The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the 66-year-old restaurant one step closer to final approval.
In a nearly two-hour public hearing in the City Hall Commission Chambers and streamed online via Zoom, the board members OK’d The Mai-Kai’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” to make a wide range of changes to the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark. City code requires such an approval for work to proceed on “any alteration requiring a building permit which may change the exterior appearance of an individually designated historic building or structure.”
The approval came with a list of six recommendations by city staff that will still need to be adhered to. But those addenda to the plan likely won’t require a return to the full five-member board. After the meeting, the head of The Mai-Kai’s ownership group, Bill Fuller, told us that he was pleased that the city and board were able to “collaborate with us on the restoration plans.” He described the hearing as “very productive” and “the culmination of what The Mai-Kai will look like” when it reopens.
The overall plans are now headed to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee, which could give it the final go-ahead. This next step covers many other details not related to the historic status, such as parking, Fuller said in an interview Thursday. His team is eager to move forward “as quickly as possible,” he said.
The committee is scheduled the review the project at its Jan. 26 meeting. After that, it should be full-steam ahead for the renovation plans. “We’re going to be guns blazing to get it open,” Fuller said. The Mai-Kai has been closed for 26 months and counting, so the owners and investors are eager to begin operating the cash registers again.
Fuller said the benchmark goal is to open in time for the June 9-12 return of The Hukilau, the Polynesian Pop weekender that draws thousands to The Mai-Kai from around the world. That would fit in with the announced goal to be back in business by the time summer starts.
To meet this deadline, however, the initial site plan will not include every piece of the project, Fuller said. The new event space, for example, will come later in Phase 2. Since that space, along with the adjacent new kitchen, entail new construction from the ground up, they will be pushed back until after the initial reopening, he said.
Fuller said The Mai-Kai will employ a “provisional kitchen” until the permanent structure is completed. This will mean that a limited food menu will be offered at first, but Fuller promised a full beverage menu.
The approval of the certificate of appropriateness, or COA, was crucial in allowing The Mai-Kai to lock into the most important elements of its reimagining of the South Seas themed tropical paradise on Federal Highway. Without it, they were unable to obtain building permits for the major enhancements.
The restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a torrential rainstorm and malfunctioning sprinkler system caused a massive roof collapse over the kitchen. A large chunk of the back of house had to be demolished, but most of the historic guest areas of the sprawling, 450-capacity venue remained unscathed. It’s the first extended closure since The Mai-Kai’s opening on Dec. 28, 1956.
When the scope of the restoration became evident, the founding Thornton family embarked on a joint venture with Fuller, the developer and historic preservationist who leads Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. The partnership paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage, according to reports of the sale in October 2021. Another $1 million was added to the budget for crucial enhancements, Fuller revealed at The Hukilau in June.
Fuller and Barlington Group have a wealth of experience with commercial properties in South Florida, many of them historically significant. Tenants include Fort Lauderdale’s Toasted Bagelry & Deli, plus Little Havana’s Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory, and the 87-year-old landmark Ball & Chain music venue. Mad Room Hospitality, which operates Ball & Chain, will run The Mai-Kai along with the Thornton family.
To ensure both the economic viability of The Mai-Kai and the restoration of all its classic elements, Fuller and a team of architects and designers mapped out a creative plan to modernize the kitchen, add an event space and reimagine the property while keeping most of the historic elements intact. Initial artwork and renderings were unveiled at an Oakland Park neighborhood participation meeting in late April.
The new ownership group requested the COA approval “for the renovation and improvement” of the property at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The initial plans were first submitted to the Development Review Committee in May, but due to a number of delays they did not come up for approval before the Historic Preservation Board until this week.
In the meantime, The Mai-Kai completed an overall of the aging infrastructure. Leaky roofs were fixed and replaced, a modern air-conditioning system was installed, and much of the electrical system was rewired. The popular takeout cocktail program, which began during the pandemic, continues on special holiday weekends.
Exclusive updates: News, photos of all the work done in 2022
Work inside on restoring the elaborately themed dining rooms and Tiki garden has been ongoing since July. But updates, changes and additions to the exterior and grounds were stalled while awaiting the plans to be approved in their entirety.
Among the key elements of the plan presented to the board: