Historic Mai-Kai celebrated, new cocktail menu unveiled at anniversary party

Updated Jan. 20, 2014
NEW: The new cocktail menu made its public debut on Jan. 17. Check out our review and recipe for the new drink, the Tiki Swizzle.

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The Mai-Kai celebrated its 57th anniversary with a customer celebration party that not only recognized the landmark Polynesian restaurant’s storied past, but also looked ahead to the future.
* See below: New tropical drink menu sneak preview

The Mai-Kai's new cocktail menu (right) harkens back to its 1956 original (left), with all the drinks displayed on an impressive centerspread
The Mai-Kai’s new cocktail menu (right) harkens back to its 1956 original (left), with all the drinks displayed on an impressive centerspread. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

There was much to celebrate at the Saturday, Dec. 28, event: The recent historic designation by the city of Oakland Park, the 50th anniversary of a longtime employee, and the screening of a new PBS documentary filmed at The Mai-Kai. But attendees were also given a sneak peak at what’s to come: The first major redesign of the Tiki palace’s iconic cocktail menu in more than 30 years.

The celebrating actually started on Friday night, with a rare South Florida performance by instrumental surf band The Novarays in The Molokai bar. The Orlando band ripped through three sets of classic covers and original tunes. On Saturday, the bar was nearly full at 1:30 p.m. for an early happy hour to kick off the day’s special events.

The several hundred guests then filled the main dining room, which sits beneath the original, awe-inspiring A-frame structure built in 1956 by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton, a couple upstart restaurateurs from Chicago who envisioned the world’s grandest Polynesian palace in Tiki’s mid-century heyday.

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The Mai-Kai, now officially historic, celebrates its 57th anniversary with style and special events

UPDATED (Jan. 4, 2014): See the event recap

Long considered a “Tiki temple” by its fans and followers of timeless mid-century Americana, The Mai-Kai can now stake a claim to being an official South Florida landmark. And to honor its 57th anniversary this month, the venerable Polynesian restaurant has scheduled several special events.

The Mai-Kai
(Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Mai-Kai events
* Friday, Dec. 27: Surf rock party with The Novarays, 6-9 p.m. in The Molokai bar.
* Saturday, Dec. 28: Customer celebration party, 1:30-4 p.m., featuring a showing of the PBS documentary Plastic Paradise.
Where: The Mai-Kai, 3599 N. Federal Highway, between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Valet and paid self-parking. Call (954) 563-3272 or go to MaiKai.com.

In November, The Mai-Kai became the first commercial property to receive historic designation by the city of Oakland Park. While the restaurant is typically listed as being in Fort Lauderdale, it sits in the southeast corner of the small city to the north of its larger South Florida neighbor. The designation by the city’s Historic Preservation Board was in honor of The Mai-Kai’s history and architectural character. A national historic designation is also being sought.

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A Tiki Top 10: Photos and memories from The Hukilau 2013

The Hukilau was held June 6-9, 2013, at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel (aka the Yankee Clipper) and The Mai-Kai restaurant.
See below: Gallery of 40 photos

The Intoxicators from Tallahassee unleash a surf-rock fury in The Molokai lounge during Thursday's late-night bash.
The Intoxicators from Tallahassee unleash a surf-rock fury in The Molokai lounge during Thursday’s late-night bash. (Atomic Grog photo; click for gallery)

More than 800 devotees of Polynesian Pop culture and classic mid-century style assembled for the 12th annual gathering of the tribe known as The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale. Despite inclement weather that forced some venue and schedule changes, the colorfully-clad attendees didn’t seem to mind, flocking to a wide assortment of events showcasing eclectic music, rum-filled cocktails, expert speakers and lots more.

Below are the highlights of The Atomic Grog’s whirlwind weekend, which began early in the week with organizational efforts and didn’t end until Sunday’s post-event party at The Mai-Kai. I missed one band and a couple symposiums, but I tried to hit all the major happenings and photographed the revelry for posterity (see photos below). For extensive photo coverage, click on the Go11Media link below the gallery.

The following is highly subjective but should give a fair snapshot of the wide array of festivities, along with a few tasty cocktail recipes. I apologize to any bands and participants I may have neglected to mention, but all did a great job. It was tough narrowing this list down to 10. In roughly chronological order …

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Mai-Kai cocktail review: Hot Buttered Rum is a heart-warming winter classic

Updated Feb. 24, 2020
See below: Our Hot Buttered Rum review | Tribute recipe UPDATED
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide

What could be more comforting on a chilly winter night than some warm rum and spices with a big dollop of butter? The holiday season would not be complete without a traditional Hot Buttered Rum.

From The Mai-Kai's 1956-57 menu
From The Mai-Kai’s 1956-57 menu.

Like the milk punch, Hot Buttered Rum is a seasonal classic that dates back to colonial times. According to the American Heritage Cookbook, the drink even “found its way into domestic politics.” Candidates would ply their constituents with it to influence their vote. If only today’s politicians would try this method instead of the usual dirty politics.

Drinks using the key ingredients – rum, butter and hot water – were documented during the early days of mixology in cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas’ mid-19th century bar guides as Hot Rum and Hot Spiced Rum. The Mai-Kai’s version is not very different than the traditional Hot Buttered Rum and was no doubt influenced by Don the Beachcomber’s early Tiki classic.

Hot Buttered Rum and the lesser known Hot Rum Grog were staples on Donn Beach’s early menus. A menu from the 1940s includes this description of the Hot Buttered Rum: “Rums from the islands of Jamaican and Barbados. Mulled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, sweet butter and hot water. This will rekindle the fires in your heart.”

The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry's Sippin' Safari
The Hot Buttered Rum recipe from the Aku-Aku restaurant in Las Vegas, as published in Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.

By the 1950s, Donn’s copycats were experimenting with the traditional recipe, adding creme de cacao (Pub and Prow Hot Buttered Rum), along with maraschino liqueur and black tea (Volcano House Hot Buttered Rum). We can thank tropical cocktail historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry for these, which he published in Beachbum Berry Remixed (2010) and the Total Tiki app.

Mahalo to the Bum and his 10th anniversary edition of Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari in 2017, we have perhaps the most reverent Hot Buttered Rum recipe to Donn’s original (rum, honey butter mix, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon). Berry gleaned it from a 1969 issue of the Stardust Hotel’s in-house magazine, but those who follow Tiki history will know that the Aku-Aku restaurant, which operated from 1960 to 1980 in the iconic Las Vegas landmark, has a direct connection to Don the Beachcomber. Beach consulted on its creation and undoubtedly contributed his recipes to the cocktail menu. Sippin’ Safari is a must-read for many great stories about Donn and the Aku-Aku.

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