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.
In 64 years, The Mai-Kai has never failed to celebrate the anniversary of its Dec. 28, 1956, opening with its own distinctive flair. This year will be no exception, despite a global pandemic and an unfortunate roof collapse in October that forced the restaurant’s temporary closing.
It is finally the end of 2020 and we’re here to help you finish strong. We have made a fresh batch of Rum Barrels and…
On Monday, the owners of the historic landmark in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park will open up their vast parking lot for Under The Mai-Kai Moon, the 2020 version of the annual Customer “Mahalo” Appreciation Party. The socially distanced event sold out less than a week after going on sale.
The event is not just a bittersweet celebration. Proceeds will benefit laid-off employees as well as keeping The Mai-Kai in business until repairs are finished. Unfortunately, it could be a long process (see below).
Since 1962, the centerpiece of any celebration at The Mai-Kai has been the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. Under The Mai-Kai Moon will feature three performances by the acclaimed group, which includes dancers and musicians from islands in every corner of Polynesia.
Cars will be spread out across the 150-space lot behind the restaurant with gaps in between to allow a “tailgate party” atmosphere, except it won’t be BYOB. The Mai-Kai will be selling several signature cocktails as well as beer, wine and soft drinks. One or more food trucks will be on hand to provide ample options for noshing.
The event will run from 6 to 10 p.m., and vehicles can arrive as early as 5:30. Unlike the recent Hulaween Drive-In Movie party, there’s no cutoff time on arrivals. All parking spots will allow views of the performances, and guests can spread out their folding chairs in adjoining empty spaces.
You’ll want to be there by 8 p.m., however, to catch the first of three shows by the Polynesian Islander Revue. The performances will be staged on a flatbed truck, which will be moved around to different locations to allow all cars a good view, according to The Mai-Kai’s director of public relations, Pia Dahlquist. A DJ will also be spinning tunes to keep the atmosphere lively.
NOTE: The Hukilau 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A series of online events was held in its place. The 2019 recap below was posted before the pandemic. The Hukilau is returning to a live format in September 2021.
The Hukilau’s 2020 entertainment lineup will be announced on Feb. 3, when event tickets and passes go on sale for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale. While The Mai-Kai remains the nerve center of the Polynesian Pop celebration for the 18th straight year, most of the festivities will be centered at the B Ocean Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
After five years as host hotel, the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina closed for a years-long refurbishment and re-imagining on the day after The Hukilau 2019. To give you a preview of what you can expect during the whirlwind weekend, following is a look back at last year’s festivities. While this Top 10 list is nowhere near complete in capturing the diversity of activities that encompassed the five-day bash, it offers a snapshot of some of the more memorable moments.
Mahalo to the venues, the organizers, all the participants and (especially) all the villagers who attended. Special thanks to those who provided photos for use below. Here’s a sampling of what we enjoyed, in no particular order …
Bartenders who hope to gain bragging rights in the Tiki cocktail world have until Monday, Jan. 14, to enter a new regional competition and earn a chance to compete in the finals this summer at Tiki Kon in Portland. Bonus recipe:Jamaican Bad Decisions, the 2018 winning cocktail
The Iron TikiTender competition has expanded this year and will hit the road to select the finalists for its fourth throwdown, won last year by Jeanie Grant of Pagan Idol in San Francisco. The first of these regionals will be held on Feb. 16 during the second annual Inuhele Tiki weekender in Atlanta. * Facebook event
The link above includes the official rules. Recipes must be based on the classic Hurricane and include sponsor BG Reynolds Syrups. Bartenders must work in one of 12 southern states.
The three competitors in the Atlanta competition will be selected on Jan. 21. The competition will be held during Inuhele at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center and include three challenges: Speedy Classics to Spec, Garish Garnish, and Mystery Ingredient.
Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend, which debuted last February as a one-day home bar tour, has expanded in 2019 to a three-day weekend of bar-hopping, panels, bands, demos, networking and more. Headquartered at the Marriott, Inuhele (which fittingly means “cocktail journey”) will feature a Friday night bar crawl to the venerable Trader Vic’s plus new venues Tiki Iniki and Tiki Tango.
Panelists include cocktail legend Brother Cleve, artist Derek Yaniger, rum expert Paul Senft and Inuhele organizer Jonathan M. Chaffin of Horror In Clay, the Atlanta-based purveyor of horror, Tiki, and sci-fi themed barware and accessories.
The Iron TikiTender competition will serve as opening act to musical headliners Kinky Waikiki and The Mystery Men on Saturday night. Deluxe and VIP tickets are already sold out, so act now and don’t miss out.
Launched at Tiki Kon 2014, Iron Tikitender is produced by Blair Reynolds, creator of BG Reynolds Syrups. The event returned to Tiki Kon last year after a two-year absence. Grant emerged victorious after doing battle with fellow finalists Kelly Merrell (Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar) and Mark Hooper (Arkansas-based bartender and Tiki ninja). Hosted by Reynolds with commentary by Ray Wyland (Tiki With Ray) and Jason T. Smith (Tiki treasure hunter), the contest was a spectacle that drew hundreds of Tiki cocktail fans to the main ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel.
Despite what you may have read in a local business journal, South Florida’s Polynesian palace is not going anywhere. Owner Dave Levy assures us not to worry and that everything will be fine. There has been no change in the daily operations of this classic establishment that promises to entertain, fascinate and satisfy us for years to come. In a tribute to its widespread appeal, Levy was recently interviewed for a feature story in The New York Times.
As a reminder of what makes this Fort Lauderdale landmark special, here are 10 reasons (in no particular order) why we love The Mai-Kai:
A view from Federal Highway of The Mai-Kai in 1969 and today. (Photos from Tim “Swanky” Glazner / Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant)
1. The architecture and design. This was a big one that helped it gain historic status but may go unappreciated by many. It was state-of-the art Tiki in 1956 and remains so today. Designed by noted South Florida architect Charles McKirahan, it was “a futuristic Polynesian A-frame 40 feet tall with wings on either side for dining rooms and inside and outside transitioning together via waterways and an open room,” wrote Tim “Swanky” Glazner in the book Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, released in September. Following several expansions over the years, the size and scope of the restaurant today is jaw-dropping, seating more than 600 in the bar and eight dining areas both indoors and outdoors amid lush gardens and waterfalls.
In a special 10-minute ceremony during a Dec. 13 public hearing, the Broward County Commission declared Dec. 28th to be “Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show Day” in the county. Owners, management and performers attended the signing of the proclamation at the commission chambers in Fort Lauderdale.
The proclamation reads: “Be it proclaimed by the board of county commissioners of Broward County, Florida: That the Board hereby designates Wednesday December 28, 2016 as “MAI-KAI RESTAURANT AND POLYNESIAN SHOW DAY” in Broward County, offers its gratitude for 60 years of historical hospitality.”
The proclamation was presented by Commissioner Chip LaMarca, who was then given a lei by owner Mireille Thornton. Mireille’s son, managing owner Dave Levy, was also on hand, along with director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist. Two Mai-Kai performers, guitarist Kainalu and dancer Hokulani, then serenaded Mayor Barbara Sharief and the commission in what may have been the county’s first traditional Polynesian performance during a public hearing.
* See a photo of the proclamation
* Watch the video of the public hearing (fast forward to the 4:00:00 mark)
It’s a testament to a restaurant’s historic status and popularity when not one, but two book authors are scheduled speak at an anniversary event produced by a longtime supporter. When The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale turns 60 on Dec. 28, the annual Customer Celebration Party will be enhanced to include two special presentations in the acclaimed Polynesian palace’s main showroom, home of the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii.
SPECIAL EVENT: The Mai-Kai’s 60th Anniversary Symposia Series & Customer Celebration Party – Wednesday, Dec. 28. Featuring presentations by authors Sven Kirsten and Tim “Swanky” Glazner brought to you by Tiki Kiliki Productions. Plus enjoy dinner shows, live music, and food and drink specials all night. Doors open at 1:30, symposia begin at 2, happy hour at 3:30, signings at 4, live music at 6, dinner shows at 7 and 9:30. Symposia tickets are sold out. For dinner reservations, call (954) 563-3272. [Facebook event]
Named to the National Register of Historic Places two years ago, The Mai-Kai is the last remaining example of the classic mid-20th century Polynesian supper club. Indeed, the restaurant’s many fans consider it the Tiki mecca. Since the venerable Critiki website began compiling its user ratings into an annual list two years ago, The Mai-Kai has been honored as the No. 1 Tiki bar in the world two years straight. The Mai-Kai was also just voted the best Tiki bar by readers of SouthFlorida.com. [See video]
One of those fans, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White, is producing a special Symposia Series for the 60th anniversary that features two authors who have written extensively about The Mai-Kai and Polynesian pop culture: Sven Kirsten and Tim “Swanky” Glazner. It’s that kind of reverence that makes The Mai-Kai a special place for many.
History symposia kick off party in legendary showroom
“The origin story of The Mai-Kai – its architecture, decor, and its influence on Polynesian pop on the American East Coast and beyond – makes it one of the greatest Tiki temples of all time,” wrote noted pop culture historian and author Kirsten in the forward to Glazner’s book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, released in September by Schiffer.
“Before the era of theme parks, this place showed the way,” Glazner wrote in his debut work. “It weaves its magic, if you let it. It is a place out of time: ancient, mysterious, lush, and relaxing.” The California-based Kirsten and Tennessee-based Glazner will make the pilgrimage to The Mai-Kai on Dec. 28 to host symposia on the restaurant’s unique and fascinating history.
The party starts early: Doors open at 1:30 p.m. for the presentations, which will include slideshows of vintage photos and artwork, plus a raffle for special giveaways. Your ticket also gets you early entry into The Mai-Kai for an unencumbered look at all the dining rooms and Tiki garden; plus appetizers and tropical drinks, including three special “lost cocktails” from the early days of the restaurant.
Lost cocktails announced
On Dec. 28 only, a special menu will feature three drinks that appeared on the original 1956 menu but were retired over the years. Guests can enjoy the spicy and deadly Last Rites, the sweet and sour Impatient Virgin and the rich and rummy Demerara Float.
Like many of the cocktails at The Mai-Kai, they can be traced back to topical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, who developed the faux Polynesian style in the 1930s in Hollywood, Calif. The Chicago location of the Beachcomber chain was a huge influence on The Mai-Kai, and many of its key employees came to Florida to work when the restaurant opened. The cocktail menu was spearheaded by bartender Mariano Licudine, a 17-year veteran who got his start at the flagship Hollywood location. He retired from The Mai-Kai in 1979, but his influence is still felt today.
At 2 p.m., Kirsten will present for the first time his research into the origins and history of The Mai-Kai’s iconic Tahitian cannibal carvings, which have served as the restaurant’s logo in one form or another since opening day. Founding owners Bob and Jack Thornton “showed themselves as standard-bearers of the coming Tiki generation by adopting these figures as The Mai-Kai’s trademark,” Kirsten wrote Tiki Pop (Taschen), his 2014 magnum opus.
In “The Tahitian Cannibal Carvings: The Logo Tikis of the Mai-Kai,” Kirsten will reveal how this specific Tiki design dates back to the early days of Polynesian pop, then marked the beginning of the Tiki period. This “cannibal trio” became the logo Tikis of important Polynesian restaurants across America, reproduced in a multitude of forms and materials. This will be a rare opportunity to see the influential Kirsten, author of The Book of Tiki (2000) and Tiki Modern (2007), in South Florida. He last did a presentation at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau in 2012.
A 3 p.m., it’s Glazner’s turn to take the stage in the showroom, home of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue and part of the original A-frame structure built in 1956. Glazner, a longtime Mai-Kai fan and Tiki enthusiast, has been collecting memorabilia and stories from longtime and current employees for more than a decade. The resulting labor of love, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, is a lavish 176-page hardcover book featuring 440 color and black-and-white images, many revealed for the first time.
He’ll treat guests with a new symposium, “The Mai-Kai: Then and Now,” a look at how the restaurant has changed since it opened in 1956. Just announced: Glazner will be joined by a special guest, former Florida state Representative Randy Avon Jr., who will share first-hand stories of growing up at The Mai-Kai. Avon’s mother, Pualani Mossman Avon, ran the The Mai-Kai’s gift shop in the 1960s after performing in her family’s pioneering cultural Lalani Village in Hawaii. The song Lovely Hula Hands was written about her. Family members included singers George Kainapau and Alfred Apaka. Randy was also Southeast manager for Rums of Puerto Rico, which had a close relationship with The Mai-Kai and the signature Derby Daiquiri cocktail.
Glazner has been doing unique presentations at events across the country, including The Hukilau in June, Tiki Oasis in August, and a book release party at The Mai-Kai in September. His talks have covered topics such as how Don the Beachcomber influenced the Thornton brothers; the mastery of mixologist Mariano Licudine; the stories behind the iconic Mystery Drink, including its appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show; and the glamorous women who worked as Mystery Girls and Molokai Girls. His rare footage of Carson receiving the drink and meeting a Mystery Girl on national television is priceless.
All of the above – including Pualani Mossman Avon – are the focus of chapters in the book, which Glazner will be signing after the presentation at 4 p.m. in The Mai-Kai Trading Post, as the gift shop is known. Kirsten will also sign copies of his books, or any items that attendees may want to have autographed.
Tiki Kiliki says she’s producing these special symposia as her gift to The Mai-Kai. The co-creator, co-founder, producer and organizer of The Hukilau has been one of the restaurant’s biggest supporters over the past 15 years. “I’m so excited about the 60th anniversary of my favorite place on earth,” Tiki Kiliki said. “This will be the first anniversary I’ve attended in person and although every visit is dear to me, I think this one will be a bit more special with all the Tikiphiles coming from all over the country.”
60th anniversary specials: Extended happy hour, dinner show deal
At 3:30, The Molokai bar will open 90 minutes earlier than normal for an extended happy hour, which runs until 7. If you miss out on tickets, or can’t attend the early symposia, you can still come to the book-signing and early happy hour starting at 3:30 and running until 7 in The Molokai bar. The lost cocktails will be included in the happy hour, along with The Mai-Kai’s extensive cocktail and appetizer menus.
Like all Wednesdays, you can also enjoy two cocktails at 50 percent off all night: The Barrel O’ Rum and Planters Punch. Another regular feature in the bar, guitarist-vocalist Rose Marie will perform island and other classic music all night beginning at 6. Due to space limitations, however, there will be no regular Wednesday sushi buffet.
There will also be a $60 dinner-and-show special in honor of the anniversary. A special prix fixe menu will be available that includes the Polynesian Islander Revue (a $15 value), plus select appetizers and entrées. You can also see the show and order anything off the extensive menu ala carte. The dinner shows often sell out, so be sure to reserve you seat now by calling (954) 563-3272. Shows are scheduled for 7 and 9:30 p.m., with seating typically an hour beforehand.
Before dinner, there’s no better place to grab a cocktail than The Molokai, praised by such well-regarded Tiki bar owners and authors Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29 in New Orleans) and Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco ). Both have written books that praise The Mai-Kai as the “mothership” of the current Tiki bar revival.
Aside from the tiny Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles, “The Mai-Kai is the last place on Earth where you can still sample a Don the Beachcomber drink more or less as it was prepared 70 years ago,” Berry wrote in Sippin’ Safari (2007). An updated 10th anniversary edition of the influential book, which includes an entire chapter on Mariano Licudine and The Mai-Kai, will be released in 2017.
In the epilogue of this year’s most celebrated Tiki cocktail book, Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki, Cate wrote: “The Mai-Kai will take you back to dining as event, experience, and escape. Today, you can still stand at the entrance, or during the show, and look at the faces of first-time visitors as their eyes widen, mouths agape at the spectacle.”
“It will come as no surprise that The Mai-Kai’s Molokai bar, with its heavy emphasis on the nautical while remaining true to Tiki tradition, was an inspiration cornerstone for me,” Cate wrote. Even without the expansive restaurant and grounds that surround it, The Molokai is one of the most distinctive Tiki bars in the world. On Dec. 28, like every day, happy hour will run until 7, featuring 50 percent off nearly all of the 50 signature tropical cocktails that have as much history as the restaurant, perhaps more.
Historic cocktails, eclectic food to match the stunning decor
“While The Mai-Kai’s food menu has adapted to changing culinary tastes, its drink menu, including the quality ingredients, has not changed since 1956,” says the official page on the National Register of Historic Places Program website. “As a result, the restaurant is renowned for its expert tropical drinks. … The Mai-Kai has a permanent place in a holy trio of old-school holdouts dedicated to the careful construction of their libations.”
The robust food offerings are also half-price during the happy hour, which is annually rated among the best in South Florida. The appetizer menu of traditional pu-pus (egg rolls, crab rangoon, soups, salads and sushi) pair perfectly with the signature cocktails. And new chef Mark Rivera has added a creative menu of signature tapas (charred octopus; fish tacos; duck, wagyu beef and pork belly sliders) that takes finger food to the next level.
While it doesn’t date back to 1956, The Molokai fits perfectly into the The Mai-Kai’s richly detailed environment and has its own fascinating back-story. With water cascading down the windows to simulate a rainstorm and elaborate nautical decor, it’s designed to make you feel like you’re in an 1800s Pacific seaport. This is not by accident. The current Molokai was designed during a 1971 remodeling using much of the actual props from the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlin Brando.
The items were acquired at auction when the MGM prop department closed in 1970. This includes not only the large set pieces on the walls and ceilings, but also other details such as model ships. MGM’s longtime prop master was even hired to personally make sure the rigging and other elements were installed as authentically as possible. Much of the bar’s decor remains exactly the same to this day.
Family, loyalty are cornerstones of The Mai-Kai culture
After happy hour, don’t miss The Mai-Kai’s signature Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in 1961, it’s still designed and choreographed by owner Mireille Thornton, widow of founding owner Bob Thornton and a former dancer in the original show. Mireille takes annual trips to the Pacific islands to research and come up with costume and theming ideas for new shows each year.
On Dec. 28, you’ll be able to see one of the first performances of the 2017 show. An all new show will be rehearsed the week before and make its official debut that night, said Mireille’s son, Dave Levy, who has guided The Mai-Kai as managing owner since his stepfather’s death in 1989. It remains a true family affair, with Mireille’s daughter Kulani Gelardi serving as the third partner and CFO.
Key managers, such as director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist and general manager Kern Mattei, have been with The Mai-Kai for decades. Mattei followed in the footsteps of his father, Kern Mattei Sr., working out of the same office. One employee has been around almost as long as The Mai-Kai itself. Angel Vega was supposed to slow down after he was honored for 50 years of service at the 2013 anniversary party, but you can still often find him behind the maître d’ stand.
On any given night, the more than 100 employees work their magic amid the controlled chaos, giving guests a sense of what true hospitality means. What other Tiki bar supplies you with hot towels to clean your hands in the most civilized manner? In another tradition from Don the Beachcomber and the early Tiki temples, both The Molokai and main bar that serves the dining rooms are behind closed doors. Bartenders work in secrecy, keeping their recipes close to the vest but also providing a total escape for guests who are immersed in the Polynesian paradise. Drinks are served by sarong-clad maidens in The Molokai, well-dressed servers in the dining rooms.
Take a tour of the lavish grounds, distinctive decor
Seats for the show include the main area in front of the stage, known as the Garden, along with four other distinct dining rooms named for South Seas islands (New Guinea, Tonga, Hawaii and Moorea). There are eight total dining areas, including the secluded Tahiti and Samoa rooms, plus the outdoor Lanai and tables scattered throughout the Tiki garden. The Mai-Kai seats 500 for dinner, half of those in the showroom, plus another 150 in The Molokai. To say it’s expansive is an understatement.
* Related: Tour of The Mai-Kai’s mysterious bars and kitchen
If you’re there early or late, take the time to stroll through all the rooms and paths that wind through the waterfalls and lush foliage of the garden. The entire lighting system was recently upgraded to add LED bulbs, which provide more consistent and reliable performance. Nothing about the look was modernized, however. Look up in the main dining room to the giant A-frame and marvel at the floats and other vintage lighting. It’s one of many seamless modernizations The Mai-Kai has made over the years to stay vital and remain one of the area’s most popular destination dining experiences.
Chef Rivera has revitalized the dinner menu, modernizing the plating and adding new twists to the classics. But many traditions remain, including the Chinese ovens that you can spot on the walking path toward the back dining rooms and Lanai. Few other restaurants in the United States use these ancient high-temperate ovens to cook steak, ribs, duck and other meats.
There is eye candy in every room: The outrigger canoe hanging from the rafters in Moorea that Bob Thornton used to serenade Mireille on their honeymoon in her native Tahiti; the black velvet portrait of Mireille in the Tahiti room; the shrunken skulls and other vintage artifacts on display in the Samoa room; the mysterious velvet painting high on the wall in Tonga that dates back to 1956. Just like Disney World, there are intricately themed details every where you look, even the gift shop and ladies’ rest room, which both have an ornate Asian theme. (The gift shop was formerly a dining room named Bangkok.)
You can go behind the stage and see the indoor Tiki garden (featuring works of noted artists from yesterday and today). Most of the Tikis throughout the property were recast by Fort Lauderdale artist Will Anders from their original molds, though several massive vintage pieces by mid-century artist Barney West still proudly stand out front on the edge of Federal Highway on opposite ends of the property. Another tip: Don’t forget to take a walk along the sidewalk from north to south, where furniture stores have encroached on the surrounding area that was desolate when The Mai-Kai was built in 1956.
And be sure to stop at the porte-cochère to see three new Tikis carved in 2016 by contemporary Florida artists: Anders, Tom Fowner and Jeff Chouinard. Anders also contributed a 10-foot-tall Tiki dubbed King Kai to the outdoor garden, making the recent infusion of large stylized carvings the biggest since the 1960s. More evidence of today’s enthusiasts working hard to keep the traditions of The Mai-Kai alive for another 60 years.
* Related: ‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai
Authors dig deep into the The Mai-Kai’s history, mystery
It will be fascinating to learn more about the three cannibal icons, which have been depicted over the years in artwork on everything from menus, to coasters to advertising to the streetside sign. The three cannibal Tikis from The Mai-Kai’s original outdoor sign were brought out of storage and displayed at The Hukilau in 2008. They’re a direct link to Don the Beachcomber, which featured the Cannibal Room bar and trio of Tikis in the Chicago location in the 1940s and ’50s. This restaurant was a major inspiration for the Thornton brothers, who were Chicago natives.
Glazner’s symposium should be just as enlightening and entertaining. Beyond everything in his book, he has a wealth of information to share though his contacts with current and past employees, many of whom should be in attendance. It’s always great to see past performers, such as Toti Terorotua, who was part of the original revue and only recently retired. He performed in The Molokai during the book release party in September.
Glazner’s vast research also gives us insight into the first 15 years of The Mai-Kai, before a 1971 renovation that expanded the dining areas, added The Molokai in its current form and defined what the restaurant looks like today. “In the 1950s, Bob and Jack Thornton went on a buying trip all over the islands, and they bought literally tons of Oceanic art to decorate The Mai-Kai,” Glazner said during a walking tour at the September book release event. Up until the 1970s, a great deal of that artwork was in the restaurant. But after the renovations in 1971, they had to change their insurance policy, Glazner said.
When the insurance adjusters came into The Mai-Kai, Glazner said, they couldn’t believe the million dollars worth of Oceanic art, some of it in the open-air garden getting rained on. The cost of insurance went so high, most of the authentic decor was removed in 1974 and donated to Stanford University, the alma mater of the Thornton brothers. Some of it is also housed at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale. It was last shown as a full exhibit there in 2010.
The Mai-Kai remains a priceless experience, a commodity whose value is beyond the comprehension of insurance adjusters. Glazner sums it up succinctly in his book: The Mai-Kai is “a place that opened over 60 years ago, built on an idea that started more than 80 years ago from a dream that is eternal … paradise.”
Some sad news out of Portland with the unexpected closing of Trader Vic’s. Meanwhile in South Florida, The Hukilau announces an exciting new symposium. Other event updates include the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, Tiki Fest in the Pacific Northwest, Ohana: Luau at the Lake, and Tiki Kon. Quick sips include a Tiki home design show, a new FOM chapter in Atlanta, a space-Tiki lounge in L.A., and a Tiki speakeasy in NYC. Regular features spotlight lowbrow art legend Von Franco; sizzling San Diego surf band Jason Lee and the R.I.P. Tides; and the Luau, a historic restaurant from Miami Beach’s heyday. Learn about rum at the website of the week, RumJourney.com, before sampling the rum and cocktail of the week: Don Q Cristal and Val’s Daiquiri from New York City’s End of the Century.
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BREAKING NEWS: Fire closes Trader Vic’s in Portland
A March 2 fire at the medical office above the Trader Vic’s location in Portland forced what was originally thought to be a temporary closing of one of the few remaining North American outposts of the venerable Polynesian restaurant chain. But news later leaked out that due to mounting debt and high operating costs, the franchise owner was forced to close permanently, Wilmanette Week reported.
The fire burned through most of the ceiling in the bar and dining room, but a Facebook post on the restaurant’s official page that same day indicated that repairs would be made. After several weeks, however, a manager posted on his personal Facebook account that Trader Vic’s Portland “is now permanently closed” less than 5 years after it opened. In a follow-up, he said that the re-opening would have taken eight weeks and the owner decided to close after struggling to “keep above water” due to the high rent and overhead of the 8,000-square-foot restaurant.
The return of Trader Vic’s to Portland was heralded in August 2011 as the beloved brand joined a burgeoning local Tiki scene that had grown around the annual Tiki Kon and worldwide revival. Portland previously had a longstanding Trader Vic’s in the Bensen Hotel from 1959 to 1996.
The new location in the Pearl District was warmly received by locals and Tikiphiles alike. It was filled with authentic decor, including Tikis, tribal masks, glass floats and outrigger canoes. The food and drinks were also highly regarded, but apparently the costs were too high to stay competitive in one of the country’s top food and beverage cities. The closing leaves only two Trader Vic’s restaurants in the United States: the company-owned flagship location in Emeryville, Calif., and a long-rinning franchise in Atlanta. There are 18 overseas locations in 11 countries.
* Trader Vic’s corporate site
EVENT PREVIEWS: The Hukilau, Miami Rum Festival, Tiki Fest, Ohana: Luau at the Lake, Tiki Kon
The Hukilau announces new symposium, sponsors
Some of the biggest names in the modern Tiki revival will gather at The Hukilau for a groundbreaking symposium as part of the 15th annual festivities June 8-12 in Fort Lauderdale. “Raiders of the Lost Tiki Culture” will bring together author and bar owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29, New Orleans), event promoter Otto von Stroheim (Tiki Oasis), historian Humuhumu (Critiki), author and bar owner Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco), artist Crazy Al Evans, acclaimed artist Shag, and event promoter Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White of The Hukilau for a rousing two-part panel discussion hosted by Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog. Author Sven Kirsten (Tiki Pop, The Book of Tiki) will also participate via Skype. Tickets are on sale now for $15 for passholders, $30 for non-passholders. The symposium will take place on Saturday, June 11, at 1 p.m. in the Panorama Ballroom at the host Pier 66 hotel.
* FULL COVERAGE: PREVIEW OF THE HISTORY SYMPOSIUM, MORE
There are few drinking vessels with the mystique of The Mai-Kai’s famous Mystery Bowl. The iconic communal cocktail popularized at the Fort Lauderdale Polynesian palace has been celebrated for a half-century by everyone from Johnny Carson to today’s Tiki revivalists.
Sure, there’s nothing like the unique experience of enjoying this giant drink with friends in the The Mai-Kai’s hallowed bar and dining rooms. At the sound of a gong, the distinctive bowl is delivered by a sarong-clad Mystery Girl, who does a traditional Polynesian dance and rewards the lucky recipient with a lei. The drink itself remains a mystery, a giant 50-something-ounce concoction of fruit juices, rum, and other liquors.
* More on the history of the Mystery Drink in our Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide
But true Mai-Kai nerds long for an authentic Mystery Bowl of their own. The older version made by Dynasty and the current version made by Tiki Farm occasionally pop up on eBay for more than $100. And they also appear in The Mai-Kai gift shop from time to time (see photo above), typically priced just below the century mark.
The Mai-Kai: History, Mystery & Adventure By Hurricane Hayward and Tim “Swanky” Glazner, February 2012
The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, now in its 56th year, is widely acclaimed as perhaps the last perfectly preserved mid-century Polynesian restaurant with its incredible vintage decor, acclaimed cocktails, authentic South Seas stage show, vast Asian-inspired menu and an ambience that makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
But not many are aware of The Mai-Kai’s direct links to Tiki’s forefather, from the concept to the cocktails to the decor.
In 1933, a small tropical and nautical themed bar in Hollywood, Calif., called Don the Beachcomber was one of many thousands that opened the day after Prohibition ended. Who would have imagined that former rum-runner Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach, had invented a new genre of mixology and a bar/restaurant concept that would be copied across the globe for decades to come.
Of course, we’re talking about the classic Tiki bar and its exotic tropical drinks. At the dawn of the cocktail era, Donn Beach was the undisputed king of tropical mixology. In an era of drinks with two or three ingredients, his secret recipes included up to a dozen, including two or three rums, resulting in drinks the world had never seen before.