As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.
In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.
Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant.
While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.
Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.
The Feb. 22 birthday of Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber (1907-1989) is typically a red-letter day for many bartenders and home enthusiasts, who celebrate by mixing up classic tropical cocktails to toast the originator of such iconic drinks as the Zombie, Nui Nui, and Three Dots and a Dash. This custom has intensified recently with the announcement of new book and film projects that celebrate the life of times of the creator of what’s now known as Polynesian Pop, aka Tiki culture.
But the occasion gained special importance this year with the announcement that a Tampa-based hospitality company will begin rolling out a chain of new Tiki-themed restaurants featuring the Don the Beachcomber branding in 2023. According to a press release from 23 Restaurant Services, “there are currently two Don the Beachcomber restaurants and bars under development in Central Florida, with the first slated to open by the end of the year.”
The company’s president, Marc Brown, said in the release that he expects as many as 10 to 15 restaurants to be spread across the Southeast over the next several years, with plans to expand nationally. Brown’s company bought the rights to the Don the Beachcomber brand in 2021, aiming to incorporate it into its successful Tiki Docks concept in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
The birthday of Donn Beach, who legally changed his name from Ernest Raymond Gantt after the success of his Don the Beachcomber restaurants in the 1930s, seemed like a great time to announce the ambitious plan that 23 Restaurant Services calls “an expansive growth strategy.”
“Each of the restaurants will feature the eccentric, Polynesian-inspired design and flamboyant, rum-based drinks that have become synonymous with Don the Beachcomber locations for more than 90 years,” the press release says.
“Don the Beachcomber is the most iconic brand in Tiki history, so it’s impossible to overstate how excited we are about what lies ahead,” Brown said. “We look forward to leveraging our expertise in management and operational excellence to reintroduce the world to the legend that is Don the Beachcomber.”
To accomplish this, 23 Restaurant Services will be guided by an advisory board featuring some of the top artists, writers, and bartenders from the current Tiki scene:
John Mulder, a Florida-based artist and designer whose Eekum Bookum Tiki Mugs makes some of the most in-demand products on the market.
Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, a California-based designer of carvings, mugs, and full bar interiors who has outfitted some of the world’s top Tiki establishments.
“Assembling this dynamic and legendary group of experts to serve as our advisory board was the first step in developing a plan to share and represent the history and life of Don the Beachcomber with the utmost authenticity,” Brown said. “We could not be more excited to share the work we are doing together to bring Don the Beachcomber back to life.”
In addition to the advisers, Brown has taken a huge first step in bringing back Don the Beachcomber’s classic cocktails by hiring Marie King, former beverage director and general manager of Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, as director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services. King also served as beverage director of the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., located in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 2009 to 2018. Like 23 Restaurant Services, the owners of this location purchased the name and did not have any connection to the original company.
Tiki fans packed a conference room early on the first day of Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend on Jan. 20, eager to hear and see details of the upcoming multimillion-dollar refurbishments planned for the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida. The Atomic Grog was happy to oblige, presenting exclusive photos, renderings and video of the project that is poised to shift into high gear in the coming months.
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward sprinkled the presentation on the 225-seat room’s large screen with new images and architectural plans. Appearing via pre-recorded video, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller took viewers on 10-minute walk-through of his work in The Molokai bar, one of the restaurant’s oldest dining rooms, plus a stroll through the gardens. The video received a great response after the interior designer and craftsman urged attendees to enjoy their Mai-Kai cocktails after the presentation.
Other upcoming projects were detailed for the first time, including new Mai-Kai mugs and other merchandise by contemporary Tiki artists, plus a signature rum blend from two historic Caribbean distilleries. After digesting all the news, the approximately 175 guests were invited to quench their thirst with authentic Mai-Kai cocktails in a poolside VIP lounge for a meet-and-greet event.
The fourth Inuhele event was held Jan. 20-22 at the Atlanta Sheraton Downtown, just two blocks from the historic Trader Vic’s location, where many attendees paid a nightly pilgrimage. Highlights included a wide array of presentations all three days, an authentic luau, rocking live bands, a marketplace featuring many top artists and craftspeople, daily room parties and special events, plus more. Check out our event preview for an overview of the diversity and creativity of Inuhele’s offerings. Event recap and more photos coming soon!
It was a pleasure to share all the latest exclusive information on The Mai-Kai refurbishment plans with an enthusiastic audience. It was the first presentation on the first day, and the line to enter the “Jungle Room” stretched down the hall and into the lobby.
Mahalo to Jonathan and Allison Chaffin and their expert staff for the great event. And okole maluna to hospitality director Lucky Munro and Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner for their help with the cocktails. The support staff at the presentation was also very gracious, helping us solve a few technical issues and get the event on track as fast as we could. We hope to see y’all next year!
Inuhele, which started in 2018 as the Atlanta Tiki home bar tour, means “cocktail journey.” So I thought it was only fitting to kick off the show by talking about my personal cocktail journey at The Mai-Kai. My fascination with the delicious drinks, and the Tiki revival in general, started there around 15 years ago and is still going strong. Go to The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide to see the results of this journey.
Past presentations at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai have included deep dives into the cocktails, the menu, and the restaurant’s historic rum collection. In 2022, we turned our attention on the blog to the massive renovation project, posting exclusive news and photos as work progressed. When the opportunity arose to share our insights at Inuhele, we jumped at the chance.
None of this would have been possible without the crucial cooperation and assistance of several key members of The Mai-Kai team who have be extremely helpful over the years with all of our coverage: General manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Also mentioned at the top of the presentation was the leader of the new ownership team, Bill Fuller, a founder of both real estate development firm Barlington Group and restaurant management group Mad Room Hospitality.
I thanked Fuller for having the vision to restore and reimagine The Mai-Kai, and for providing access and graciously answering all my questions as I continue to cover the most magical restaurant in the world.
CHAPTER 1 – The Legacy
While most Tikphiles in attendance knew quite a bit about the 66-year history of The Mai-Kai, we couldn’t discuss the significance of the current renovations without a brief tour through the past. Opened Dec. 28, 1956, in the small Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, The Mai-Kai became a local and national historic landmark in 2014.
The dining rooms were outfitted with authentic artifacts from Polynesia, along with much work by budding restaurant decor firm Oceanic Arts. Massive Tikis by legendary carver Barney West were installed in the early 1960s. Sadly, only one survives. But it’s due to be restored as part of the refurbishments.
The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue was the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing due to a roof collapse over the kitchen and back-of-house area. The show’s original bandleader, Toti Terorotua, came from Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and continued to perform until shortly before his death in 2020. Inuhele guests were treated to the sounds of Terorotua & His Tahitians, his band from the 1950s, before and after the presentation.
Launched in 1962, the stage show is poised for a comeback under the leadership of Mireille Thornton. She started as a dancer, soon became the show producer and choreographer, then married owner Bob Thornton. The family, led by daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi, remains part of the ownership team and will continue to run the restaurant and serve as its creative force.
The Mai Kai was already considered a landmark when it expanded in 1970. The $1 million project (see image above) included new dining rooms, lush landscaping of what is now the Tiki gardens, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that was compromised in October 2020. Also added were the kitchen’s rare Chinese wood-burning ovens, which were saved and will be relocated.
Also added: A redesign of The Molokai lounge using decor salvaged from the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The nautical theme extends to the entrance area and back of house. One of the bar’s signature features is windows that are covered in a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.
The 1970 additions would be the last major construction project at The Mai-Kai until 2022. For the next five decades, the restaurant cemented its reputation as the most grand Polynesian palace built during the mid 20th century.
CHAPTER 2: The Deluge
The Mai-Kai managed better than most during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. While indoor service shut down, cocktails and food were available to go, and the restaurant fully reopened after two months. But the old adage “when it rains, it pours” proved to be true (literally) when a massive storm hit in late October at the same time a pipe burst in a main sprinkler system line, leading to the collapse of the roof over the 1970s-era kitchen.
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.
NOTE: The Hukilau 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A series of online events was held in its place. The 2019 recap below was posted before the pandemic. The Hukilau is returning to a live format in September 2021.
The Hukilau’s 2020 entertainment lineup will be announced on Feb. 3, when event tickets and passes go on sale for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale. While The Mai-Kai remains the nerve center of the Polynesian Pop celebration for the 18th straight year, most of the festivities will be centered at the B Ocean Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
After five years as host hotel, the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina closed for a years-long refurbishment and re-imagining on the day after The Hukilau 2019. To give you a preview of what you can expect during the whirlwind weekend, following is a look back at last year’s festivities. While this Top 10 list is nowhere near complete in capturing the diversity of activities that encompassed the five-day bash, it offers a snapshot of some of the more memorable moments.
Mahalo to the venues, the organizers, all the participants and (especially) all the villagers who attended. Special thanks to those who provided photos for use below. Here’s a sampling of what we enjoyed, in no particular order …
Once again, The Atomic Grog documented an entire 12 months of events in 2019, following the top Tiki and rum events, plus mid-century modern, surf and rockabilly music, Disney and other happenings of interest to the Tiki community. Check below for official artwork and links to the official sites along with our own unique coverage. Under many events, you’ll also find images and videos from social media plus links to news sites. NEW EVENTS: UPDATED 2020 CALENDAR Social media:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest
Jan. 19 – The Mai-Kai Takeover in Fort Lauderdale. Special event: ‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’ The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.
The Hukilau 2019: Women of Tiki take over the tower
Thursday, June 6, was tropical cocktail heaven during the opening festivities of The Hukilau at Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina in Fort Lauderdale. The signature Tiki Tower Takeover cocktail party included eight of the world’s top female Tiki bartenders. Between sampling all the delicious drinks, hanging out with friends and enjoying the gorgeous views from the 17th-floor Pier Top Lounge, we managed to snap a few photos. Coming soon, a blog recap featuring more photos plus cocktail reviews and ratings. >>>> CLICK HERE FOR THE FACEBOOK PHOTO GALLERY
What city best exemplifies the recent explosive growth of Tiki bars and Polynesian Pop culture? A strong argument could be made for Atlanta, which has been blessed with at least three new exotic cocktail destinations since 2015. Now, in just its second year, the Tiki weekender known as Inuhele has greatly expanded to include three days of bar-hopping, panels, vendors, bands, demos and more geared to the area’s burgeoning scene.
But things really got interesting when the Tiki and craft cocktail revivals merged, creating a hot trend among bartenders and owners worldwide. Atlanta caught the bug, resulting in the opening of The S.O.S. in Decatur, just northeast of Atlanta, in 2015. In 2018, the Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta saw the opening of Tiki Iniki, the first stateside franchise location of the concept created by Todd and Michele Rundgren in Hawaii. And while not truly traditional, Match Bamboo Lounge offers spirited aloha in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood.
All this activity spurred Horror in Clay’s Jonathan and Allison Chaffin to organize the first Atlanta Tiki Homebar Tour, dubbed Inuhele (for “cocktail journey”) on Feb. 24, 2018. It was a small affair with 50+ people taking a bus tour of local home bars for a day, then concluding the night at Trader Vic’s.
For 2019, the Chaffins are taking Inuhele to the next level as a full-blown weekender on the same scale as other mid-sized Tiki events such as the pioneering Tiki Kon in the Pacific Northwest, which also started as a home bar tour nearly two decades ago. The Marriott Century Center has been secured as the host hotel, and the Chaffins promise “a weekend of bar hopping, panels, bands, demos, sharing of ideas, and most importantly community building.”
The community definitely came together to help make such an ambitious undertaking possible. Among the more than a dozen sponsors are:
* Tiki Tango, host of the “Tiki Hop-on Hop off Shuttle” and Friday night party.
* Spiribam rum specialists, presenting sponsor of the home bar bus.
* BG Reynolds, the premium bar syrups purveyor and man behind the “Iron TikiTender On Tour” event that will take place on Saturday at the Marriott.
* Royer Corp., the popular swizzle stick manufacturer known for its cutting-edge designs.
>>> See all the sponsors here
Friday kickoff and bar crawl: Events at the Marriott Century Center include classes and meet-ups, the trading post, a DJ dance party with Brother Cleve, plus more. Meanwhile, a bus will shuttle guests to Trader Vic’s, Tiki Tango, and Tiki Iniki all evening.
Bartenders who hope to gain bragging rights in the Tiki cocktail world have until Monday, Jan. 14, to enter a new regional competition and earn a chance to compete in the finals this summer at Tiki Kon in Portland. Bonus recipe:Jamaican Bad Decisions, the 2018 winning cocktail
The Iron TikiTender competition has expanded this year and will hit the road to select the finalists for its fourth throwdown, won last year by Jeanie Grant of Pagan Idol in San Francisco. The first of these regionals will be held on Feb. 16 during the second annual Inuhele Tiki weekender in Atlanta. * Facebook event
The link above includes the official rules. Recipes must be based on the classic Hurricane and include sponsor BG Reynolds Syrups. Bartenders must work in one of 12 southern states.
The three competitors in the Atlanta competition will be selected on Jan. 21. The competition will be held during Inuhele at the Atlanta Marriott Century Center and include three challenges: Speedy Classics to Spec, Garish Garnish, and Mystery Ingredient.
Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend, which debuted last February as a one-day home bar tour, has expanded in 2019 to a three-day weekend of bar-hopping, panels, bands, demos, networking and more. Headquartered at the Marriott, Inuhele (which fittingly means “cocktail journey”) will feature a Friday night bar crawl to the venerable Trader Vic’s plus new venues Tiki Iniki and Tiki Tango.
Panelists include cocktail legend Brother Cleve, artist Derek Yaniger, rum expert Paul Senft and Inuhele organizer Jonathan M. Chaffin of Horror In Clay, the Atlanta-based purveyor of horror, Tiki, and sci-fi themed barware and accessories.
The Iron TikiTender competition will serve as opening act to musical headliners Kinky Waikiki and The Mystery Men on Saturday night. Deluxe and VIP tickets are already sold out, so act now and don’t miss out.
Launched at Tiki Kon 2014, Iron Tikitender is produced by Blair Reynolds, creator of BG Reynolds Syrups. The event returned to Tiki Kon last year after a two-year absence. Grant emerged victorious after doing battle with fellow finalists Kelly Merrell (Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar) and Mark Hooper (Arkansas-based bartender and Tiki ninja). Hosted by Reynolds with commentary by Ray Wyland (Tiki With Ray) and Jason T. Smith (Tiki treasure hunter), the contest was a spectacle that drew hundreds of Tiki cocktail fans to the main ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel.
The Hukilau: June 6-10, 2018, at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring: Bands: The Black Flamingos, Czarna Wolgastar, The Disasternauts, The Exotics, Gold Dust Lounge, The Intoxicators, Los Straitjackets, The Madeira, The Martian Denny Orchestra, Mr Ho’s Orchestrotica Quintet, The Neanderthals, The Royal Pacifics, Skinny Jimmy Stingray. Perfomers: King Kukule, Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Angie Pontani. Artists: Will Anders, Tom Fowner, Tiki Tony. Bars: Death Or Glory (Delray Beach), Dirty Dick (Paris), Flask & Cannon (Jacksonville), Foundation Bar (Milwaukee), Frankie’s Tiki Room (Las Vegas), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Nu Lounge Bar (Italy), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), Pagan Idol (San Francisco), S.O.S. Tiki Bar (Atlanta), Tonga Hut (Los Angeles), Trailer Happiness (London). Symposiums: Kyle Barnes, Nicole Brauchler, Brother Cleve, Ian Burrell, Ron Ferrell, Tim “Swanky” Glazner.
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