant storms, so why not kick off the summer early with an epic Polynesian Pop party on the beachfront? The 21st live version of the East Coast’s largest Tiki weekender blows ashore June 8-11, featuring some top names in the tropical cocktail world, noted live surf and exotica bands, a marketplace featuring more than 30 vendors, educational symposiums, plus more.
The Hukilau 2023 – June 8-11 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, The Swingin’ Palms, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Dan Cunningham, The Ohana Hawaiian Jazz Trio), symposiums and classes (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Garret Richard, Spike Marble, Tiki Tom-Tom, Doc Parks), guest bars and industry professionals, pop-up cocktail bars, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* TheHukilau.com | Instagram | Facebook page and group
We also outline what’s new for 2023, including Wednesday’s pre-party at Esotico Miami. And we spotlight all of the musical performers, from those traveling long distances (California’s The Hula Girls and Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts; New York’s The Swingin’ Palms) to those from around the Sunshine State (The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Dan Cunningham).
Finally, there’s a section on The Hukilau’s history, from its beginning in 2002 in Atlanta to its many years at Fort Lauderdale Beach hotels and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Oakland Park. The name refers to the traditional Hawaiian gathering of family and friends to cast a giant net into the sea to catch fish. It’s fitting that The Hukilau lures Tikiphiles from around the globe to it’s beachfront locale in our own tropical paradise.
The second story, posted in May, runs down the full list of 17 guest bars and bartenders who will be slinging delicious drinks all weekend. This includes legendary names (The Mai-Kai, Don the Beachcomber, Tonga Hut), many returning favorites (Dirty Dick, Hidden Harbor, The Inferno Room, Tiki Underground), plus some notable newcomers.
BEFORE AND AFTER: Parties extend The Hukilau revelry to six days
Wednesday’s rum dinner at Esotico Miami, sponsored by Plantation, is sold out. But that doesn’t mean you should skip the pre-party if you won’t have a ticket.
The tropical cocktail hotspot owned by flamboyant mixologist Daniele Dalla Pola has plenty of space for guests to meet and mingle all night. The event is also sponsored by Hi-Tide Recordings, which likely means we’ll also enjoy some vintage tunes by label owners and DJs Vincent Minervino and Magdalena O’Connell.
You can partake in the exotic fare in the main restaurant, then move into the mysterious speakeasy next door for the late-night party. Dalla Pola’s new Kaona Room will host Miami favorites Gold Dust Lounge performing its unique melding of surf, spy and experimental rock.
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).
The list includes some historic names (The Mai-Kai, Don the Beachcomber, Tonga Hut), key bars in the modern Tiki revival (Dirty Dick, Hidden Harbor, Inferno Room), plus many returning favorites (Esotico Miami, Tiki Tatsu-ya, Tiki Underground). All will be crafting drinks throughout the four days of pool and beach parties, symposiums, nightly bungalow parties, plus more. Pop-up bars and bartenders:See the full lineup of participants Bonus cocktail recipe below:Passport to Martinique from VenTiki
Also confirmed this week is a list of more than 30 artists and vendors who will be selling their wares in the Tiki Treasures Bazaar. They range from noted artists (Kymm! Bang, Robert Jimenez, Tom Fowner), to longtime Tiki merchants (Aloha Art and Alligators, The Modern Historic), to event newcomers (Bamboo Betty Wear, Trader Van’s). Tiki Treasures Bazaar:See the full lineup of participants
Joining Southern California’s The Hula Girls are two other bands from the New Jersey-based Hi-Tide Recordings label. Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts (Long Beach, Calif.) will be promoting a new vinyl LP, Surf Shack Shindig, scheduled to be released this summer. The Swingin’ Palms (Albany, N.Y.) will perform their signature lei’d back Hawaiian instrumentals, while Hi-Tide owners Vincent Minervino and Magdalena O’Connell will join the party with their distinctive DJ sets.
Rounding out the musical lineup are four Florida-based acts. The Intoxicators (Tallahassee), The Disasternauts (parts unknown), and Skinny Jimmy Stingray (Deerfield Beach) all perform hard-driving instrumental rock, liberally mixing original tunes with surf classics. South Florida’s Dan Cunningham, on the other hand, is a classic crooner and one of the area’s top Elvis tribute performers.
The Hukilau is centered around pool parties featuring live music and cocktails at the scenic Beachcomber Resort on the Atlantic Ocean in Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale. There will also be two beach parties and nightly bungalow parties. The Tiki Treasures Bazaar and the symposiums are held under tents and thatched huts around the resort property. The overall vibe and festive atmosphere creates a legitimate South Seas paradise in the tropics.
All 140 rooms at the Beachcomber are sold out, but The Hukilau’s villagers can get a special rate at the Plunge Beach Resort, about 2 miles south in Lauderdale By the Sea. Reserve a room via the link on The Hukilau website or call 407-536-2763. Use group code “HUKI” to get the discount.
Event tickets range from $149 (plus service fee) for the Saturday-only Palm Pass, to $599 (plus fee) for the four-day South Seas Pass. The top-tier pass includes many perks, including a VIP lounge, reserved seating at symposiums, and early access to the bazaar. The South Seas and Aloha pass ($359) include all presentations and parties, plus unlimited cocktails.
GUEST BARS: 17 top bar teams serve up signature drinks
A staple of The Hukilau, cocktails crafted by some of the world’s top Tiki bartenders are available throughout the event at no extra charge. Indulge freely (and responsibly) as you enjoy the music, symposiums and many other happenings around the Beachcomber resort. Here’s the lineup of bars for 2023, which includes many returning favorites:
With contractors and construction crews moving full-speed ahead on a massive renovation of the infrastructure and exterior of The Mai-Kai, a small team of craftsmen continues to meticulously restore the historic South Florida restaurant’s elaborately themed interior guest areas in exacting detail.
The city of Oakland Park’s recent approval of permits that will allow the major pieces of the $8.5 million project to move forward has grabbed all the attention so far in 2023. But inside the beloved Polynesian palace, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has been busy in the new year with a wide array of restoration projects.
Completion of porte-cochère roof kicks off many projects to come
By the end of March, the work on thatching the outdoor roofs was progressing nicely after a long pause due to permitting issues. We visited on March 16 to pick up takeout cocktails, then again on March 24 and March 31 for a peek at the progress, both inside and out.
The most noticeable change for guests passing by or picking up quarts and gallons to go this week (April 6-7) will definitely be the completion of the thatched roofs. On March 24, workers were putting the finishing touches on the porte-cochère, which has shielded arriving guests from the elements for the past six decades.
Installed shortly after the 1956 opening, the porte-cochère has been re-thatched and the structure periodically refurbished over the years. But the current project is the most extensive in recent history. [See past coverage]
Later, after the driveway is replaced and landscaping has begun, Allsmiller will work on restoring all the design elements beneath the roof on the center beam and trim. Automobile traffic will no longer pass beneath, allowing guests to sit outside with a cocktail and enjoy the shade and ambience.
Mattei said they plan to reinstall of the canoe that used to hang under the roof, and also restore all the fishnets and lighting. In the meantime, Allsmiller now has a much cooler outdoor area to work alongside his new assistant, fellow Central Florida artist Scott Scheidly (aka Flounder). The large canopy reduces the temperature in the blazing Florida sun significantly.
Next to the porte-cochère, the Bora Bora Room is being readied for demolition. The removal of the 1970s-era building, approved Jan. 11 by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and new parking lot flow. A subcontractor for the job has yet to be named.
Pieces of the Bora Bora will live on, however, after the removal of all vintage decor that can be repurposed. Mattei showed us a pile of lava rock that had been removed, stashed away for use later in the entryway landscaping.
Meanwhile, electricians are busy rewiring the entire property, creating a new grid that will allow for the installation of a half-dozen new air-conditioning units on the roofs. The modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system will replace the old chiller system and its water cooling tower hidden behind the Bora Bora building.
With the porte-cochère job complete, the company installing the synthetic thatching moved on to finish the uncompleted work on the A-frames over the rear dining rooms. On March 31, work was progressing on the Tahiti and Moorea roofs, which were added during the early 1970s expansion. [See past coverage]
When this is done, the crew from Tiki King will take a break before returning for perhaps the biggest thatching project: Restoring the materials to The Mai-Kai’s towering main A-frame.
This iconic structure, which reaches more than 40 feet at its peak, has undergone changes over the years. Originally, the rear contained thatching while the front portion featured giant screens to let in the air (and rain) to keep the indoor gardens flourishing. [See photo]
While there are no plans to bring back the open-air concept, Mattei said potential designs being debated by the ownership team should give it a more traditional look. We spotted painters on the roof March 24. By March 31, all the undercoating and sealant had been added to the exterior to defend against future leaks.
“It’s finished for now, until we figure out what’s going on,” said Mattei, explaining the process of troubleshooting for pesky leaks before the thatching and final paint job are done. The artwork on the front will be restored by the painter who did the original five decades ago.
Around the back of the building, crews were up on the refurbished flat roof, installing support beams to hold all the new air-conditioning units. The first of these half-dozen new AC boxes was sitting in the back-of-house space that used to house the kitchen, before the October 2020 roof collapse that forced its removal and shut down the restaurant.
Mattei said there’s no rush to rebuild that area until after the underground plumbing is reinstalled to modern standards. The previous kitchen dated back to the 1970 expansion.
However, there is much work ongoing inside the back of house area that survived the roof collapse. Since the permit approvals, a large portion of the existing space used by staff was gutted in preparation for its reimagination.
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.