The artists, craftsmen and management working on the multimillion-dollar reimagination of The Mai-Kai tied a bow on a busy year in late 2023, finishing several projects and taking on ambitious new ones. As the total transformation of the grounds outside becomes a top priority, the indoor guest spaces of the historic restaurant continue to receive careful restoration with no detail left untended.
Jump below: 2023 timeline, past coverage
Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei is preparing for the completion of new back-of-house facilities, including a totally rebuilt kitchen and two back bars. We caught up with Mattei for an update just before Christmas. Following are his insights on what’s happening on multiple fronts.
Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller added new stenciled artwork to all of the fascia board trim around the front of the building, stretching from the left of the A-frame near the Tahiti Room all the way to The Molokai bar. You can clearly see the restored trim from the sidewalk along Federal Highway.
When the beam extensions were restored in September, Allsmiller said he wanted to design “something a little more traditional” for the trim. He said he tried to create something based more in Marquesan and Hawaiian art than the previous artwork and graphics, which were likely Polynesian Pop designs by George Nakashima during the 1970 renovation.
* Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision
* Fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
* Past news, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment
Walking the Federal Highway sidewalk, you can also see a lot of touch-up work being done on the rock work. After the repairs are done, they will get a textured finish to blend in so you won’t even know they were repaired.
Nearby, a new privacy fence has gone up along the northern windows of The Molokai. Totally refurbished and painted green like the original, it features a new access gate with a slightly different design. As much wood as possible was salvaged from the old fence, Mattei said.
While it’s designed to look jagged and ragged, the new fence is totally rebuilt, better looking and much stronger. Mattei said it still needs the old artifacts added, plus a new ledge along the front. The window water effects are still a work in progress, he said.
Mattei noted that similar repairs to the rock work are happening inside the Tiki garden, where guests enjoy the lush paths, waterfalls and vintage carvings. Crew members who specialize in stucco are adding patches. Allsmiller will then add the proper texture, and he or a painting crew will do the finishing.
For much of December, Allsmiller and fellow Florida artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly concentrated their efforts on The Mai-Kai’s showroom, home of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii). Allsmiller spent two weeks refurbishing the stage, carving new decorative trim out of redwood.
The stage is now back to its original glory, Mattei said, including the parquet floor. A Polynesian show was first added almost exactly 62 years ago in early 1962. One of the original performers, Mireille Thornton, remains the show choreographer and costume designer in addition to her role as matriarch of the founding Thornton family.
Meanwhile, renovations started on the vintage lamps high under the 40-foot A-frame. Mattei said they’re using a huge scaffolding to reach to the very top of the ceiling.
They’re fixing as many as they can in place so they don’t need to bring them all down, he said. They’re replacing bulbs and using an air brush to clean them. Some are just dusted while others are being refurbished.
Scheidly did a lot of the work on the lamps while Allsmiller worked on the stage. He later told us he spent an entire week up on the scaffolding, enjoying a view of The Mai-Kai from a vantage point very few see.
Allsmiller shared a photo on Instagram on The Mai-Kai’s 67th anniversary on Dec. 28 showing the ongoing work in the showroom:
In the women’s restroom, many of the old mirrored tiles have been replaced with vintage 1970s-era tile. Mattei said they’re very similar, and it will be hard to tell which are original and which are newly added. The new handicapped restroom is ready for its theming to be added, he said, likely to be a nautical design similar to The Molokai bar and surrounding area..
For the first time in The Mai-Kai’s history, the distinctive front-of-house theming is extended to the back of house. The entire area was rebuilt from a shell following the October 2020 back-of-house roof collapse that closed the restaurant and led to its eventual sale and renovations.
Previously, this area featured simple white drywall and a drop ceiling, but most spaces (aside from the kitchen) are being themed by Allsmiller. The ceiling is now open to reveal the slant of the A-frame roof.
The hallways and back bar are getting special matting and other wall and ceiling treatments, Mattei said. The locker rooms for the male and female employees are also getting separate and distinct tiles and flooring.
So what’s next? Mattei said he was looking forward to new kitchen and bar equipment arriving in early 2024 after the floors and walls are completed. “The infrastructure will be solid,” Mattei said, referring to the all new plumbing and electrical systems. Air conditioning is now restored to most of the building, he added.
The next major design projects nearing the goal line are the rock work on the waterfalls, and the showroom lamps, he said. The gift shop is awaiting the painting and finishing crew to add their final touches.
Meanwhile, the parking lot work is scheduled to ramp up significantly in the new year. We hope to bring you updates on any major changes to the street view.
However, you’ll have to visualize the interior updates until we get closer to the reopening date. With The Mai-Kai entering the home stretch of its much-anticipated reimagination, plans are now in place to keep images of the inside under wraps until the completed restaurant is unveiled in 2024.
We plan to continue to bring you the latest news and updates, plus photos of the transformation of the exterior of the property. We hope this whets your appetite and further fuels our anticipation of the big reveal when the historic doors swing open again for guests.
2023 MAI-KAI TIMELINE: Recap the full year of renovations
Last year was perhaps the most important in the history of the 67-year-old restaurant as the full range of projects in the multi-year, multimillion-dollar reimagination kicked into high gear. Following is a look back at the key milestones, with links to more detailed coverage from throughout 2023. We’ve also included some previously unpublished photos from inside and outside the restaurant.
Previous coverage: Recap all the major work done in 2022
Jan. 11 – The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approves the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the restaurant one step closer to final approval.
Extended coverage, photos: Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans
Jan. 20 – The Atomic Grog shares new images and renderings during the presentation Okole Maluna! The Return of The Mai-Kai at the Inuhele weekender in Atlanta. Attendees also get a sneak preview of new mugs and other merchandise along with a new signature rum.
Extended coverage, photos: New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023
Jan. 26 – Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee approves The Mai-Kai’s site plan by architectural designers Kravit Architectural Associates, the final bureaucratic hurdle before the over-arching project can become a reality. Various city departments must now review and approve details of the plans, but this is the final public meeting.
Feb. 10 – The Mai-Kai’s new rum, a blend sourced from the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados and the Long Pond Distillery in Jamaica, is introduced to a select group of VIPs attending the Miami Rum Congress. Mai-Kai Rum No. 1 will be used in the bar and available for purchase only at the restaurant after the reopening.
March 3 – Three key permits are approved, allowing major construction projects to begin.
March 6 – Work begins on the repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing. Demolition and prep work starts on the back-of-house renovation, including the new bar and kitchen. During renovations of the back-of-house area, crews uncover the same vintage tile that runs through the restaurant, hidden beneath the linoleum flooring for up to 50 years.
Extended coverage, photos: The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects
March 13 – Scott “Flounder” Scheidly joins creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, creating a dynamic duo working on the many design projects – from historic lamps, to wall treatments, to major architectural restorations. The pair puts their finishing touch on the many theatrical elements in The Molokai bar.
Extended coverage, photos: Behind the scenes at The-Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023
The structural footprint of the historic South Florida restaurant changes dramatically with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building. Meanwhile, work accelerates restoring the vintage dining rooms and rebuilding the back of house.
Allsmiller and Scheidly complete the restoration of a large swath of the front of The Mai-Kai, then move on to the New Guinea, Hawaii, and Tonga dining rooms.
Work continues on preparing the back of house for the installation of a new kitchen and bar, locker rooms, and handicapped restroom. Outside, Mattei keeps tabs on the sealing of the main A-frame, which is completed by the end of the month.
April 25 – The removal of the Bora Bora Room begins as the structure north of the main entrance is torn down under the plan to reconfigure the entry driveway. Meanwhile, Oakland Park issues a mechanical permit that will allow for the build-out of the new kitchen.
Infrastructure work advances on multiple fronts, including the installation of new air-conditioning ducts. In the back of house, the old concrete floor is removed and underground plumbing is added.
The longtime painting crew puts finishing touches on the men’s room. In Samoa, the electricians complete rewiring and the prep crew shores up the walls and ceiling, getting them ready for Allsmiller and Scheidly. New Tiki birds flock to the cages in the upper reaches of the Tonga Room.
Allsmiller and Scheidly wrap up the restoration of the Hawaii dining room, putting final touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. During the final weeks of the month, they complete the lower lamps in the Tonga Room and move on to the Moorea and Samoa dining rooms.
They’re assisted by South Florida tattoo artist Jeff Kozan, who helps restore vintage tapa cloth displays; and Tom Fowner, who adds all new rope work to hanging lights and balls. In Samoa, Allsmiller refurbishes the famous “shrunken skull” shadowbox, uncovering the original wallpaper from the 1956 version of the room.
June 5 – Florida Power & Light shuts down all the power to The Mai-Kai, allowing electricians to move forward on rewiring the entire restaurant to add new main breaker boxes. The site switches over to generator power.
June 8-11 – The Hukilau weekender at the Beachcomber Resort includes Mai-Kai cocktails on Thursday and a presentation by Allsmiller (Rebuilding Paradise: The Mai-Kai Comes Back to Life) on Friday. On Saturday, Mai-Kai merchandise is available at a booth in the marketplace while The Atomic Grog hosts a reunion of former Molokai Bar servers and performer Nani Maka. Sunday’s finale includes a live recording of Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour featuring a tribute to The Mai-Kai’s Rum Barrel.
Water damage in The Mai-Kai Trading Post is repaired with the addition of new wood on the floors, ceiling and walls. In preparation for a new air-conditioning system, the first of six new modern air handlers is dropped onto the roof by crane. New air ducts are also added to the roof. In the back of house area that will contain the temporary kitchen, underground plumbing and electrical lines are laid, a new concrete floor is poured, and walls start to go up.
Along with their extensive, ongoing work on the hanging lamps, Allsmiller and Scheidly begin working underneath the porte-cochère, cleaning and refurbishing all the old lighted panels.
Extended coverage, photos: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
Extended coverage, photos: Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project
Conrad Teheiura Itchener, a craftsman and former musician in the house band, creates molds for the intricate patterns in the gift shop and women’s restroom. They are used to create replacements for damaged panels.
Infrastructure is quickly going up in the new kitchen and bar as work continues on a revamped electrical system. On the roof, a maze of new vents and ducts awaits the installation of six new air-conditioning units.
Aug. 2-6 – The Mai-Kai’s Mattei and Allsmiller join The Atomic Grog for two special seminars at at Tiki Oasis in San Diego, the world’s original Tiki weekender. On Friday, The Derby Daiquiri and Beyond: How to Create Your Own Classic features three cocktails and a deep dive into the history of master mixologist Mariano Licudine’s signature drink. On Saturday, Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai includes exclusive photos, video and news on the restoration efforts. Click here for photos.
One of Allsmiller’s replicated vintage lamps is on display, fetching the top price in the four-day lamp show during the event. He created two copies based on blueprints from Oceanic Arts. The other will return to its original spot in the Tahiti Room, where Allsmiller also re-created the wall lamps.
Back in South Florida, Allsmiller and Scheidly continue restoring lamps throughout the dining rooms, many rebuilt from scratch. The vintage Samoa Room nears completion after new matting is added to the walls and ceiling.
Generic ceiling fans are being replaced by stylized fans featuring base designs from the island each dining room represents.
Three stylized roof beam projections are restored to the front of the building below the main A-frame while a longer beam is returned to its historic spot in front of The Molokai bar. This feature dates back to the original Mai-Kai, circa 1956, before the lounge was added.
The nearby porte-cochère is getting the same treatment with new woodwork and detailed restoration. Allsmiller and Scheidly then begin finishing the beams and restoring the lighted decorative panels.
Aug. 26 – Allsmiller shares his insights in a presentation at Castaway with the Luau Lads in Jacksonville, Fla.
Working in The Molokai, Itchener makes great progress creating new panels and trim for the gift shop and women’s restroom using custom molds he created. The light but sturdy foam replaces damaged plaster, painted to match exactly. By the end of the month, he’s nearly done. A painting crew from Colonial Decorators arrives to put the base coat on all of the molded pieces. They return later to add finishing paint once they’re in place.
The new back bar and kitchen reach a milestone with the arrival of new equipment. A giant hood for three state-of-the-art ovens is installed while plumbing and electrical work continues.
The state Department of Transportation finally approves the parking lot project, months after it was submitted.
Allsmiller and his fellow artists are hard at work under the porte-cochère restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant. Working high on a scissor lift, Itchener joins the gang outside to transform the metal framework into faux bamboo poles that crisscross the porte-cochère.
Allsmiller’s new Marquesan-style designs are layered on the main beams, which are being restored to include hidden lighting, similar to the original design. Electricians rewire the entire porte-cochère as part of the extensive renovation.
On Sept. 7, the first of the newly restored panels above the doorway is back in place with some of the lights in test phase. On Sept. 21, all of the new lights are tested for the first time at night.
Extended coverage, photos: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul
The prep crew moves to the rear of the building and Lanai, where they shore up all the damaged ceilings and walls. They then put up seagrass matting and crossbeams in the new Lanai ceiling.
Inside the gift shop and women’s restroom, workers install exact replicas of damaged panels that Itchener created using molds and hard foam.
In the back of house, extensive plumbing and electric jobs are completed and approved. Framework for doorways and walls is going up everywhere, followed by drywall.
Extended coverage, photos: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening
The long-awaited reimagination of the parking lot and entry experience finally kicks off in mid-September as trees are relocated and heavy equipment arrives to begin excavating the vast lot. Crews then begin ripping up all the asphalt, adding trenches for new drainage pipes. By the end of the month, an extensive network of new pipes is being laid.
In late September, the porte-cochère is nearly finished as removal of the asphalt looms. The main beams are complete with final paint and aging done. Rope work is added to the “bamboo” poles, then burned to give it an aged look. Pins for a new railing that sits in front of the lighted panels are created out of hard foam by Itchener from molds.
At the end of the month, FPL crews spend several days restoring full power to the restaurant for the first time since the October 2020 closing. Soon after, electricians begin getting The Mai-Kai’s new power grid featuring six breaker boxes up and running. The generator is disconnected Sept. 29.
In the area where the Bora Bora building stood until its removal in April, a huge wall of bamboo trees is added to the property bordering the furniture store. New drainage pipes continue to be installed as part of the massive parking lot reimagination by Perry-Becker Design.
Oct. 4 – Allsmiller is the special guest in a live episode of 13 Nights of Tiki Frights on YouTube. Watch below or click here for the video.
Oct. 12 – The air conditioning system is turned on, blasting cold air into The Molokai bar and a few other areas for the first time in nearly three years. The last day of service before the closing was Oct. 24, 2020.
Under the porte-cochère, Itchener puts the finishing touches on the faux bamboo beams in early October. The last piece of the fiberglass panels, created by Scheidly, is put in place under one of the beams. All the new lights are hooked up, and the replica railing is placed above the doors and painted. After the final lights are added, Mattei captures the first photos of the reimagined porte-cochère at night.
Outside in the Tiki garden, the woodworking crew is “restoring” the themed building containing the Chinese ovens by filling gaps in the facade with seagrass matting to make the exterior appear in disrepair. The seagrass is covered with a light coat of concrete, the same technique used when the ovens and hut were added in the early 1970s. Allsmiller creates new panels for the building, treating the metal with acid to make it look old and rusted.
By mid-October, most of the drywall is up in the back of house, awaiting the final treatments designed by Allsmiller. The theming will start at the back of house door and extend to the kitchen entrance. The next project is installing lights and the kitchen ceiling.
Itchener refurbishes the 15-foot outrigger canoe that hangs from the porte-cochère, reinforcing and sealing the wood but leaving the classic weatherbeaten look. He also adds the signature side piece, aka ama. Meanwhile, Scheidly is working on the harpoons that will go back in the porte-cochère.
The showroom starts to get some TLC as Allsmiller completes the restoration of the long wooden bottom rail and lighting that stretches along the walkway separating the Garden from the Tonga dining room. It takes him a full week to meticulously return it to its original 1970 look.
Mattei is overseeing the rehab of The Molokai bar’s signature “water windows,” which are getting an unexpected restoration after the original drainage system from the 1970s is found buried beneath decades of mulch and sand. All the water pipes are removed and will be updated.
The 4-foot concrete wall along the western edge of the property is removed. Several thick layers of asphalt are removed from the driveway that guests previously used to enter the restaurant, clearing the porte-cochère to be a new outdoor seating area.
Extended coverage, photos: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
Nov. 2 – The signature “Molokai Maiden” masthead is returned to its perch in the nautical-themed lounge after being stored during the renovations. It’s the most iconic of many props from the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty in the bar.
Itchener shores up the bandstand on the showroom stage, adding lauhala matting. He also sculpts and paints the bamboo handrails behind the stage, then repairs and paints a couple of tikis for The Molokai.
The fence outside The Molokai bar is removed, refurbished and replaced.
Large Tahitian neo panels, sourced from Oceanic Arts, are put in position high on the walls and ceiling surrounding the Garden seating area. These rare materials are used throughout the main showroom, stretching back into the Tonga Room.
(See more December updates at the top of this story)
The old 4-foot concrete is replaced with a new 8-foot privacy wall that stretches the entire length of the west side of the property along Oakland Park’s Northeast 20th Avenue. Entrances remain on the north and south ends, but what was the main entrance near the back of the A-frame is closed off by the wall.
Crews are close to wrapping up the digging and underground utilities work in the expansive, 150-space parking lot. Click here for more coverage, photos.
Touch-up work begins on the rock work in the front of the property along Federal Highway, as well as the fenced-in Tiki garden behind the dining rooms. New artwork by Allsmiller is added to all of the fascia board trim around the front of the building.
While Allsmiller spends two weeks refurbishing the stage, Scheidly dives into the renovation of the lamps high under the 40-foot ceiling under the main A-frame. He’s able to reach the top of the ceiling using scaffolding, stacked in three 10-foot increments on top of the elevated Tonga Room.
The Molokai’s back bar and kitchen gets new drywall after it was gutted for the installation of new electrical and plumbing. Vintage mirrored tiles from the 1970s are being used to replace broken pieces in the women’s restroom and gift shop.
Lauhala matting is starting to go up on walls and ceiling beams are being treated to look like wood, giving the back-of-house a similar theming to the front of house. The special touches will even extend into the employee locker rooms.
The kitchen and back bar floors are being sealed, clearing the way for walls to be finished and new equipment to arrive early in 2024.
Extended coverage, photos: Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision
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