There was no fancy groundbreaking or ribbon cutting, but March 6 was a significant date in the long journey toward the restoration and reimagination of The Mai-Kai, southeast Florida’s historic Polynesian restaurant. That’s when work officially began on three different projects that had been stalled for months awaiting building permits.
The city of Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee approved the site plan at a Jan. 26 meeting, but details remained to be ironed out as they made their way through the governmental process before permits could be issued. Committee approval was considered to be the final hurdle, so the wait to get started seemed interminable for the owners and staff, who have been planning the massive renovations for nearly a year while working on smaller restoration projects.
But even those projects became bogged down due to The Mai-Kai’s status as a local and national historic landmark. For example, work on replacing old thatched roofing, which began in late summer, had to stop in October and await multiple approvals. On Jan. 11, the city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the ambitious $8.5 million project.
That left the 10-member Development Review Committee, composed of officials from various departments and disciplines across the city, to weigh in and give the project a green light. The approval, also unanimous, ended up being a flashing red light for five weeks as the general contractor and others waited at the starting line, engines idling.
The three long-awaited permits finally came through on Friday, March 3, joining an earlier approval that will together enable The Mai-Kai to move full-steam ahead in an effort to re-open the beloved restaurant in late 2023. It has been closed since Oct. 25, 2020, when a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen rendered the 26,000-square-foot restaurant unable to serve diners for the first time in its 66-year history.
After more than two years of downtime, not a minute was wasted in kick-starting work on multiple fronts last week. While you may not yet notice anything new as you drive by the 2.7 acres at 3599 N. Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) northwest of coastal Fort Lauderdale, there’s a lot going on inside and to the rear of the property. Work started on Monday, March 6, and by the time I visited on Thursday, March 9, the property was abuzz with activity. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind” since the permits were approved, said manager Kern Mattei, who deals with most of the on-site logistics. “We’ve been super busy.”
Guests picking up take-out cocktails this week should be able to get a peek at some of the action. Just be aware that construction may require the closure of some areas of the parking lot, so keep an eye out for updated directions and those ubiquitous orange cones.
The Atomic Grog’s exclusive coverage of The Mai-Kai renovations
* New details on restaurant’s reimagination, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele in Atlanta
* Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board OKs plans, clears way for project to move forward
Mattei gave me an overview of The Mai-Kai’s current state along with plans for projects relating to all three permits, graciously allowing me a peek behind the scenes on March 9. Many of the photos above and below were taken during that visit. Here’s a synopsis of the three permits issued March 3 and the projects they encompass:
* Removal of the Bora Bora building. An essential first step in the total reimagination of The Mai-Kai’s entry and parking lot experience, this will be the first project to be completed. Mattei said that the demolition job is out for bid by the general contractor. Once a firm is selected, the removal of the building will likely happen quickly, since the permit expires May 2. In the meantime, Mattei said, he and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller are overseeing the removal of all salvageable pieces from the historic building, which dates back to the early 1960s and has been vacant since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Once the building is removed, the massive landscaping project can begin.
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing. Already underway since last year but now four months behind schedule after work was halted, this project was quickly re-started last week. Workers on hydraulic lifts were busy shoring up the crossbeams of the soaring A-frame structure. Allsmiller will lead an effort to repair the stylized extension on the peak of the A-frame, restoring it back to its original design. Realistic synthetic thatch approved by the city will then cover the entire roof. The thatching project will also include The Mai-Kai’s massive main A-frame, along with the two smaller peaked roofs over the back dining rooms that are nearly complete. Wood, thatch, and other materials were already on site March 9, awaiting installation by South Florida’s Tiki King. The porte-cochère permit doesn’t expire until Aug. 30. A separate re-roofing permit is “in review,” the step before approval. The previous roofing permit expired March 2.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen. Also running through Aug. 30, this over-arching permit allows The Mai-Kai to install a temporary kitchen in space that onece contained back-of-house offices. A permit that was issued last May (expiring Aug. 8) covers the installation of a new air-conditioning system on all of the completed roofs. Steel beams that will go onto the roof to support the AC units are ready and waiting, painted to blend in with the decor. The general contractor was working in the old staff locker rooms March 9, peeling off the drywall and ceiling. I did not get a look at this, since it was a hard-hat area, but we know from the plans that this will be the location of the new permanent back bar. The provisional kitchen is a stopgap measure to get the restaurant up and running as quickly as possible, albeit with a limited menu. The buildout of a full kitchen will be part of Phase 2, estimated to be a year or more down the road. The second phase will also include the event center, which will be built next to the kitchen in what was once storage space.
The cost of The Mai-Kai’s sale and subsequent capital improvement project is pegged at $8.5 million. It cost the late Bob and Jack Thornton an estimated $300,000 to build The Mai-Kai in the mid-1950s. But in mid-century dollars, the stunning A-frame building and its surrounding exotic environment was considered to be the most expensive restaurant in the country when it opened on Dec. 28, 1956.
The Thornton family sold a controlling interest in the restaurant to an ownership team led by the Miami-based Barlington Group in September 2021, when planning the rebirth began in earnest. The family will join forces the Barlington Group’s sister company, Mad Room Hospitality, to operate The Mai-Kai.
Emergency approval was given for the kitchen to be gutted after the initial damage, followed by an October 2021 permit for plumbing work. In March 2022, a permit allowed for extensive repair and replacement of damaged roofs across the remaining back- and front-of-house areas that were not compromised.
Barlington Group co-founder and Mai-Kai managing partner Bill Fuller and his design team revealed the ambitious restoration and renovation plans at an Oakland Park public meeting in April 2022.
In early summer, Allsmiller began the indoor restoration, meticulously replacing rotted wood and vintage decor with an eye toward 100 percent authenticity. Stay tuned for an upcoming story that will document more of his recent work.
In the meantime, here’s a further breakdown of all the plans that just received approval, along with the current state of the property (as of March 9), and details on what may come next:
Removal of Bora Bora building to pave the way for a new arrival experience
The building known as the Bora Bora Room was The Mai-Kai’s gift shop during the 1970s, then repurposed into a banquet space. Its location – directly across from the porte-cochère – made it convenient, but because it was detached from the main building and separated by a constant flow of automobile traffic, it likely was never considered for daily use as a dining room. The historic designation in 2014 made altering or removing it problematic.
Off limits to guests due to the hurricane damage, it was used as storage space over the past two decades while in a constant state of decay. Upkeep was curtailed due to safety reasons. “Most of the Bora Bora finishes have become old and brittle,” Mattei told the historic board on Jan. 11.
Rattan matting broke apart and deteriorated. The split bamboo is not historic and easy to replicate, so that won’t need to be saved, he added. “The exterior is going to be tough, but we’ll do the best that we can,” Mattei told the board before it approved the building’s removal.
None of this salvage work could begin until the permit was issued on March 3. During the March 9 tour, Mattei pointed out parts of the decor that will be preserved as we walked around the exterior. “We want to try and save the masks,” he said. However, even if they can’t, they’re among the many Polynesian artifacts on the grounds that were cast in cement from molds, so they could be replicated.
Mattei said his team will be able to salvage rock work and “some of the tapa cloth on the outside that’s still good.” The original Bora Bora building had extensive lava rock features on its four exterior corners. But people “were getting scraped up,” so most of the rock was covered when Bora Bora became a banquet room, Mattei told the historic board. The faux rock finishes are now being removed in an effort to recover as much lava rock as possible and “put it to good use,” he said.
Traversing the rickety wooden walkways, it was easy to see why a structural assessment report last June deemed the building to be structurally unsafe and “severely compromised due to rot, water damage, and decay.” That report was crucial in getting approval for the demolition.
The interior didn’t look as bad, but it had already been stripped to the bare walls. Several back rooms have the worst roof damage. There’s much termite damage throughout the building, Mattei said, but he’s been able to salvage some wood in areas that weren’t infested. Also saved were show costumes that had been in storage, which explains the mannequin propped up in front of the building as if it were a tiki carving protecting the doomed building.
Next will come the demolition, paving the way for a new arrival experience that will immerse guests into an exotic paradise the second they cross the refurbished wooden bridge. One of the lighter moments at the Jan. 26 meeting came when it was revealed that this entry point isn’t really a bridge at all. The design is so convincing, it fooled government officials.
The Florida Department of Transportation had requested evidence of the “structural integrity” of the bridge, unaware that it’s actually an example of “early imagineering” by the Thornton brothers, as Fuller likes to say. “It’s wood planks on top of concrete,” Fuller told committee members. “It’s not a real bridge. The water doesn’t connect.” Each side has its own pump that controls the water feature, he said of the convincing effect.
The Development Review Committee supported “retaining the bridge in its current configuration,” but the FDOT wanted to know how it’s constructed. “They need to understand it’s not a bridge,” one member astutely pointed out.
Just past the “bridge,” the driveway will curve north across the old footprint of the Bora Bora building and around the large banyan trees, which are being preserved. It will then feed into an elaborate roundabout and lushly landscaped parking area that we will detail in more depth in a future story. You can see previously released renderings in our stories posted on Jan. 13 and Feb. 5.
Natural, manmade icons protected during porte-cochère renovations
When The Mai-Kai reopens, the porte-cochère will no longer be used for vehicle traffic, allowing for new features. These include a covered bar with patio seating, and a catamaran-themed stage for performers. Check the links above for more on these plans, including artist renderings.
The nearly 100-foot banyan trees looming overhead will be protected during the demolition, Mattei said, but the wooden tikis below will need to be moved temporarily to ensure they’re not damaged. One of the carvings, the Tangaroa-style tiki by local artist Tom Fowner, was moved indoors in late summer for repairs. We recently saw it inside the lobby, where Allsmiller is tending to the wood rot damage.
The other two tikis, a Hawaiian-style carving by Fort Lauderdale’s Will Anders and a Marquesan by Tampa’s Jeff Chouinard, recently received a refresh and new coat of sealant. They will return to their home outdoors once the renovations are complete.
The trio was installed in 2016, perched atop rock platforms that previously held tikis carved from fern wood. Over the decades, the “fern tikis” had deteriorated to the point of being unrecognizable, so they were replaced. They can be seen in some historic photos from the early years.
One remnant remains, however, as pointed out by Allsmiller. To the left of the tikis, you can still see the remains of a fern carving almost totally engulfed by banyan limbs. Another curious artifact nearby is a mask wedged into the tree behind the carvings. Mattei said he can’t remember how long it’s been there, but he thinks it received its paint job around eight years ago when the large carving by legendary California artist Barney West on the northeast corner of the property was repainted.
That carving, which dates back to the early 1960s and is the last large tiki from that era to survive, is also due to be removed before the demolition and restored, Allsmiller said. It will likely receive a new home outdoors, but under cover in a prominent spot, he added.
Site readied for installation of new bar and kitchen
The most intense work on March 9 was happening in the back of the building, where the thud of hammering and the constant beep of small loaders could be heard constantly during the hour I spent there. While the existing back of house receives new drywall, the site of the new kitchen is being used as a staging area. Outside, on the south end of the property, old drywall and roof debris was carefully dumped in a pile to await removal.
Once the new drywall is installed, Allsmiller will add finishings and decor. The same thing will happen in the back office. During a tour last month, Allsmiller revealed that the new back bar will be redesigned with a theme instead of just a generic design.
“Bill (Fuller) says that if your drinks are coming from a magical place, the magical place should really look magical,” Allsmiller said. “Instead of just a service bar, it will be themed out.” These special touches will surely make future back-of-house VIP tours even more fun.
As Mattei explained, this part of the project features many moving parts that need to be carefully coordinated. First, the roofs need to be completed and some nagging A-frame leaks fixed. Then, crews must install all new air-conditioning vents and rooftop units that will provide much more efficient cooling than the old system.
Work in the new kitchen will require power to be shut down for an extended period in April, so a generator may be brought in. This will allow Allsmiller to continue his work in the dining rooms, and Mattei to batch take-out cocktails in The Molokai bar. After the roof collapse, the initial electrical fixes put everything on one circuit, he explained.
Electricians will need to re-run power lines and main breakers to get proper distribution. When completed, there will be five circuits spread throughout The Mai-Kai, ensuring an optimal system.
To cap off the visit, we toured the room containing the Chinese brick ovens, which suffered no damage but has been sealed and untouched since the roof collapse. Mattei said work is now proceeding on figuring out how to salvage the bricks and move the ovens to the new kitchen space, then turn the room into the reception area for the event space.
Beyond moving the ovens, which were added during The Mai-Kai’s early 1970s expansion, the project is complex on several levels. Mattei said they want to “leave the structure intact” but also make it wheelchair-accessable. “We want it to be ADA friendly,” he said.
Outside in the garden, the new back deck was raised so it will meet the new doorway to the event center. The goal, he said, is easier handicapped access to both the event center and the garden. In the past, staff had to put up a temporary ramp to accommodate guests who couldn’t use the stairs by the entrance to the garden.
The reception area will be accessed via two doors, one from the garden and the other from the indoor hallway. Mattei said it could be used to welcome guests at events with leis, cocktails, and ukulele players; or simply as a place to leave a gift and sign a wedding book before entering the larger event space.
The Hukilau will celebrate The Mai-Kai in June as sights set on late 2023 reopening
The burning question for most fans, and even casual observers, continues to be: “When is The Mai-Kai reopening?” Unfortunately, even a tentative range of dates would be hard to pin down at this point, considering all the work that still needs to be done.
While there was brief talk of an early summer reopening, the last statement by Fuller on the subject (Sun Sentinel / Feb. 18), referred to a “late summer or early fall” reopening at the earliest.
While this estimate came before the permits were issued, it falls in line with the late August expiration dates. It also assumes no further delays, which could happen for any reason. Keep in mind that hurricane season heats up around that same time.
“Late summer, early fall looks good,” Mattei told us, cautioning that it’s still too early for an accurate estimate. “The permits and demolition are one thing,” he said, “but construction and getting supplies is another. Once they start the construction, then we’ll get a timeline so we know if we’re on schedule or not.”
Beyond the work tied to the current permits, the major project that will determine the reopening date is likely the redevelopment of the parking lot. More permits will be needed to do all the necessary work, Mattei said, adding that paperwork is already being prepared.
This multi-faceted project will include not only tearing up and repaving the entire lot, but also upgraded lighting and installing new pipes to fix a drainage problem. The entire back wall needs to be rebuilt as a larger barrier along Northeast 20th Avenue on the west side of the property.
The rear entry points will be consolidated into one for staff only, then all the extensive landscaping and themed finishes will be added. Like everything else connected to this project, it’s an ambitious design that should be worth the wait.
In the short term, Mattei said, he hopes the electrical work will done by the end of April, and the air-conditioning installed in May. By June, the Bora Bora demolition and porte-cochère should be done, he said.
This all bodes well for guests of The Hukilau 2023, the 20th gathering of Polynesian pop enthusiasts scheduled for June 8-11 at the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort in nearby Pompano Beach. Depending on construction restrictions, holders of the top-tier event passes may be getting a private tour of the property.
If construction prevents a tour, Richard Oneslager – The Hukilau’s organizer and also an investor in The Mai-Kai ownership team – told us that he would arrange for a presentation to be shown at the hotel. At The Hukilau 2022 last June, Oneslager hosted Fuller and his team for a well-received presentation that included a deep dive into the reimagination plans.
Regardless of construction, Mattei and Oneslager said that The Mai-Kai will participate as a guest bar serving signature cocktails at The Hukilau much like last year. Attendees will also be able to enjoy a beach party featuring a performance of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing.
The show will continue to be choreographed by 85-year-old Mireille Thornton, the family matriarch and widow of founder Bob Thornton. She joined The Mai-Kai in the early 1960s as a dancer from Tahiti. “Over the past few months, it’s been fun to look backward at all the numbers we’ve done to put together a new show,” Thornton told Miami New Times in February.
Bob and Mireille Thornton’s daughter, Kulani Thornton Gelardi, spoke about the renovations during a recent event to introduce The Mai-Kai’s new signature rum. The head of the family ownership team, who grew up at the restaurant, said Fuller is doing his best to maintain the vision of her father, who died in 1989.
“This is going to be the fourth iteration of The Mai-Kai,” she said. After opening in 1956, it changed in 1962-64 with the addition of The Molokai, then again in 1971-72 with a massive expansion that added new dining rooms and the current back-of-house building. “It’s not like dad said, ‘We can’t change.’ But, he always kept authenticity, he kept originality, he kept his love of the islands in everything he did,” Gelardi said.
The current plans fit in with that vision, she said, praising Fuller and his team. “What he’s doing outside is going to be beautiful. It’s going to be amazing,” she said. “But when you walk in the door, you’re going to be back in 1972. Nothing’s changing.”
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