The multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai reached a turning point this fall when multiple construction projects were underway, both inside and outside the historic property in South Florida. These key elements – the rebuilding of the back-of-house kitchen and bar, plus the reimagination of the parking lot – are the last major pieces of the puzzle that need to completed before a projected early 2024 reopening can become reality.
But despite all this hubbub, the artists who are bringing the design and decor of the vintage restaurant back to life remain focused on their many highly detailed tasks. Working in and around the construction zones is merely a day at the office for creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow craftsmen, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and Conrad Teheiura Itchener. Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei continues to handle the day-to-day operations with aplomb.
After a hot and grueling summer, everyone working inside the building got some welcome relief when the new air-conditioning system finally roared to life in the fall after being installed in July. Most of the building had been without AC since the roof collapse in October 2020 that triggered the closing and eventual sale of The Mai-Kai to the Barlington Group and a new ownership team that partnered with the founding Thornton family.
The rewiring of the 67-year-old building was an epic task for electricians. Power was out for months during the summer, awaiting Florida Power & Light crews scheduled to make the restaurant’s six new breaker boxes operational. Power was eventually restored in early October. Then, on Oct. 12, vents were blasting cold air into the vintage Molokai bar almost exactly three years after the closing. By early November, the showroom, Tonga Room and the gift shop were also being cooled as the electricians started bringing other parts of the building online.
The air wasn’t the only cool thing happening in the refurbished bar. While it could be considered merely symbolic, the return of the “Molokai Maiden” masthead to her perch was a highlight not only for fans but also for the craftsmen working endless hours on the restoration. The alluring mermaid has been a longtime icon, immortalized with a memorable mug in 2014 by artist Crazy Al Evans, produced by The Swank Pad.
* Video: Maiden of the Molokai mug by Crazy Al (2014)
Most of the bar’s decor was finished earlier this year, but reinstalling the mermaid was a pretty big deal for the crew. “It really feels like The Mai-Kai’s coming back now that she’s up there,” Itchener said. He was joined by Allsmiller and Scheidly for the task, which they documented with a video on Instagram:
The porte-cochère: Restoration meets reimagination
Racing against the clock to finish their work before construction crews arrived to excavate the driveway, Allsmiller and his team completed their work on the beams and vintage panels under the porte-cochère. When new LED lighting was installed and tested in October, the result was a sight not seen in decades.
Numerous hurricanes knocked out the accent lights, while the 65-year-old fiberglass panels and adjacent wooden rails over the front doors fell into disrepair over the years. The entire area was reimagined by Allsmiller and Scheidly. They were joined by Itchener, who helped turn the black metal support beams into faux bamboo.
Final details remain, but the improvement since The Hukilau in September 2021, seen in the photo below, is dramatic. Guests will have a spectacular view when this becomes a permanent outdoor seating area. The signature outrigger will soon return as well.
* Previous coverage of the porte-cochère reimagination
“It’s a nice upgrade,” Allsmiller said. “It makes me very happy.” Some work remains to be done, however. The main poles are still wrapped with old rope that will be dealt with later, after the driveway is replaced. Crews will need to run water and electric infrastructure below ground to reach the new outdoor bar planned for the porte-cochère.
Earlier, Allsmiller explained his inspiration for the design on the beams. It’s based on Marquesan art, one of his favorite styles. “It’s a little bit of a mix, but mostly Marquesan,” he said. It also has some Hawaiian and Samoan influence with the repetitive bands. “With Marquesan, you have more swooping lines and intricate patterns,” he said.
Meanwhile, the design on the bottom rail is a callback to the original rails. “I brought that back as a tribute,” he said. The bottom rail also ties in with the design on the vintage fiberglass panels.
Allsmiller said he tried to come up with a big pattern that didn’t feel too monotonous. He spent two weeks working on it, bouncing ideas off Scheidly. The side beams are the same, front and back, while the middle beam has its own pattern on both sides.
While respecting the original theme and the work of George Nakashima, the respected designer who oversaw the 1970 Mai-Kai expansion, Allsmiller said he “wanted something more traditional.” He said his version feels very Grecian, or like something you’d see on a Roman column. Itchener said he’s seen similar forms used elsewhere in Polynesian art.
The award-winning scenic artist, who spent 13 years working in theme parks at Universal and Disney, explained the process of bringing his art to life:
He transferred his main designs to soft vinyl stencils, which were used to apply the base color. The artists then rolled the beams with black paint and peeled off the vinyl (see photo above). The base goes first, he said, so the black doesn’t spread out underneath. “When you roll it with the base color, it goes into those bleeds and dries so the black can’t get in.”
The bottom rail was done with a hard stencil and spray gun, he said. South Florida tattoo artist Jeff Kozan joined the crew to help clean up any extraneous spray paint. “Most of it will be covered up when we do the aging, but anything obvious he’s going in and touching up,” Allsmiller said while the work was being done in September.
The aging effect (aka “block age”) is a technique of simply putting the base color on top of the black using a chunk of wood. “It just picks up high points and becomes very natural and irregular,” Allsmiller said. “Then, when we do the final aging, all of those will look like wood.”
Meanwhile, Itchener spent most of his time up on a scissor lift, molding epoxy putty to the metal beams to make them look like bamboo. After going through 10 gallons of epoxy, he painted and finished the faux bamboo to give the area a more realistic tropical vibe when it becomes outdoor seating for the new bar.
To complete the look, new ropework was added to all the joints. Itchener said he liked the “little bit of char” Allsmiller added by using a torch to burn the rope, making it look aged. After seeing the first completed joint, Allsmiller agreed. “That looks f—ing cool,” he said. Resin was later added to seal all the roping.
By November, the driveway was excavated from the porte-cochère, along with much of the paved lot, in preparation for the reimagination of the entry and parking areas. When that work is done, the porte-cochère will get all its final design elements, including new hanging lights and the return of vintage harpoons and a vintage Florida Derby rum barrel.
The biggest piece to be restored is the authentic 15-foot outrigger that looms high above the entrance. This work was in the capable hands of Itchener, whose father and uncles were all musicians and tiki/shell carvers from Tahiti who worked in Hawaii for many years.
The craftsman reinforced and sealed the wood, but he kept the holes and damage intact so it still looks like a derelict boat that washed up on a beach. “I like the idea that it got ripped up over the reef, so we’re keeping it that way,” Itchener said.
The interior of the canoe received a thick fiberglass coating, similar to surfboards. It was then coated with resin, reinforcing it from the inside. The outside was sanded and repainted.
One upgrade was added, however. The side of the canoe, called an ama, was missing. So Itchener built a new one from scratch. This smaller piece is the namesake of the outrigger that keeps the canoe’s main hull afloat on rough seas.
There were signs that an ama was attached years ago, but perhaps it was lost in one of South Florida’s many storms. With its new ama attached, the refurbished outrigger is now ready to withstand the stormy weather outside under The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère.
The showroom: Restaurant’s iconic centerpiece gets TLC
In mid-October, Allsmiller and Scheidly moved their central work area from the Garden area in front of the showroom stage to the completed Hawaii Room. This will make space for the refurbishment of the upper areas high in the soaring 40-foot A-frame, including many more vintage lamps. The artists will use scissor lifts and scaffolding to reach up into the rafters.
“This gives us a chance to clean things up. We were in this spot for a while,” Allsmiller said in mid-October while surveying the large showroom. I caught them at the tail end of their move, picking up every last piece of the old lamp-building operation. They even found one of the old Tiki birds from the Tonga Room among the debris.
The showroom subsequently started to take shape when Allsmiller completed the restoration of the 40-foot-long bottom rail and lighting that stretches along the walkway separating the Garden from Tonga. He spent a week meticulously returning it to its original 1970 look.
The wood was extremely worn and coming loose. New pieces were added, then coated with floor wax. The wood was then stripped and restored. “He adjusted all the lights so they’re perfectly spaced out,” Mattei said. “It came out really nice, but it was a lot of work.”
By November, the two-man woodworking crew dubbed “the Ramons” was up on tall ladders, installing vintage panels using some of the last materials supplied by Oceanic Arts before the vintage supplier shut down. After the neo panels are installed, Allsmiller will work his magic and make them all look aged.
Nearby, Itchener was shoring up the bandstand on the showroom stage, adding lauhala matting. The hut was in pretty good shape, he said. It just needed new bamboo, along with some electrical work. Mattei said that an all new sound system will soon be installed.
On the other side of the stage, Itchener planned to rebuild the drum stand. “It’s moving along nicely,” he said. Later, he sculpted and painted the bamboo handrails behind the stage.
Itchener is the perfect man for the job. His adventure at The Mai-Kai started in 1990, when he joined the Polynesian Islander Revue as a dancer. He spent the last eight years before the closing as the lead musician in the house band.
* See Itchener’s previous work molding wall and ceiling panels
The Chinese ovens: Vintage look, new purpose
While The Mai-Kai nears its Phase 1 reopening early next year, plans are also in the works for Phase 2, expected to be a year or two down the road. As part of that plan, the old kitchen and storage area that were removed after the roof collapse will include a 3,500-square-foot event center designed by Allsmiller. It addition to its impressive A-frame roof, the new building will feature a distinctive entrance and lobby that will be easily accessible from both the inside hallway and the path through the outdoor garden.
This foyer will take over the small structure that houses The Mai-Kai’s rare Chinese ovens. The plan calls for the ovens to be unassembled brick by brick and reassembled in the Phase 2 kitchen. The inside of the building will be gutted and rethemed as the event center lobby.
In the meantime, the Ramons were helping Allsmiller restore the exterior back to its original, 1970s condition. But, like many projects at The Mai-Kai, restoring something doesn’t mean making it look new. The structure was designed to look like an old adobe building.
Gaps in the facade were filled with seagrass matting, then covered with concrete to give the exterior a weatherbeaten look. “A lot of the old grass matting had fallen out, so we’re putting it back,” Allsmiller said. They’re employing the same techniques used when the oven and hut were added in the early 1970s.
Allsmiller completed the look when replacing some of the building’s metal roof panels. He treated new metal with acid to make it look old and rusted.
He’s also adding new fascia board trim above the windows with a new Chinese phrase stenciled on it. Nearby, the gardening crew is due to come in and clean up the vegetation while the water features and rock work receive a full renovation.
Other ongoing restoration and renovation projects
MOLOKAI WINDOWS: One of the distinctive features of the restaurant’s iconic lounge is getting a full refurbishment and unexpected restoration. New plumbing and pipes are being installed to create the signature rainfall that cascades down the outside of the large windows, giving the nautical themed bar an even more immersive feel. Crews discovered the original cement trough below the windows, which will be reconnected to the 1970s-era drainage system. “I didn’t even know this trough was here,” Mattei said in October as work began. “Layers of mulch and sand had built up over the years” and it was replaced with a metal gutter. He said they planned to cover it so it will be easier to clean and maintain. The fence outside the windows was also being rebuilt using as much of the original wood as possible. Meanwhile, artist Will Anders is poised to repair and replace the molded Tikis outside the windows and elsewhere on property. The area will also get a new paint job, new tropical plants and thatching on the roof before the bar is ready for guests.
LANAI: In the outdoor dining area adjacent to the walking paths through the Tiki garden, the woodworking crew finished installing a new ceiling in September. The covering over the Lanai follows the prior design, but with seagrass matting and new wooden beams covering the entire ceiling. A large portion of the previous ceiling was finished in corrugated metal, which was difficult to replace.
BACK OF HOUSE: One of Allsmiller’s more creative new tasks is extending The Mai-Kai’s theming into areas not typically seen by guests. When the restaurant reopens, the front-of-house decor will extend into the back offices, locker rooms and back service bar. The kitchen will be the only area not themed. The old drop ceilings are long gone, replaced by a slanted design that follows the angle of the A-frame roof above. While Mattei worked with the contractor to complete all of the electrical and plumbing work, Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy planning the theming and wall treatments in the new bar, which is hidden from view behind the Tonga Room and gift shop, near its original 1956 location. “It’s going to be Tikified,” Mattei said of the formerly utilitarian bar led for decades by legendary mixologist Mariano Licudine, following the Don the Beachcomber tradition of hiding bartenders behind closed doors. Mattei added: “There’s no cooking in there, so we don’t need to worry about exhaust or anything like that.” Allsmiller said they’re trying to figure out how “to aesthetically make it look the best.” For example, the beams will be exposed, covered with wood, and the ceiling will feature a woven matting. As revealed at Tiki Oasis in August, guests will be able to get a peek inside the bar via a new window in the gift shop. The Molokai is also getting an entirely rebuilt back-of-house bar and small kitchen, which will remain behind the scenes, hidden from guests. Due to the nearby oven and tight quarters, however, it won’t have special theming. The smaller bar services the 150-capacity lounge while the main bar handles all the dining areas, which could reach 400 or more guests on busy nights.
* Previous: New kitchen begins to take shape
Missing The Mai-Kai? Try some of the cocktail recipes in the Okole Maluna Society Cocktail Guide while we eagerly wait for the grand reopening.
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RECENT COVERAGE FROM THE ATOMIC GROG
Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening
The final phase of the multimillion-dollar renovation kicks off as artists and craftsmen restore and transform the signature porte-cochère.
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