The Mai-Kai specializes in time travel, taking diners back to the mid-century heyday of grand Tiki temples by creating a spectacularly immersive feast of the senses. So it’s no surprise that the Fort Lauderdale restaurant successfully scared up a vintage Halloween party in 2020, transporting hundreds of Hulaween revelers to a vintage drive-in theater in its expansive parking lot for a physically-distanced celebration like no other.
The sold-out Hulaweeen Drive-In Movie on Oct. 30 creatively navigated the new pandemic reality, giving the occupants of the 60+ vehicles multiple treats to savor. From the screening of the infamous 1970 B-movie Beast of Blood, to the live costume contest projected onto the 33-foot screen, to the rockin’ pre-movie festivities fueled by classic tropical cocktails, the evening provided a frightening (but safe) good time for all in attendance. Previous story:See the full event preview
Unfortunately, someone apparently played a trick on The Mai-Kai. After successfully navigating the scary new pandemic reality since late May, the historic restaurant faced a scare of its own just days before the 12th annual Hulaween when a massive storm caused damage that will require an extended, temporary closing for repairs and refurbishment.
The sudden closing caused some last-minute scrambling to keep the drive-in movie on track, but The Mai-Kai and the event’s driving force, director of public relations Pia Dahlquist, pulled it off with the usual aplomb. Since guests could not enter the restaurant, drinks were served from a pop-up bar behind the building, and portable restroom facilities were secured. With the kitchen closed, a food truck arrived to fill the need with finger-licking barbecue.
But all the innovative plans appeared to be in danger all afternoon as dark clouds literally loomed over the event. An afternoon storm blew through The Mai-Kai property on Federal Highway, but miraculously the entire event remained dry. It was a blustery evening, however, and the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival staff had their hands full keeping the inflated screen stable. The dark and ominous weather was apropos, but not an issue at the end of the day.
The FLIFF crew was indispensable, not only handling the high-tech rear-projection screen but also guiding all the vehicles into parking spots the old-fashioned way. Some of us brought portable chairs, and my hurricane radio came in handy to tune into the FM frequency that broadcasted the clear and crisp audio.
Considering the weather and makeshift logistics of the entire endeavor, the 90-minute preshow video and 90-minute feature film were both professionally presented and easy to enjoy. The evening concluded, as usual, with a kooky costume contest that was up to the same creative standards of past Hulaween parties.
The Mai-Kai’s refreshment stand served two other popular cocktails – the Jet Pilot and Mai Tai – along with a selection of beer, wine, soft drinks and water.
Many spirited guests came in full costume, and some bedecked their vehicles with flaming Tiki accouterments. Those who chose to enter the contest were filmed as they arrived. The clips were later edited together, and the resulting video was shown after the movie. A panel of judges picked the top three winners: Dr. Paul Bearer and Dolly, Death By Swizzle, and Annubis & Isis. As usual, the costumes included many movie and TV references (The Witches, What We Do in the Shadows, Spirited Away, The Walking Dead, et al.) as well as just-plain-wacky get-ups. PHOTO GALLERY:Scroll down to see scenes from Hulaween, plus all of the costumes
The Hulaween Drive-In Movie will proceed as scheduled Friday despite the announcement of a temporary closing of the restaurant after extensive flooding. Details on the shutdown and possible reopening date will be covered in a future story. See the official statement below.
The Mai-Kai is still offering a menu of signature cocktails and other beverages for attendees of Friday’s event. The beverage options include: * 32-ounce servings of the Hulaween special Blood Island Green Potion #2 (see details below), plus three other longtime favorites: Barrel O’ Rum, Jet Pilot and Mai Tai. All of these can be pre-ordered by guests for pick-up when they arrive, along with a bottle of The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend, an exclusive new rum. Ticket-holders were sent an email with a link to pre-order. Clicking the “Hulaween Take Out Menu” option reveals Friday’s offerings. * There will also be a cash bar featuring beer, wine, soft drinks and water.
Also just announced to guests via email: A food truck will be on hand providing authentic smoked BBQ with a special menu for Hulaween guests. Iron Butt BBQ features 100 percent all-natural USDA meats smoked over oak and hickory, plus gluten-free sauces.
Any pre-ordered merchandise will also be available for pick-up. Signed posters are still available, but the mugs are sold out. Check-in time remains 6:30 through 7:45 p.m. The special pre-movie video starts at 6:30, featuring past Hulaween photos and video, plus classic film and music clips. The main attraction, Beast of Blood, starts at 8 p.m. The costume contest immediately follows the movie. Though the indoor facilities are closed, restrooms will be available.
The Mai-Kai’s official statement, issued Oct. 28: “With gratitude for many happy and successful years, the management team of Mai Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show is regretful to announce the temporary closure after a weekend flood. Our lovely family run business has such a passionate, loyal fan base and we are excited to begin this first phase of enhancing both the structure and design of one of the historic and unique dining and entertainment venues in all of South Florida. Mai-Kai is in the process of finalizing its renovation plan and remains committed to providing exceptional guest service, exceptional comfort and amenities and a memorable experience.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic descended upon the world like a horror movie come to life, bars and restaurants have been forced to adapt in new and creative ways. Rather than cancel its traditional Halloween party, The Mai-Kai in Fort Laudedale reached back into the past for inspiration.
True to its roots as a mid-century icon, the historic Polynesian restaurant will reanimate its parking lot as a drive-in monster movie theater, complete with a big screen showing an infamous 1960s-era horror film. The 12th annual Hulaween promises to be one of most devilishly distinctive holiday events to grace the South Florida calendar.
*** Friday, Oct. 30 – Hulaween Drive-In Movie at The Mai-Kai featuring a screening of Beast of Blood, costume contest and prizes, food and drink specials, plus more. Times: Event starts at 6:30, movie at 8 p.m. Cost: $30 per vehicle. Sponsored by Appleton Rum and Drive-In-Sanity Films. UPDATE:This event is sold out! | Facebook event
The 63-year-old restaurant and its Molokai lounge have been open with limited capacity and social distancing since early June, following an extended closure due to the pandemic. And while business is slowly returning to normal, management decided that the only way Hulaween could reawaken in 2020 was to think outside the box.
This socially-distanced drive-in theater event, complete with a kitschy B-movie, is sure to please anyone seeking a safe but scary thrill for Halloween. Vehicles will fill most of The Mai-Kai’s expansive back lot, but parking will be staggered and spaced out to allow a comfortable viewing experience. The film festival will provide a 33-foot screen along with staffing and technical assistance that will include streaming the movie soundtrack (along with a special pre-movie block of music videos) to the FM radio airwaves.
An extensive menu of food and adult beverages will be available from The Mai-Kai’s takeout menu for Hulaween guests. Pre-ordering is suggested to avoid a wait. Your order will be delivered to your car window when you arrive. There will also be a small outside bar with special offerings. The Molokai bar and restaurant will be open as usual, so popping into The Molokai is always an option, especially during happy hour (5-7 p.m.). Mai-Kai takeout menus: Food | Tropical drinks | Wine
The Mai-Kai continues to adapt and adjust to meet guest demand after the historic Polynesian restaurant reopened less than a month ago amid Florida’s struggles with the coronavirus pandemic. Following the popularity of the cocktail “Gallons to Go,” locals can now pick up quarts of five different popular topical drinks.
The 32-ounce glass mason jars were introduced during the special virtual event in honor of The Hukilau on the weekend of June 5-6. Online videos hosted at The Mai-Kai by Jupiter Jones and Retro Rekindled were streamed worldwide, but local guests had the added treat of picking up a special Beachbum Berry mug from sponsor Real Cocktail Ingredients, plus quarts and gallons of The Hukilau cocktail featuring Don Q Rum.
Since that event, the curbside pickup cocktail menu has been updated to include 32-ounce jars of the four favorites that had been available only in 128-ounce jugs, plus several variations of the classic Rum Barrel. The Hukilau has also remained on the expanded menu. The quarts are a great option, allowing smaller groups to partake, or larger groups to sample multiple cocktails. Planning a backyard Fourth of July bash? Look no further.
Here’s the takeout cocktail menu and pre-tax prices as of June 26: * Barrel O’ Rum – $74.77 gallon, $23.37 quart * Black Magic – $74.77 gallon, $23.37 quart * The Hukilau – $74.77 gallon, $23.37 quart * Jet Pilot – $122.90 gallon, $32.71 quart * Mai Tai – $112.15 gallon, $32.71 quart By request, if available: * Coconut Barrel (rum) – $74.77 galllon, $23.37 quart * Vodka Barrel – $74.77 gallon, $23.37 quart
Each quart contains at least four servings of the robust Barrel, Black Magic and The Hukilau, but even more of the Jet Pilot and Mai Tai, which are usually served in smaller glasses. The gallons include 15 servings at 8 1/2 ounces each, but you’ll get many more servings of the smaller drinks. All are great deals compared to the prices for single servings in the restaurant.
Of course, since May 29, guests have been able to enjoy happy hour in The Molokai Bar from opening until 7 p.m., featuing half-priced cocktails and appetizers. In addition, The Mai-Kai recently announced the return of the Wednesday night free sushi buffet. A minimum $10 bar tab comes with a complimentary buffet featuring sushi and other finger foods from 5 to 9 p.m.
As they have since the reopening, The Mai-Kai management and staff are taking extra precautions to keep guests safe. “Masks are required when approaching the buffet, there are clear lines on the floor keeping everyone 6 feet apart and guests do not serve themselves,” according to a June 24 announcement on Facebook.
The restaurant and attached bar have been operating in accordance with all state and local guidelines, going above and beyond with additional measures in sanitization, distancing, team wellness, and training. Face coverings are required for all guests when entering, according to the latest Facebook post (see below). “We appreciate everyone’s cooperation in keeping each other safe. Mahalo!”
However, if you’re not quite ready to venture out for a meal or just want to enjoy a taste of The Mai-Kai at home, there are penty of take-out options available every day. You can place an order online or by phone and schedule your pick-up time seven days a week: Curbside pickup hours Monday-Tuesday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday: 3 to 9 p.m.
Note that if you prefer to stay in your car, the staff will bring your order to you. Also, if you live close to the restaurant, you may be able to get delivery of food and beverages on Wednesdays through Sundays.
The menu is expansive, perfect for upcoming Fourth of July family festivities. In addition to cocktails, the wine list features more than a dozen different bottles. But for a full Polynesian feast, you need to explore the distinctive food menu, which includes a delicious mix of classic Tiki bar staples and modern Pan Asian cuisine. As of late June, the menu included 23 appetizers, 36 entrees, six side dishes, and four desserts. Official website: Check MaiKai.com for updates
The Hukilau 2020: Virtual events honor 19th annual Tiki weekender, help those in need Pay homage to the canceled Tiki weekender with educational symposiums, a special virtual event at The Mai-Kai, plus more. * See video replays, all of the activities
Expanded hot food menu joins cocktail ‘Gallons to Go’ as The Mai-Kai reopens to guests Updated June 3
The Mai-Kai announced on May 21 that it will reopen for guests under the latest coronavirus rules for restaurants in Broward County and the state of Florida on Friday, May 29.
“Of course, our guests’ and employees’ health and safety are our first priority,” the email announcement said. “We have met and surpassed all CDC guidelines and mandatory government-issued operational requirements and we’ve taken additional measures in sanitization, distancing, team wellness, and training. Please note when entering the restaurant face coverings are required and temperatures will be taken. We appreciate everyone’s cooperation in keeping each other safe.”
The Mai-Kai also announced that the extensive menu of takeout food, wine and cocktails will still be available, even after the May 29 opening. Check out all the details below on the signature appetizers, entrees and “Gallons to Go” of tropical drinks you can order by phone for curbside pickup. To make the experience even easier, The Mai-Kai has just launched a new online ordering platform accessible directly from MaiKai.com.
Original story: Expanded hot food menu joins cocktail ‘Gallons to Go’ as The Mai-Kai plans reopening
Like many other bars and restaurants across Florida and the U.S., The Mai-Kai was forced to close its doors suddenly in March when the coronavirus pandemic caused a statewide shutdown. Sadly, the 63-year-old Polynesian palace had no more work for its extensive staff, from the cooks and bartenders to the sarong-clad Molokai Girls and performers in the Polynesian Islander Revue.
But the Fort Lauderdale landmark quickly found a unique way to give South Floridians a taste of its historic cocktails: Thirsty patrons hauled away hundreds of “Gallons to Go.” This curbside takeout program was a smash success, leading The Mai-Kai to release a limited edition rum, then later launch an ambitious menu of wines, meats and desserts for Mother’s Day.
Now, with the shutdown approaching eight weeks but with a reopening date on the horizon, The Mai-Kai has ramped up its takeout menu to include many favorites from its regular ala carte menu. You can pair your gallons of Rum Barrels and Mai Tais with hot appetizers, dinners and rice bowls.
Restaurants in Broward County will be allowed to reopen beginning Monday, May 18, but The Mai-Kai has not announced an opening date yet. “We are looking at the entire scenario and planning according to all rules for the safety of our guests and staff,” marketing director Pia Dahlquist said on Facebook. “Meanwhile, please enjoy our takeout food and favorite tropical Gallons to Go! And look for the announcement when we will re-open.”
With a 50 percent limit on capacity, among other restrictions, The Mai-Kai will certainly look to keep these curbside takeout offerings going even after the reopening. Judging by guest reaction, many hope they will remain permanently.
Said one comment in the Fans of The Mai-Kai Facebook group: “I am so impressed with what The Mai-Kai has come up with during these tough times. For a restaurant so steeped in tradition, they have surely thought outside the box to keep some revenue flowing. Their creative mindset is as stellar as ever! A lot of businesses could learn from them.”
Dahlquist said the success of the cocktails to go inspired management to increase the offerings. The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend, an exclusive new rum that was scheduled to launch at a special event in April, quickly sold out of its sneak preview allotment when it was added to the menu in April. [Check out our preview of the rum below] Then, on Mother’s Day weekend, bottles of wine (and signature glasses) joined the menu along with select meats and desserts to give Mom a proper holiday feast.
What’s even more impressive than the delicious selection of tropical fare is the fact that the entire operation has been run during the pandemic by a skeleton crew of mangers and owner Dave Levy. Like most others in the hospitality industry, The Mai-Kai faced the agonizing reality of having to let its entire staff of around 100 go. This was especially hard for the family-run establishment that prides itself on the loyalty of its employees, many of whom remain there for decades.
While we wait for news on the reopening, it’s a great time to take advantage of the extensive takeout menu and help support the owners and staff as they face another difficult task. We hope that the expanded food and cocktail offerings mean that some of the staff will be back in the kitchen and behind the bar and able to regain their salaries.
We look forward to a day in the not-too-distant future when we can once again enjoy a relaxing one-of-a-kind experience you can only get at The Mai-Kai, from the classic cocktails in The Molokai lounge to a quiet walk in the exotic Tiki garden, to dinner in one of the secluded and mysterious dining rooms, to a thrilling performance of the Polynesian Islander Revue. But in the meantime, we appreciate the ability to take a taste of The Mai-Kai home with us.
And for the first time since closing in March, you can order appetizers and entrees direct from the kitchen. The menu features nine signature appetizers (pupu platter, crab rangoon, friend shrimp, etc.), 11 dinners (from Cantonese Shrimp to Ginger Garlic Lobster to USDA Prime Filet Mignon) and six rice bowls (with chicken, beef, shrimp and veggies). There are also four side dishes and four desserts.
You can also now order and pick up cocktails during an expanded window of office hours, seven days a week. Food is available for pick-up between 4 and 9 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Go to MaiKai.com for all the info.
Aid for Mai-Kai employees On May 7, an online Tiki bingo benefit raised $4,400 for employees of The Mai-Kai affected by the closing due to coronavirus. Players brought $10 bingo cards and played for donated prizes, including a Mai-Kai Club membership and other items from The Mai Kai. The check was presented by the event organizers to The Mai-Kai’s Pia Dahlquist (left) and Kern Mattei (right). (Photos from Facebook)
PHOTOS & RECAP: Gallons to Go quench South Florida’s thirst for The Mai-Kai
The Mai-Kai’s Gallons to Go take-out cocktail program launched on just one day – Friday, April 3 – and was an immediate success. Orders were received for more than 100 gallons during that initial three-hour pick-up window. Two weeks later, pick-ups were expanded to two days (April 17-18) and orders topped 200 gallons.
The core offerings were four of the acclaimed bar’s most popular tropical cocktails: Barrel O’ Rum, Mai Tai, Jet Pilot and Piña Colada. Priced from $80 up to $131.50, the gallons are touted as serving around 15 drinks, a great value any way you slice it. A gallon yields more than 25 servings of the small but powerful Jet Pilot, so even at the top price point you’re getting a hell of a deal.
Word leaked out that the Black Magic was also available by special order, pleasing fans of that cult classic. In later weeks, guests could also order more mainstream offerings such as the Coconut Barrel, Vodka Barrel, and a virgin Pina Colada. The current menu is the same with the exception of the Piña Colada, which is temporarily not available. Gallons to Go official menu:Click here to see that latest offerings
To meet the onslaught of orders, the bar staff had to kick into high gear in just a few days of production. By “staff” we really mean one hard-working bartender, the tireless Miles “Max” Vrahimis, who some readers may remember for his work with Lemon Hart Rum. He’s still a Lemon Hart rep, but Vrahimis has taken on his new role at The Mai-Kai with abandon, as you can see by the photos below.
That’s not to say he didn’t have help. Owner Dave Levy and his management team were there running the show, and they also helped prep cocktails and orders. Kudos to director of sales and marketing Pia Dahlquist for personally handling all of the orders by phone and email. Manager Kern Mattei looked out-of-place without his usual dapper suit, but he and director of catering John Gelardi kept busy filling orders and helping Vrahimis in The Mai-Kai’s famous back bar.
The secret hidden lair behind the kitchen is also strategically located near the restaurant’s back door, which made production and distribution of the massive amount of cocktails just a bit smoother. After the first round of gallons, the two-week breather became necessary to secure more containers and gear up for the next round.
The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. The Mai-Kai closed its doors after service on March 25, so the ensuring weeks had built up quite a demand from its South Florida faithful. Social media posts boosted interest (see below), with envious fans from around the country inquiring hopefully if they could get gallons shipped to them.
On April 20, The Hukilau announced that its 19th annual Tiki weekender scheduled for June 3-7 in Fort Laduerdale was being postponed by the coronavirus pandemic. In its place will be a series of events across the country aimed at raising money for Tiki bars devastated by shutdowns. Click the link below for more info.
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 …
After 10 years, we know what to expect from The Mai-Kai’s infamous Hulaween party: A night of kooky costumes, rockin’ tunes and many cocktails consumed in the legendary Polynesian restaurant’s Molokai bar. The 2019 bash, held Oct. 25, lived up to those standards.
The 11th annual Hulaween, themed “Luau of the Living Dead,” featured South Florida’s favorite roots rock band, Slip and the Spinouts, playing three raucous sets. The dance floor was hoppin’ all night as guitarist/vocalist Slip Mahoney led his three-piece band through classic covers and his own original tunes.
The bar was decked out in creepy cobwebs and other decor while the signature Molokai Girls got into the spirit while keeping the food and drinks flowing. Halloween tunes got everyone warmed up for the first set by the Spinouts, which also included bassist Noah Hall and drummer Tony Tomei. It was the band’s ninth Hulaween appearance.
After the band’s second set, it was time for the always creative costume contest, with $600 in cash and prizes to the winners. The Mai-Kai’s manager, Kern Mattei, and marketing director, Pia Dahlquist, presided over the creepy chaos of the costume parade.
When The Atomic Grog launched in late April of 2011, the second post was a Tiki cocktail recipe. Now, more than 400 posts and 200 recipes later, we’ve put all those drinks into an alphabetical list for easy access as a treat to all of you who’ve supported the blog for the past eight years.
Click below and bookmark this page, we’ll keep updating as we add new drinks … Atomic Grog Cocktail Recipes, A through Z Among the many tribute recipes you’ll find are The Master Ninja from Beachbum Berry (center), and (from left) The Mai-Kai’s Yeoman’s Grog, Special Reserve Daiquiri, Black Magic, and Deep Sea Diver.
That title is a misnomer, because we’ve included more than just the A-Z list, which currently stands at 210 cocktails. Below that, you’ll find the recipes grouped in nine different categories – from Don the Beachcomber to our own original creations. They’re also organized into six common Tiki drink styles, including Daiquiris and Mai Tais.
Our mission to cover the very best events, music, art, cocktails, and culture in the modern Tiki revival has not changed in eight years. But the blog has come a long way since that Atomic Zombie Cocktail post on April 25, 2011. That recipe remains one of our favorites, however, and a standard The Atomic Grog has tried to maintain.
Since then, we’ve gone on a deep dive down a rabbit hole that we continue to explore in our most popular feature, The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide, which includes nearly half of the recipes on the site. But there have been many other drinks explored in stories and reviews that we want you to be able to find easily. I hope this new feature accomplishes that.
Mahalos to all!
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the owners and staff of The Mai-Kai, not only a historic landmark, but a place that holds a special place in my heart and the hearts of many. I still get chills walking through the doors for the umpteenth time. It serves as the “mothership” to generations of Tiki mixologists, including yours truly. Owner Dave Levy, manager Kern Mattei, promotions director Pia Dahlquist, and everybody I’ve ever encountered have made it a pleasure to be there.
I’d also like to send out my deepest appreciation to author, Tiki cocktail historian, and Latitude 29 barkeep Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. Without his groundbreaking work, you probably wouldn’t be enjoying half the cocktails on our list, and most certainly you would not be reading this blog. He has truly been an inspiration. Also, much appreciation to everyone else whose recipes appear on the list. They’re all enjoyable drinks or they wouldn’t be there.
I’m also very appreciative and humbled by all the bars across the country who have served our cocktails. Mahalo to Tiki Mondays With Miller, Trader Vic’s, Hale Pele, Hidden Harbor, Forbidden Island, and everyone else who have featured Atomic Grog recipes on their menus over the years.
The most special thanks go to my wife, Susan, not only for agreeing to marry me at The Mai-Kai nine years ago, but also for supporting these crazy endeavors through thick and thin. She also contributed her graphic design talents by creating The Atomic Grog logo, as well as helping photograph, edit and proof many features on the blog.
And last but not least, a huge shout out to all the home bartenders who take the time to mix up our featured cocktails, from The Mai-Kai tributes to the many delicious creations by some of the best bartenders across the country. Like you, I’m just a fan of well-crafted tropical cocktails, looking for the best recipes to make in my home bar. You rule!
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.
Updated preview: 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.”
Popular South Florida rockabilly band Slip and the Spinouts had the house rockin’ all night long with three sets of classic covers and retro-inspired originals. Frontman Slip Mahoney led his band through a wide range of genres, from country to swing to blues and kept the dance floor filled with costumed partygoers.
Costumes were as creative as usual, with many playing off The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian theme. The winner in the costume contest adorned himself with a giant evil green head that appeared larger than many of the restaurant’s famous Tikis. The Count (aka general manager Kern Mattei) and Minnie Mouse’s evil sister Millie (aka marketing director Pia Dahlquist) once again hosted the festivities, with many prizes provided by sponsor Appleton Rum.
Appleton reps were also passing our free samples of The Mai-Kai’s Mai Tai, which features the brand’s always tasty 12-year-old dark Jamaican rum.
It was the first time in the event’s six years that Hulaween fell on Halloween night, giving lovers of Tiki, tropical and retro culture the perfect venue for their annual night of frightening fun.