In honor of National Rum Month, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale has released a new batch of its first-ever signature rum for guests to enjoy in the restaurant or take home in limited-edition bottles. The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend can be paired with new branded glasses also available for purchase.
The initial batch of the 92-proof rum, aged and blended by Richard Seale at Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, was quickly snapped up during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in April. But the closing of the historic restaurant for two months forced the release party and seminar by The Real McCoy’s founder to be canceled. That presentation will now be held virtually, and everyone who buys a bottle of the rum is invited.
Thursday, Aug. 13: Rum Runners of the Prohibition Era Virtual Seminar featuring Bailey Pryor of The Real McCoy Rum and hosted by The Mai-Kai. From 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. The Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker and founder of The Real McCoy Rum will discuss the history of rums during Prohibition along with the creation of The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend. Guests can ask questions at the end of the presentation. [Facebook event]
An invitation to the Zoom event will be sent to anyone buying a bottle of the newly released Batch 131. It’s available at the restaurant for $64.20 (including tax). To order and arrange for pick-up, call marketing director Pia Dahlquist at (954) 646-8975 or email Pia@MaiKai.com. Unfortunately, you must pick up the rum in person. Shipping is not available. Those who bought a bottle of Batch 130 in April can also reach out to Pia to attend the event, which will include tastings of the rum.
The limited-edition glassware can be purchased along with the rum. The square shot glass ($10.70, including tax) and double old-fashioned rocks glass ($13.85) are both etched with The Mai-Kai logo and artwork. After picking up the new rum and glasses and enjoying the seminar, guests are invited to The Mai-Kai for National Rum Day on Aug. 16. A updated rum menu is now available featuring 49 different choices from The Mai-Kai’s “cellar,” including The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend. Scroll down for more on the new rum choices.
The Mai-Kai’s first branded rum is touted on the menu as a “single-blended Barbados rum, exceptionally smooth with unmistakable notes of toasted pecan, vanilla and wood spice, with a long, elegant finish.” It’s The Real McCoy’s latest partnership with an acclaimed Tiki bar after working with Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco on a similar 92-proof, 12-year-old rum in 2017.
The Mai-Kai rum is a blend of rums from copper column and pot stills, aged in heavily charred American oak Bourbon barrels. As noted in our May blog post, it was produced at a higher proof than The Real McCoy’s 12-year-old single blended rum (92 vs. 80) and has more pot still rum in the blend. This “heavier” blend is a better fit with flavor profile of the rums used in The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktails, typically higher proof rums from Jamaica and Guyana.
But don’t expect The Mai-Kai blend to be used frequently in cocktails. It’s designed (and priced) as a “super premium” rum like its predecessors and presented that way on The Mai-Kai’s new menu (see below). But it would not be out of line to feature it in a Daiquiri or other simple and elegant cocktail that showcases the rum. We’ve featured a few of these below as well.
Lacking a bottle of The Real McCoy’s standard 12-year-old rum to compare – as our friends at The Rum Traveler blog did [see video] – I took a different approach. My mind jumped immediately to another 12-year-old rum that is highly regarded as both a sipping and mixing rum, a longtime favorite at The Mai-Kai that appears in several highly-regarded cocktails.
Essentially, I wanted to know how The Real McCoy 12-year-old Distillers Proof Mai-Kai Blend held up, both neat and in cocktails, against Appleton Estate 12-year-old Rare Blend (soon to be known as Reserve Casks) rum from Jamaica. Both come from well-respected distilleries and acclaimed master blenders in the English-speaking Caribbean’s two islands with the richest history of rum production.
There are distinct differences when you compare Barbados and Jamaican rums more broadly, but these two particular premium rums are closer than you might think. At 86 proof, the masterfully blended juice in the Appleton Estate flagship product is also aged in American oak Bourbon barrels and is a combination of column and pot still rums. After extensive tastings, I have no problem declaring it a virtual tie in my own informal rum ratings (3.7 out of 5). They’re easily distinguishable from each other, but both display the unmistakable characteristics of 12-year-old blended rums made with care and precision.
But as the shutdowns, stay-home mandates and restrictions due to the pandemic stretch into a fourth month, it’s possible to get a taste of The Hukilau without going far or putting yourself and others at risk. We’ve come up with ideas stretching over seven days, from educational symposiums to a special virtual event set for Friday and Saturday at The Mai-Kai. While The Hukilau’s kickoff party typically doesn’t launch until Wednesdays, we know many villagers like to arrive early and get a head start. The Hukilau 2019 also featured special events for bartenders starting Monday, so we’re following that plan.
Rum and education are two of the foundational elements of The Hukilau, so what better way to start the week than a special presentation by Matt Pietrek. The former Microsoft specialist and writer has turned his passion for rum and Tiki cocktails into a second career, earning an impressive three nominations in the upcoming 2020 Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in July.
In his debut at The Hukilau last year, Pietrek did double duty with a symposium (How the British Navy Influenced the Birth of Tiki) and Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class (Stocking Your Home Tiki Bar). Pietrek also joined The Atomic Grog for The Rums of The Mai-Kai: From the Back Bar to Your Glass, a special presentation and discussion in the main dining room at the historic restaurant. He was in the midst of digging up more fascinating facts for this year’s Hukilau guests when everything was put on hold.
If you need to stock up on some rum while planning your week of festivities, we recommend you support the brands who support The Hukilau with sponsorship money, free samples, and merchandise. Among the 2019 sponsors were Angostura, Appleton, Cockspur, Diplomatico, Don Q, Gubba, Hamilton, Lemon Hart, Orgeat Works, Plantation, Pusser’s, The Real McCoy, Real Syrups, Rhum Barbancourt, Rum Bar, Rums of Puerto Rico, St. Benevolence, Sandy Feet, Santa Teresa, Tiki Lovers, Swedish Punsch, Tanduay, and Worthy Park.
The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classrooms may be dark this year, but there’s been no shortage of bartender knowledge spreading on the Internet, thanks to many talented mixologists around the world keeping their audience engaged. I’ve never seen so many professional recipes and trusted information available daily like it is now.
Since the pandemic hit, Radev has been tireless. He launched “Mixology From The Fridge” on YouTube and Facebook, featuring dozens of entertaining how-to videos with recipes for cocktails, syrups and more. You can support Radev by watching his YouTube videos, buying his book and ordering items from the Laki Kane online store.
Radev joined forces with another online juggernaut, Tiki marketing maven and event organizer Jupiter Jones, for a weekly “Tiki Tuesday” broadcast on the Zavvy network of shows and podcasts. Their past guests have included Tonga Hut manager and rum/cocktail expert Marie King; Tiki and music historian Brother Cleve; and Trader Vic’s marketing exec Eve Bergeron, granddaughter of company founder Victor Bergeron. All of these VIPs had presentations or pop-up bars last year at The Hukilau, and Brother Cleve was scheduled to return in 2020 as a DJ.
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.
Rooms at the former Yankee Clipper hotel, a famous property that dates back to the mid-century, are filling up fast. [See previous story] The Mai-Kai is already accepting reservations for its popular dinner shows on Saturday, June 6, when The Hukilau’s villagers turn out in full force and typically sell out several seatings of the Polynesian Islander Revue.
Tonight, The Hukilau will lauch an updated website around 7 p.m. Eastern time, opening up sales of multi-day passes and tickets to popular symposiums, rum tastings, cocktail and craft classes, and reserved seats for special swimshows featuring Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid in the hotel’s Wreck Bar.
The event space at the B Ocean (or “The B” as some like to call it) is more intimate than the expansive Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, home to The Hukilau from 2015 through 2019. So it would not be a bad idea to jump on passes and tickets now.
The Hukilau 2020 will be held June 3-7 at the B Ocean Resort and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring live music and retro-themed performances, educational symposiums, vendor marketplace, rum and Tiki cocktail classes, plus 20 top Tiki bars and bartenders from around the world. * TheHukilau.com | Facebook: Page and Group | Instagram
Many of the key performers, including the headlining bands, are being kept tightly under wraps until today’s reveal. But we were able to squeeze a few details out of The Hukilau’s master planner, Richard Oneslager, and will share what we know below. Check back later for a full preview.
Here then, are 10 things you need to know about The Hukilau 2020 as passes and tickets go on sale:
1. PASSES: There are several changes to the multi-day pass structure from past years to streamline and make everything a bit less confusing, Oneslager said. Gone is the Big Kahuna pass, leaving three options: * South Seas pass (5 days): The top-tier pass with the most benefits is virtually unchanged from past years. South Seas passholders have access to all five days of the event, including Wednesday’s pre-party at The Mai-Kai. They also get free entry plus food and drinks at Thursday’s two special ticketed events, a cocktail pass for Friday’s High Tide Party, and other exclusive benefits. * Aloha Pass (4 days): This Thursday through Sunday pass includes the Tiki Treasures Bazaar and pool parties featuring free cocktails, admission to the High Tide Party, and more. * Beachcomber Pass (3 days): Formerly known as the Luau Pass, the change was made to avoid confusion with the special event added this year (more on that below). Beachcomber passholders receive admission Friday through Sunday, including the bazaar, pool parties, and High Tide Party. More details on passholder benefits will be revealed on the website. Note that one- and two-day passes may not be offered later if all of the multi-day passes listed above sell out.
2. ARTISTS: The official artist for 2020 is Chicago-based lowbrow illustrator Mitch O’Connell. His flamboyant and colorful artwork can be found everywhere, from major national magazines and newspapers, to album covers of legendary bands, to major advertising campaigns, to fine art galleries around the world. His work is also popular in the tattoo world, with many of his designs appearing in two best-selling books. In addition to the 2020 promotional artwork, O’Connell is designing The Hukilau’s official mug and will likely make appearances during the event. Other artists worth mentioning are Tiki Diablo, who is once again producing distinctive barware for Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy students; and Tiki Tony, who will create a small carving for South Seas passholders.
3. LUAU ON THE BEACH: With Pier Sixty-Six under extensive renovations for several years, The Hukilau is losing one of its signature events. Replacing the Tiki Tower Takeover, which was held in the rotating 17th floor ballroom of the space-age hotel, is something a bit more traditional and Tiki-centric. Thursday night’s headlining event is now a traditional luau on the B Ocean Resort’s private beach. Tickets will be sold a la carte, along with an option of food and/or drinks. South Seas passholders get everything included.
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 …
The 18th annual Tiki weekender known as The Hukilau will not invade Fort Lauderdale until June, but local Tikiphiles will get an early taste of the rum-fueled festivities this weekend when two special events kick off the 2019 countdown at The Mai-Kai.
Both events will take place in The Molokai lounge at The Mai-Kai, the historic Polynesian restaurant that opened in 1956 and continues to enthrall Tikiphiles from around the world. Both events are free, but there’s a limited capacity of around 150 for each event, so be sure to get there early. Here are the details:
Sunday, March 3: Retro Rekindled community gathering featuring early happy hour, giveaways and meet-and-mingle with The Hukilau organizers. Richard Oneslager, The Hukilau’s owner and organizer, will speak and answer questions. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. The event is free but reservations are encouraged. * Facebook event
The Mai-Kai is at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, on the west side between Commercial and Oakland Park boulevards. Call (954) 563-3272 for more information or to make dinner reservations. Valet and paid self-parking.
The Molokai also features a full appetizer menu (half-priced during happy hour) that includes Tiki bar classics (Pupu Platter, Crab Rangoon, et al.) along with sushi, salads and modern tapas (sliders, fish tacos, etc.). The expansive restaurant also has a beautiful outdoor Tiki garden that can be explored, along with plenty of exotic and elaborately themed dining rooms if you’d like to stay for dinner.
The Hukilau is one of the world’s biggest and longest running Polynesian Pop and Tiki cocktail events. Established in 2002 in Atlanta, it moved to Fort Lauderdale and The Mai-Kai in 2003 with live music, symposiums, classes and an ever-expanding schedule of events over a five day weekend. The Hukilau 2019 will take place June 5-9, headquartered at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina near Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Sunday’s Retro Rekindled gathering is designed to give attendees and potential villagers a chance to learn more about the bands, bars, room parties, and all the other facets of the event, such as the signature Tiki Tower Takeover. In 2019, The Hukilau is spotlighting female mixologists in the festive tower cocktail party, plus special presentations on “Women of The Mai-Kai” and “Women Who Tiki.”
Oneslager took an ownership role in The Hukilau in 2015. He has been the driving force since 2017, when co-creator and longtime organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White stepped down. Rather than make wholesale changes, Oneslager has kept The Hukilau true to White’s vision while enhancing and adding features such as the Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy. Villagers can learn from the pros as bartenders and mixology experts from around the country teach intimate classes on the finer points of the craft.
During a recent visit to Epcot at Walt Disney World, we made sure to visit the new exhibition celebrating American Indian art. The American Heritage Gallery always does a great job with its exhibits, featuring multimedia and interactive displays plus plenty of artifacts and poignant narratives in the relatively small space. The previous exhibit on African-American history and culture was a must-see.
All of the artwork comes from the collections of those two museums. Included among the 89 pieces representing 40 different American Indian tribes is a prominent display dedicated to California and the islands of Hawaii. It includes models of a canoe and a sailboat based on those used by Polynesian seafarers who settled the Hawaiian islands more than 1,700 years ago. There’s also a huge piece of Polynesian tapa cloth, circa 1900s. Of interest to more modern tastes is the hand-printed He’e Aloha Shirt crafted by native Hawaiian Craig Neff of The Hawaiian Force. You can find his store in downtown Hilo, Hawaii.
Native communities from six other geographic regions across the United States are included. Members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida performed at the exhibit’s opening.
The goal of the exhibition is to showcase authentic, historical artifacts alongside contemporary works of American Indian art. Guests learn how cultural traditions have been handed down through generations via interactive displays with narration and insights by some of the artists with works on display.
The three interactive video exhibits feature displays that resemble a campfire. When guests wave their hands in front of the flames, the displays turn into video presentations. The music heard throughout the gallery was recorded by Native musicians from the regions showcased in the exhibition.
Among the featured artists are fashion designer Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), doll-maker Glenda McKay (Ingalik-Athabascan) and Juanita Growing Thunder (Assiniboine Sioux).
The Hukilau returns for its 18th annual Tiki weekender in June, serving up five days of immersive rum-fueled experiences at the Pier 66 Hotel & Marina and The Mai-Kai restaurant, both 62-year-old landmarks in sunny Fort Lauderdale.
Organizers made the first official announcement of 2019 on New Years’ Day, promising the return of all the hallmarks that make the event one of the Tiki revival’s top summer destinations. Tickets and hotel rooms will not go on sale until Feb. 1, but more details are due to be released throughout the month.
It will be the fifth straight year that The Hukilau has pitched its tent at Pier 66, and the 17th year at the legendary Mai-Kai. (The Hukilau launched in 2002 in Atlanta before migrating south to Florida the next year.) Below you’ll find all the news from the initial communiqué, embellished with some of our favorite photos from last year’s festivities to whet your appetite. Stay tuned for future updates on The Atomic Grog.
Tickets and hotel rooms go on sale Feb. 1. Look for more details throughout January.
What can you look forward to in 2019? The same things you love:
* Rooms and events at Pier 66 (plus B Ocean Resort) The views of Fort Lauderdale from the 17th floor ballroom at Pier 66 are stunning. (Photo by Chris Kridler)
* Same Wednesday through Sunday schedule Guest bartenders at Thursday’s Tiki Tower Takeover included cocktail legend Brother Cleve (left) and Doc Parks of Pagan Idol and Zombie Village. (Photo by Heather McKean)
Updated Feb. 8, 2018 The Hukilau gave its loyal fans a New Year’s treat by announcing an expanded lineup for the East Coast’s largest Tiki-themed event, giving its regular “villagers” early access and discounts on tickets. The general public can now join the party at the 17th annual mash-up of Polynesian Pop and cocktail culture.
Here are the highlights of the announcement, sent via email and posted on the official website. I also spoke directly with the event’s owner and co-organizer, Richard Oneslager, to get all the scoop on 2018. NEW: As of Feb. 8, this preview is now updated with the late January announcement.
Party like it’s 2009: Los Straitjackets (left) will headline The Hukilau for a second time, while The Intoxicators will make their 13th appearance at the Tiki party in Fort Lauderdale. (Photos from The Hukilau 2009)
PREVIEW: The Hukilau 2018 highlights
* MUSIC: More headlining bands. The 2018 event will include some of the world’s top surf and exotica bands, including Los Straitjackets, The Madeira, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica Quintet and The Martian Denny Orchestra. Villagers will also be thrilled to see the return of The Intoxicators, who missed 2017 after 12 straight appearances. Other performers include The Exotics, Black Flamingos, Czarna Wolgastar, The Royal Pacifics, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, and The Hukilau’s one and only emcee during its previous 16 years, the ubiquitous King Kukulele. Look for more bands to be announced, along with special guest DJs. Bands will perform on all five days in various venues. [More details below]
* BARS: 12 Tiki pop-ups. Seven of last year’s 10 acclaimed bar teams are returning, joined by five new Tiki-themed pop-ups from around the world setting up shop all over Pier 66 at special events, tastings, and classes. Due to popular demand, a second afternoon pool party with complimentary cocktails has been added to the schedule. Back for more more rum and cocktails are bartenders from Dirty Dick (Paris), Flask & Cannon (Jacksonville), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Nu Lounge Bar (Italy), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), Pagan Idol (San Francisco), and S.O.S. Tiki Bar (Atlanta). Coming on board for 2018 are Death Or Glory (Delray Beach), Foundation Bar (Milwaukee), Frankie’s Tiki Room (Las Vegas), Tonga Hut (Los Angeles), and Trailer Happiness (London). [More details below]
Rum ambassador Ian Burrell presents a symposium at The Hukilau 2017 (Atomic Grog photo). He’ll be joined in 2018 by cocktail pioneer and influential musician/DJ Brother Cleve (Photo by Audrey Harrer).
* INDUSTRY VIPS: Cocktail influencer makes debut. Boston’s Brother Cleve will bring his vast knowledge of cocktails and music to The Hukilau for the first time. This prime mover of the craft cocktail scene in the 1990s and former member of the groundbreaking band Combustible Edison will present a symposium, make a special DJ appearance, and also have his own bar in the Tiki Tower Takeover event. In addition, rum ambassador Ian Burrell returns from London for a second straight year to host a symposium, two cocktail classes and a special rum tasting. [More details below]
* TIKI TOWER TAKEOVER: Signature cocktail party expands, returns for Round 4. Held on Thursday night in the hotel’s revolving Pier Top Lounge, the fourth edition of one of Tiki’s most exclusive events is likely to sell out just as fast as the previous three. Tickets are limited to passholders, so act now. The lineup will grow from four to five pop-ups (featuring six different bar teams), including returning participants Three Dots and a Dash and Daniele Dalla Pola of Nu Lounge Bar. Scotty Schuder of Dirty Dick also returns, teaming up with Pagan Idol for a special two-bar mash-up. The final two pop-ups will feature the craft cocktail stylings of Brother Cleve and the crew from the U.K.’s Trailer Happiness. [More details below]
* MERCHANDISE: Works of top Tiki artists on display. The official artists for The Hukilau 2018 are Joe Vitale and Donella Vitale, whose work can already been seen on the website and promo artwork. The couple is based in Orlando, where they both work for Disney in addition to being among the most recognizable artists of the Tiki revival. Fun fact: The Vitales are among a select few who have attended The Hukilau all 16 years, along with emcee King Kukulele and co-founder Tim “Swanky” Glazner. Villagers will get first shot at the event merchandise, including the 17th annual mug produced by Eekum Bookum. There will also be special items for some villagers, including a South Seas passholder pendant by Crazy Al Evans.
Bar teams from Pittsburgh’s Hidden Harbor (left) and Atlanta’s S.O.S. Tiki Bar will return for this year’s expanded Rum Island Pool Party at The Hukilau 2018. (Atomic Grog photos)
* ENHANCEMENTS: Feedback from villagers. The Hukilau listened to its attendees and will implement quite a few changes: Extended hours and a second pool party on Saturday (in addition to Friday) including live music, more bars and bands (see above), a “Villager’s Lounge” tent to “meet and hang with old friends and new,” a party featuring all exotica music, and more food trucks.
* MORE SPECIAL EVENTS: Symposiums, Medusirena Marina swimshows. Symposiums, craft workshops, Okole Maluna cocktail classes, hula lessons, plus more new additions were announced in late January. These include three swimshows featuring Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid in her home at the nearby Wreck Bar in the B Ocean Resort, plus symposiums on Disney’s Trader Sam’s Tiki bar concept and the heyday of Tiki on television. Craft workshops will feature a trio of noted Tiki artists, while cocktail classes will include bartenders and experts from across the country. UPDATE:The Hukilau 2018 symposiums to include Disney imagineer, Tiki on TV
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.”