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.
As The Hukilau’s organizers and villagers gear up for the 16th annual Tiki weekender in Fort Lauderdale on June 7-11, we have updated the schedule with a new late-night event and definitive band and DJ lineup. In addition, a special drawing and silent auction that will benefit two South Florida charities has just been announced.
The schedule now includes a late-night Blue Hawaii Party featuring DJ James Brown’s Sweat at the host Pier 66 hotel to give attendees another option on Thursday night. Also look for a showing of the classic Elvis movie of the same name near the pool on the hotel’s Royal Palm Lawn. The South Florida DJ, along with Tampa’s DJ Lounge Laura Taylor, have also been added to other events throughout the five days of festivities. Saturday’s final band lineup for The Mai-Kai is also posted.
We’ve also noted the sold-out events, which now include Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s Wednesday night swimshow, Will Anders’ craft symposium and the Three Dots and a Dash cocktail class on Saturday. UPDATEDCheck the daily schedule below | Official website
The Hukilau has also launched a new initiative to give back to the Florida hospitality community and aid endangered coral reefs . It’s called “See Aloha,” according to organizers, “because we believe that in life you find what you’re looking for, and we choose to see the aloha that is around us everywhere.” The Hukilau is making an initial donation of $2,000 and asking villagers to help the cause and at the same time enter a drawing for some outstanding prizes.
The prizes in the drawing include Mai-Kai gift certificates, bottles of sponsor rums, and passes to The Hukilau 2018. The grand prize is a collection of eight different Tiki mugs from some of The Hukilau’s guest pop-up bars, plus serial #1 of this year’s event mug from Tiki Tony and Eekum Bookum.
In addition, Crazy Al Evans is contributing an amazing collection of art pieces from his Tiki artist friends that will be up for bid at a silent auction. You can also bid to win a Mystery Drink presentation at The Mai-Kai from none other than “Mystery Guy” Crazy Al himself.
The beneficiaries are the education foundation of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and the Miami Dade Reef Guard Association. The education foundation works with more than 200 Florida high schools to prepare students for a career in hospitality. Reef Guard’s mooring buoy plan has aided the installation and maintenance of 42 mooring buoys to date, allowing divers and fisherman to enjoy the reefs without risking damage to them with an anchor. Villagers at Pier 66 should check the daily schedule, on-site signage and official announcements for more on the drawing and silent auction.
Here’s another official glassware sneak preview fromm Tiki Tony:
Updated May 20, 2017: New band added, sneak peek at official mug and glassware
A new band has been added to the entertainment lineup: The Hula Girls from Southern California. A veteran of The Hukilau 2013 and a fixture on the Tiki event circuit, this up-tempo “hulabilly” band mashes up hapa-haole, Tiki and surf music and filters it through a late 1950s and early ’60s rockabilly and rock ‘n roll soundscape. Unfortunately The Dead Rocks will not be able to make the trip from Brazil due to travel and visa issues. Look for the acclaimed instrumental surf trio at The Hukilau 2018.
The official event mug by Tiki Tony is based on the infamous shrunken skulls in The Mai-Kai’s Samoa dining room. It’s being produced by John Mulder and Eekum Bookum. Tony is also working on glassware and T-shirt designs.
Updated April 28, 2017: New website launches, more bands and cocktail classes, full schedule released
The Hukilau’s all-new website went live last week with full details on the 16th annual gathering of the Tiki tribe in Fort Lauderdale. Highlights include more music and entertainment, more Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classes, the full lineup of bands and pop-up bars participating in Friday night’s High Tide party, more bars added to the Rum Island Pool Party, a new symposium, and a detailed daily schedule.
Here’s a rundown on everything new that we gleaned from the totally redesigned and updated website. Keep an eye out for even more info to be announced in the coming weeks.
HIGH TIDE PARTY: The full lineup and details on the Friday night main event were officially annouced. The music will include a new addition, Slip and the Spinouts, along with an outstanding bill of previously announced bands:Stolen Idols (Tampa), The Mermers (Gainesville), Surfrajettes (Canada), and a new addition, The Hula Girls. Also performing will be burlesque queen Angie Pontani. And the icing on the cake is the announcement of eight guest pop-up bars, giving the party even more bang for your buck: Flask & Cannon (Jacksonville), Hidden Harbor (Pittsburgh), Pagan Idol (San Francisco), the Sip ‘n Dip Tiki Lounge (Great Falls, Mont.), Slowly Shirley (New York City), S.O.S. Tiki Bar (Atlanta), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), and UnderTow (Phoenix). All are also participating in the Tiki Tower Takeover and/or Rum Island Pool Party (see below). In addition to full access for multi-day passholders, the party is also now available for day guests for $99 (including one cocktail from each bar). There’s also a new Surf’s Up Friday/Saturday Combo pass ($129) that includes the party, plus Saturday’s Tiki Treasures Bazaar (including rum tastings) and main event at The Mai-Kai. The combo pass also includes passholder prices for symposiums and cocktail classes.
The Hukilau, the East Coast’s largest and longest-running Tiki weekender, has confirmed an all-new lineup for one of its signature events during the 16th annual festivities in Fort Lauderdale in June. When the acclaimed Tiki Tower Takeover returns to the revolving rooftop ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 for a third straight year, it will feature four new Tiki bar teams and a special master of ceremonies, globetrotting “rum ambassador” Ian Burrell.
The Tiki Tower Takeover is a unique three-hour happy hour with panoramic views of Fort Lauderdale featuring some of the world’s top Tiki bartenders. During its first two years, it included such Tiki cocktail royalty as Beachbum Berry, Martin Cate and Paul McGee. These high-profile Tiki bar proprietors helped launch the special event in 2015 and returned last year for an encore. For 2017, there’s a whole new lineup, announced Sunday in an email to ticket-holders by The Hukilau’s Richard Oneslager.
“The new line-up is a great mix of contemporary American Tiki bars, and two world class standouts from Europe,” Oneslager wrote. “In addition, we have one of the world’s leading rum experts emceeing the event for us.”
Oneslager and partner Mike Zielinski of Idle Hands Events Management took over ownership of The Hukilau in 2015. Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White stepped down after 15 years as co-creator, co-founder, producer and organizer in December. Oneslager and his team have faced a challenge in White’s absence, but the latest news signals that the event is still on track, with more details set to be announced soon.
The charismatic Burrell, who is based in London and hosts the annual UK RumFest, is billed as the international ambassador of rum. He’ll lend his expertise to several events at The Hukilau, including tastings and symposiums. As host of the Tiki Tower Takeover, expect him to raise the energy level and add his unique brand of humor and enthusiasm. Burrell’s one and only previous appearance at The Hukilau was 2011, when he helped judge a cocktail contest and participated in a special “Rumposium” event with Berry, Cate and other luminaries. He’s truly the spirit’s global ambassador, spreading the gospel at events around the world. In 2013, he made appearances on all seven continents. * More on Ian Burrell: Take 5 interview * At The Hukilau 2011: Rum Rat Pack | Rum Barrel Challenge * At Miami Rum Festival 2014: Tiki seminar and cocktail recipe
During the June 8 event, signature cocktails will be served up by four of the world’s top bar teams, two from Europe and two from the United States. Here’s the official lineup of pop-up bars announced Sunday:
Daniele Dalla Pola of Nu Lounge Bar in Bologna, Italy.Also rated by many to be among the best bars in the world, Nu Lounge is a neo-Tiki bar known for its chill, retro vibe and world-class craft cocktails. Dalla Pola, the general manager and an award-winning mixologist, oversees a bar program known for its wide selection of spirits, bitters and homemade syrups. * Related: Interview by A Mountain of Crushed Ice
Bartenders to be announced from Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. This modern neo-Tiki bar made a splash a year after opening by winning the award for Best New American Cocktail Bar of 2014 at Tales of the Cocktail. Originally conceived by Paul McGee before he opened Lost Lake, this popular downtown lair is a mash-up of modern Tiki with craft cocktail aesthetics. The current beverage director is Kevin Beary, who finished third in the Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Festival’s cocktail competition in August with bartender Cory Starr. * Related: Bar of the week | Cocktail of the week
Garret Richard of Slowly Shirley in New York City. This young gun is a veteran of The Hukilau, leading his Big Apple bar’s pop-up at last year’s Tiki Road Trip Pool Party and serving on the Tiki Mondays With Miller crew during the first two Tiki Tower Takeovers. The Greenwich Village underground bar shares space with another craft cocktail hot spot, The Happiest Hour, giving Richard a launching pad for his modern take on classic Tiki. He has also competed in The Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown at both the New York City and South Beach wine & food festivals. * Related: Bar of the week
In addition to the elite bartenders taking part in the Tiki Tower Takeover, there are plans to increase the number of pop-up bars from around the country participating in other special events to eight. Look for upcoming announcements on special guest bars and bartenders.
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.”
Marking its 15th anniversary, the East Coast’s largest and oldest Polynesian Pop event promises its biggest party ever in 2016. But before the rum-fueled bash gets into high gear, we’d like to pause and take a look back at the past 14 gatherings of the Tiki tribe. Related: Tiki Kiliki: 15 years of The Hukilau, 15 years of memories
In 2002, a modern Tiki renaissance was in full swing. Inspired by the heyday of Polynesian Pop, which began with groundbreaking efforts of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic in the 1930s and stretched for more than 30 years into the 1960s, a new generation of artists, musicians, mixologists and entrepreneurs had been embracing retro Tiki culture since the 1990s.
As this grassroots movement gained momentum and new devotees discovered the wider world of mid-century pop culture, full-blown events soon followed. In Southern California – the birthplace of Tiki and haven for some of the genre’s most beloved bars, architecture and artists – Tiki Oasis started small in 2001 and quickly became the largest Tiki event in the West by its second installment in 2002.
The Hukilau was envisioned by its founders not only as the East Coast’s answer to Tiki Oasis, but also a celebration of the growing family and community, or ‘ohana, that had become so enamored with the entire underground movement. The name of the event, of course, comes from the traditional Hawaiian festival held in fishing villages in which a large net is cast into the sea to capture fish for the feast that honors the spirit of family and community.
Classic Beachbum Berry book to be re-imagined, new glassware available
Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari, the underrated classic 2007 cocktail book that helped set the stage for today’s robust revival of Tiki bars across the country, will be re-released in the fall as a 10-year anniversary special edition, the author confirmed. Former screenwriter Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s fourth book was his first full-color, story-driven guide to the history of tropical mixology.
It includes not only dozens of vintage tropical drink recipes, but also the fascinating stories and exclusive photos of some of the genre’s most talented yet under-appreciated barmen from the early and mid-20th century. Berry, the owner of the acclaimed Latitude 29 restaurant and Tiki bar in New Orleans, gave us a sneak peek of what we can expect:
“This edition will feature a new afterward taking readers through the 10 years after Sippin’ first appeared: The explosive Tiki cocktail revolution that no one saw coming in 2007, which was aided and abetted by the craft cocktail renaissance that grew on parallel tracks, ending with the opening of amazing new Tiki cocktail bars.” The book will be published by Cocktail Kingdom, which released Berry’s award-winning Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them in late 2013.
“It also features a new preface talking about what led up to the writing of Sippin’, covering the years 1964 to 2006,” Berry said via e-mail. “I’ve also added footnotes to the main text, and a bunch of additional recipes, both old and unpublished, and new ones from the Tiki revival.” It’s a revival that Berry had a large hand in spurring, from his early books (Grog Log, Intoxica) to his symposiums at Tiki and cocktail events across the world.
Potions of the Caribbean, which won the Spirited Award for Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014, was originally intended to be the final chapter in Sippin’ Safari, detailing Tiki’s links back to the Caribbean. Berry used that idea as a jumping off point for a full-blown history book as told through cocktails, following the template established in the groundbreaking Sippin’ Safari.
The book tells the story of the men who toiled behind the scenes for Don the Beachcomber, Steve Crane and other giants of the early days of Tiki. It reveals the intriguing back stories of such mixologists as Ray Buhen (Tiki-Ti), Bob Esmino (Kon-Tiki) and Mariano Licudine (The Mai-Kai). The final chapter includes a revealing peek behind the scenes at at The Mai-Kai, exploring the grand vision of original owners Bob and Jack Thornton and detailing the early years via stories from Licudine’s son, Ron. Sippin’ Safari is definitely a must-have in any Tiki cocktail book collection.
Meanwhile, some cool new glassware was added to the Beachbum Berry barware collection on the Cocktail Kingdom website. In late 2015, the premium barware company released its first custom mug for Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans: A 15-ounce coconut mug featuring the Latitude 29 logo that serves as a vessel for the bar’s Painkiller cocktail. It later was released online, along with a similar coconut mug featuring the Beachbum Berry logo. All of the coconut mugs, which harken back to classic vessels popularized by Trader Vic’s, are just $12.95 each, with steep discounts for bulk orders. Unlike the traditional Trader Vic’s coconut, the Cocktail Kingdom mugs developed in collaboration with Berry include a special hole for a straw.
More recently, Berry and Cocktail Kingdom scared up some new cocktailware that we’re dying to get our hands on: Beachbum Berry Zombie Glasses. These vintage-style 15-ounce glasses were uniquely designed for Don the Beachcomber’s original 1934 Zombie cocktail and the 1950 mid-century version, both unearthed after years of painstaking research by Berry. The 1934 recipe, especially, was considered one of the most significant classic recipe revelations of the modern Tiki era. First published in Sippin’ Safari., it shows off Donn Beach’s magic in creating one of the most popular and distinctive drinks in the early days of tropical mixology. The glasses come in a two-pack: One with the 1950 recipe, the other with the 1934 recipe. They’re $18.95 for the set, with discounts for larger orders.
Previous updates: The East Coast’s longest-running and largest Tiki-themed weekender continues to add special events, merchandise and rum sponsors with less than a month remaining before throngs of retro-loving Tikiphiles descend on Fort Lauderdale. The latest major addition is the The Hukilau’s High Tide, presented by Rhum Barbancourt and taking place during the Friday night festivities at the host Pier 66 hotel.
Existing Friday night passholders can buy wristbands for $35 giving them access to the special Barbancourt cocktails during High Tide (up to eight per person). Cocktails are also available for $10 each. Non-passholders can buy a Friday day pass that also includes the Tiki Road Trip Pool Party (noon-4 p.m.) and Tiki Treasures Bazaar (10 a.m.-8 p.m.) for $129. A Friday night pass is $99 (or $69 without drink bracelet). Stacy’s Polynesian tidbits will be sold à la carte. Hotel bars will also be selling cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.
Miller, an accomplished Big Apple bartender and brand ambassador, is host of the city’s most celebrated Tiki cocktail event, Tiki Mondays With Miller. He’ll be bringing many of his motley crew with him to The Hukilau to help him with the Rhum Barbancourt pop-up bar, including Ryan “Corporal Captain” Liloia, Jelani “Swabble” Johnson, and Garret “Dr. Funk” Richard. They’ll be pouring four different Tiki cocktails featuring Rhum Barbancourt, a venerable spirit from Haiti that will have a high profile at this year’s event. Miller issued a missive from his pirate’s lair promising “an assortment of temptresses, rogues and scoundrels.” His captain’s orders: “Tortuga ain’t got nuthin on Tiki Mondays With Miller at The Hukilau.”
Miller and an all-star lineup of world-class bartenders (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McGee, St. John Frizell) will also be mixing with Rhum Barbancourt at the sold-out Tiki Tower Takeover on Thursday night. You can sample the distinctive rhums and see them mixed in cocktails Thursday through Saturday outside the Tiki Treasures Bazaar in the brand’s special tasting booth.
As a special treat, Friday’s High Tide event will also include The Hukilau debut of larger-than-life chef Jim Stacy, best known for his appearances on Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Stacy is a renaissance man whose talents include butcher, bartender, chef, touring rock ‘n’ roller and tattoo artist. He cut his teeth in the Atlanta bar and restaurant scene at the Star Community Bar and Starlight Drive-In Theatre, then became a local and national TV food authority. He recently sold the Atlanta-area Pallookaville Fine Foods in preparation for a new concept sure to please fans of traditional Polynesian-themed food and cocktails.
Stacy will soon be opening MoaKai, a full-blown Polynesian/island restaurant spotlighting “classic resort dishes made with Southern soul food ingredients.” Expect the themed Atlanta eatery to include such creative, taste-tempting dishes as lau-lau with collards instead of taro leaves, and poi made with sweet potato. “We’ll be doing a traditional Hawaiian barrel smoked chicken as our specialty with additional emphasis on vegetarian and vegan menu items,” Stacy said in a recent interview. At the High Tide party, Stacy will be cooking up “Polynesian delights featuring Rhum Barbancourt expressions with a soul food twist,” according to the event announcement.
Of course, Stacy’s restaurant will include a Tiki bar, The Barnacled Mermaid. Guests can sample Stacy’s fresh take on tropical mixology on Friday afternoon during the Tiki Road Trip Pool Party along with other top bars from across the country: Porco Lounge & Tiki Room (Cleveland), Foundation Tiki Bar (Milwaukee), Aku Aku (Orlando), and The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley (New York City). Stacy is a longtime supporter of The Hukilau who attended last year’s event (see photos). But this will be his first year as a participant. He also featured The Mai-Kai on an episode of Offbeat Eats in January 2015.
Some events sold out, but plenty remain on full weekend schedule
Interest is high in The Hukilau for its 15th anniversary gathering, which will also celebrate the upcoming 60th birthday of The Mai-Kai. The historic Pier 66, another 60-year-old landmark, is sold out of rooms. But event co-founder and organizer Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White quickly lined up an overflow host hotel, the nearby Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina Hotel. See our previous report for all the details and book a room now.
Some sad news out of Portland with the unexpected closing of Trader Vic’s. Meanwhile in South Florida, The Hukilau announces an exciting new symposium. Other event updates include the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival, Tiki Fest in the Pacific Northwest, Ohana: Luau at the Lake, and Tiki Kon. Quick sips include a Tiki home design show, a new FOM chapter in Atlanta, a space-Tiki lounge in L.A., and a Tiki speakeasy in NYC. Regular features spotlight lowbrow art legend Von Franco; sizzling San Diego surf band Jason Lee and the R.I.P. Tides; and the Luau, a historic restaurant from Miami Beach’s heyday. Learn about rum at the website of the week, RumJourney.com, before sampling the rum and cocktail of the week: Don Q Cristal and Val’s Daiquiri from New York City’s End of the Century. * Keep up with The Week in Tiki: Facebook page | RSS feed | See past weeks | Archive * Weekly features: Artist | Band/music | Bar | Website | Rum | Cocktail | Events
BREAKING NEWS: Fire closes Trader Vic’s in Portland
A March 2 fire at the medical office above the Trader Vic’s location in Portland forced what was originally thought to be a temporary closing of one of the few remaining North American outposts of the venerable Polynesian restaurant chain. But news later leaked out that due to mounting debt and high operating costs, the franchise owner was forced to close permanently, Wilmanette Week reported.
The fire burned through most of the ceiling in the bar and dining room, but a Facebook post on the restaurant’s official page that same day indicated that repairs would be made. After several weeks, however, a manager posted on his personal Facebook account that Trader Vic’s Portland “is now permanently closed” less than 5 years after it opened. In a follow-up, he said that the re-opening would have taken eight weeks and the owner decided to close after struggling to “keep above water” due to the high rent and overhead of the 8,000-square-foot restaurant.
The return of Trader Vic’s to Portland was heralded in August 2011 as the beloved brand joined a burgeoning local Tiki scene that had grown around the annual Tiki Kon and worldwide revival. Portland previously had a longstanding Trader Vic’s in the Bensen Hotel from 1959 to 1996.
The new location in the Pearl District was warmly received by locals and Tikiphiles alike. It was filled with authentic decor, including Tikis, tribal masks, glass floats and outrigger canoes. The food and drinks were also highly regarded, but apparently the costs were too high to stay competitive in one of the country’s top food and beverage cities. The closing leaves only two Trader Vic’s restaurants in the United States: the company-owned flagship location in Emeryville, Calif., and a long-rinning franchise in Atlanta. There are 18 overseas locations in 11 countries. * Trader Vic’s corporate site
EVENT PREVIEWS: The Hukilau, Miami Rum Festival, Tiki Fest, Ohana: Luau at the Lake, Tiki Kon
The Hukilau announces new symposium, sponsors
Some of the biggest names in the modern Tiki revival will gather at The Hukilau for a groundbreaking symposium as part of the 15th annual festivities June 8-12 in Fort Lauderdale. “Raiders of the Lost Tiki Culture” will bring together author and bar owner Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Latitude 29, New Orleans), event promoter Otto von Stroheim (Tiki Oasis), historian Humuhumu (Critiki), author and bar owner Martin Cate (Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco), artist Crazy Al Evans, acclaimed artist Shag, and event promoter Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White of The Hukilau for a rousing two-part panel discussion hosted by Hurricane Hayward of The Atomic Grog. Author Sven Kirsten (Tiki Pop, The Book of Tiki) will also participate via Skype. Tickets are on sale now for $15 for passholders, $30 for non-passholders. The symposium will take place on Saturday, June 11, at 1 p.m. in the Panorama Ballroom at the host Pier 66 hotel. * FULL COVERAGE: PREVIEW OF THE HISTORY SYMPOSIUM, MORE
Exciting news this week for fans of The Mai-Kai with the release of new Tiki mugs and pre-orders for a long-awaited history book. News on The Art of Tiki event in South Beach includes a new rum sponsor and the return of last year’s champ. We recap events from N.Y.C. to L.A., including new Doug Horne Tiki mugs. Upcoming events include a tribute to Steve Crane, South Florida’s Polynesian Cultural Festival, and a new Trader Vic’s seminar. In other news, a tree crashes the party at VenTiki, plus Bacardi and Havana Club duke it out. Regular features spotlight eclectic artist Sam Gambino; groundbreaking exotica ensemble Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica; Brooklyn bar Fort Defiance; and online group Poly Hai. The Rum of the Week, Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva 15, is featured in the Pineapple Express cocktail. * Keep up with The Week in Tiki: Facebook page | RSS feed | See past weeks | Archive * Weekly features: Artist | Band/music | Bar | Website | Rum | Cocktail | Events
Note: For 2016, The Week in Tiki will remain bi-weekly, but we’ve simplified the schedule. Look for blogs recapping the first and second half of each month.
New Mai-Kai mugs released, history book coming in July
In December, a limited number of artist proofs were released and quickly sold out. The mug, which comes with its own pendant, pays tribute to the historic Polynesian Palace’s iconic Tikis. Tiki Diablo, aka Danny Gallardo, has previously created mugs that pay homage to memorable Tikis at The Mai-Kai in 2014 and 2015 (see story). He’ll also be crafting the official mug for the upcoming book on The Mai-Kai by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.
UPDATE: The book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, will be released Sept. 28. The 176-page hardcover book (11 inches wide by 8 1/2 inches high) is being issued by Schiffer Publishing. It’s available for pre-order online via Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Glazner will be hosting a release party and special events at The Mai-Kai on Sept. 17-18. Advance copies of the book will be available at the release party.
In the book, the longtime Mai-Kai historian reveals never-before-seen photos and stories that he’s gleaned from more than 13 years of research on the 59-year-old Tiki temple, which was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a fascinating story of the brash young men who in 1956 created The Mai-Kai for a million dollars, making it one of the most expensive restaurants of its day. By sparing no expense and creating a one-of-a kind Tiki paradise, Bob and Jack Thornton created an acclaimed playground of celebrities and playboys during the mid-century heyday of Polynesian Pop.
Glazner also spotlights the beautiful women who worked there, many who used the experience as a jumping-off point for adventure and fame. The book includes exclusive first-hand stories on more than 400 images, documenting not only The Mai-Kai but the history, allure, and enduring legacy of the original Tiki era. Focusing on 1955 to 1971, the book traces the genesis of the restaurant and its key employees back to Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber. Many of The Mai-Kai’s original key managers and employees came from the Beachcomber outpost in Chicago, where the Thorntons called home. This includes bartender Mariano Licudine, who created the acclaimed bar menu (based on Donn Beach’s original “rum rhapsodies”) that remains intact at The Mai-Kai today.
After 15 years of planning the East Coast’s premiere Tiki weekender, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White knows a thing or two about giving her guests, affectionately known as “villagers,” what they want. For the 15th anniversary of The Hukilau, scheduled for June 8-12 in Fort Lauderdale, that means assembling the biggest names in the Polynesian Pop revival for an unforgettable experience unlike any other.
“Tiki culture is only growing stronger, and we are trying to provide the best show possible for anyone who wants to join us,” Tiki Kiliki said in an interview this week. She said she wants her guests to feel like “they’ve just stepped back in time into an era where Tiki was ever-present.”
Tickets went on sale Tuesday for an impressive array of symposiums and experiences that will make the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale the epicenter of the 21st century Tiki revival. Special guests and entertainers include some of the scene’s top artists (Shag, Tom Fowner, Will Anders, Jeff Chouinard), cocktail creators (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McGee, Brian Miller, St. John Frizell), bands and musicians (The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Jason Lee and the R.I.P. Tides, The Intoxicators, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, The Quiet Villagers, The Disasternauts), entertainers (Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Angie Pontani, Kitten de Ville, Lila Starlet), and pop culture historians (Otto von Stroheim, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Humuhumu, Paul Roe).
“The appearance of Shag has really stirred tons of excitement here on the East Coast,” Tiki Kiliki said. “We don’t see him often enough, so that will be a true treat for everyone.”
This year’s event celebrates not only The Hukilau’s 15th year, but also the 60th anniversary of The Mai-Kai, the legendary Tiki temple that was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Hukilau moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2003 after launching in 2002 in Atlanta, drawn by the restaurant’s legendary reputation that only continues to grow. Last year, it was named best Tiki bar in the world after a tally of ratings by Critiki.com users.
The Hukilau is returning for a second year to Pier 66, another historic property that dates back to 1956 and is beloved for its mid-century architecture and iconic rotating rooftop penthouse lounge. It’s a miraculous turnaround for The Hukilau, which nearly called it adieu in 2014. At the 11th hour, Tiki Kiliki was approached by new partners who have injected new life (and financing) into the event, enabling the move to Pier 66. She has also been able to concentrate on the creative end of things, putting together a perfect Polynesian Pop getaway for guests.
The Hukilau’s villagers last year voted Pier 66 “Best Hotel in The Hukilau’s History,” enamored by its modern amenities and hospitality provided by Hyatt, combined with its history and mid-century design. With only a few available rooms remaining during The Hukilau weekend, Tiki Kiliki urges potential guests to book sooner rather than later.
“The 66 provides a perfect backdrop to the classic era of Tiki with its roots perfectly planted the same year that The Mai-Kai first opened,” Tiki Kiliki said. Pier 66 guests are also the only villagers who will receive special welcome bags full of swag provided by sponsors. When Pier 66 sells out, she hopes to have another nearby hotel lined up for villagers to enjoy.
Sales of 2016 event passes and tickets for special events have been selling at an unprecedented rate after going online in late October, much earlier than in past years. Demand is no doubt driven by the anniversaries and the unique experiences the 2016 event offers.
Tiki Kiliki said many things are driving interest this year. Villagers are “excited about celebrating the past and the future with the anniversaries, and Tiki culture is only growing stronger. … Also, Pier 66 has a lot to do with it too. The event grows ever stronger in the right venue.”