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BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

Riding a wave of success following the February opening of the first of many new Don the Beachcomber restaurants, the team behind the ambitious brand re-launch took the stage at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando earlier this month to offer a sneak preview of new locations planned for Florida.

The presentation before hundreds of faithful fans gathered in an expansive ballroom at the Caribe Royale Resort did not disappoint, revealing new details about the flagship restaurant that will be built just a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World. Parent company 23 Restaurant Services also broke the news of a new “brand within a brand” dubbed the Gantt Reserve Collection from Don the Beachcomber.

The new Don the Beachcomber bar concept was unveiled at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The new Don the Beachcomber bar concept was unveiled at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Jump to more below:
* Full coverage of Tiki-a-Go-Go presentation
NEW: Renderings, plans for Orlando restaurant revealed
* Gantt Reserve Collection bars introduced
NEW: Upcoming South Florida location uncovered
* The Donn of Tiki makes a splash at Florida Film Festival
* Donn Beach biography expected next spring

This smaller, more bar-centric concept will be rolled out much faster than the 300-seat restaurant in Madeira Beach or the even larger one planned for the Orlando area. If the build-out goes according to plan, guests will be enjoying elevated Don the Beachcomber cocktails at Gantt Reserve Collection bars in Tampa this summer, then Plantation in southeast Florida in the fall.

We also learned that the Don the Beachcomber in Hamlin (opening in summer 2025) will feature not only views of the nightly fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, but also another Gantt Reserve Collection bar tucked inside, speakeasy style. Our full recap below will include details on these projects, new custom mugs, plus more information gathered after Tiki-a-Go-Go.

Justin Peterson (right) introduces the participants in the 'Don the Beachcomber Returns!" panel at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. From left: John Mulder, Sven Kirsten, Marc Brown, Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Justin Peterson (right) introduces the participants in the ‘Don the Beachcomber Returns!” panel at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. From left: John Mulder, Sven Kirsten, Marc Brown, Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Don the Beachcomber presentation caps first annual Tiki event in Orlando

The juxtaposition was intentional. The inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go kicked off April 5 with a panel discussion on the restoration and reopening of The Mai-Kai, Florida’s historic Tiki temple that will soon return from a nearly four-year slumber. The daily programming wrapped up 30 hours later with a presentation on another legendary brand that recently re-launched in the Sunshine State with bold expansion plans.

The April 6 panel Don the Beachcomber Returns! was hosted by 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson and featured company President Marc Brown, beverage director Marie King, author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, historian Sven Kirsten, and Eekum Bookum mug master John Mulder.

Before unveiling the news on planned openings, the group discussed the flawless debut of the first new restaurant and bar based on the legacy of Donn Beach, who kick-started the Tiki bar craze in 1932 with his groundbreaking speakeasy in Hollywood, Calif. His influence is still felt today with a new wave of tropical cocktail bars around the world paying him respect, inspiring a new film and upcoming book.

Bartenders set up for the grand opening of the Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Bartenders set up for the grand opening of the Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

After acquiring the rights to the Don the Beachcomber name, Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services opened the first location in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. The company’s other brands include Ford’s Garage, Yeoman’s Top Golf Swing Suite, and Tiki Docks.
Review & photos: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

Peterson praised King and Jennifer Paci, director of new restaurant openings, for the smooth debut. “The food and drinks are just immaculate,” he said. He also gave a shout-out to the the artists who built the interior, notably Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, Patrick Vassar, Tom Fowner, and Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe.

King said she designed the cocktail menu based on historic Don the Beachcomber recipes, adding her own spin where appropriate: “I had the daunting privilege of re-creating a Don the Beachcomber menu with the mindset of ‘What would Donn do today?’ ” King is a veteran manager and bartender with decades of experience in the California scene, including a stint at the last Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach as well as 11 years at the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

The challenge in Florida, she explained, is introducing a beach/tourist crowd to a style of cocktails they may not be familiar with. So she tries to ease them in with lighter offerings, such as a Frosé featuring rum and rosé. “Donn didn’t have tequila drinks on his menu, but I think that today he would have reinvented his philosophy and brought in some tequila drinks,” King said. “So we do that as well.”

Marie King talks about her experience as beverage director for the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants during Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando on April 6. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Marie King talks about her experience as beverage director for the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants during Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando on April 6. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Another hurdle that took King out of her comfort zone was training the large, mostly inexperienced, staff on the nuances of Don the Beachcomber and Tiki culture. “We taught them who Donn was, who Sunny (Sund) was, what the business was, Hawaii, L.A., Chicago, the Mob, everything,” King said.

The training included everyone “from dishwasher to host,” utilizing the systems that Paci and 23 Restaurant Services employ to ensure a well-versed staff. “Everyone you come into contact with has a little bit of knowledge about what the legacy means,” King said. “You as the guests should feel like you’ve just walked into a Don the Beachcomber under their tutelage.”

But King’s most intense training was saved for her young bartenders, who she lovingly calls her “kittens.” She said she spent three days of boot camp “before any other soul walked in the building” with just the bartenders. “We did drills, we did mock service.” The end result speaks for itself, as many have corroborated.

Sven Kirsten speaks during the Don the Beachcomber presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go about his experience at the new Madeira Beach location. Seated on the panel are Marc Brown (left), Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / April 6, 2024)
Sven Kirsten speaks during the Don the Beachcomber presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go about his experience at the new Madeira Beach location. Seated on the panel are Marc Brown (left), Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / April 6, 2024)

“I was blown away,” said Kirsten, who visited the Madeira Beach restaurant for the first time just three days earlier. “It’s in a very nondescript building, and in that way it really fulfills the purpose of being an escape. You step from a mundane world into this incredible escapist space.” Kirsten literally wrote the book on this topic. His influential contributions to the culture include The Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop.

Kirsten was also impressed with the packed house and the eclectic crowd, which he said was comprised of many families with “little tykes having a great time.” He added with a laugh: “It wasn’t just you Tiki nerds.”

“That’s what Tiki needs,” he continued. “It needs everybody to get into the act. It was wonderful to see that in Madeira Beach.”

Mulder added to that topic, talking about a recent visit with his granddaughter. She loved the non-alcoholic drinks and the desserts, while he was also enamored by the environment. “The decor is perfect,” said the creator of the signature Legend Returns mug. “It’s really immersive. You really feel like you’re in a Tiki bar. I was really, really impressed.”

An image shared at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024 shows new Rum Barrel mugs from Don the Beachcomber and Tiki Farm. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
An image shared at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024 shows new Rum Barrel mugs from Don the Beachcomber and Tiki Farm. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Peterson took the opportunity to reveal some new mug designs expected to roll out in Madeira Beach and elsewhere in the coming months. You can also expect to find them in the online store, Shop.DonBeachcomber.com.

By popular demand, the first to arrive will be a classic Rum Barrel mug, currently in production by Tiki Farm. Peterson said they hope to have them in hand by July, just in time for Tiki Oasis.

The creative director also showed off his first Don the Beachcomber mug design, based on his new signature logo of Donn Beach’s profile. He said he wanted it to be different than the other mugs created over the years inspired by Beach’s likeness.

Attendees at the 'Don the Beachcomber Returns!' presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go on April 6 got a peek at Justin Peterson's concept art for a new mug, along with the sculpt by Tiki Farm. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Attendees at the ‘Don the Beachcomber Returns!’ presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go on April 6 got a peek at Justin Peterson’s concept art for a new mug, along with the sculpt by Tiki Farm. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The audience saw slides featuring Peterson’s conceptual artwork as well as photos of the sculpt created by Tiki Farm. The final glaze will have a matte finish that looks like wood, he said. The lei and flower will be pink and yellow, respectively, and the logo will be white.

Peterson called it “a dream come true to have a mug with my name slapped on the bottom of it,” adding that he’s hoping for a late summer release.

Also touted were several mug collaborations with noted Tiki artists. Big Toe is designing a bowl that Peterson said is as intricate as Mulder’s Legend Returns mug. Mitchell Spain Ceramics, which has perfected a method of creating what looks like rust on ceramics, is making “vintage style tumblers” that may be ready in time for The Hukilau in June. Also in the pipeline is a mug from Taboo Relics, due later this year or early next year.

Renderings, plans for Orlando restaurant revealed

The highlight of the Don the Beachcomber Returns! presentation April 6 at Tiki-a-Go-Go was the discussion and details on the new locations expected to open over the next several years. The excitement level was high, not just because of the historic nature of the news. Many attendees live not far from ground zero of the expansion in Florida.

An updated rendering of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant planned for the Orlando area, revealed April 6 during a presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
An updated rendering of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant planned for the Orlando area, revealed April 6 during a presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

First on the agenda was the previously announced build-out planned for Hamlin Town Center, just north of Disney World, which has moved up on the schedule slightly to summer 2025. “We plan to break ground relatively soon,” said Peterson, the creative director. “When that opens, it will be the crown jewel in our collection.”

Continue reading “BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida”

Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai kitchen and bar take shape as team heads to Tiki-a-Go-Go event (March 2024 update)

Mai-Kai kitchen and bar take shape as team heads to Tiki-a-Go-Go event (March 2024 update)

It’s always thrilling to see and hear about the artistic restoration projects at The Mai-Kai, from the hundreds of vintage lamps to the reimagination of the porte-cochère. But just as important are many behind-the-scenes infrastructure projects that are now coming to fruition at the historic South Florida restaurant.

Jump below: The Mai-Kai at Tiki-a-Go-Go, The Hukilau
* Latest refurbishment news | Update on permits, timeline

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway in Oakland Park on March 28. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway in Oakland Park on March 28. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

At the top of this list are the new back-of-house kitchen and bar, which both needed to be rebuilt following the October 2020 roof collapse that led to the closing and eventual sale of the 67-year-old landmark. While the design and decor are spectacular, The Mai-Kai is first and foremost a high-volume restaurant (and bar) that requires just as much TLC in areas guests may never see.

That’s why it’s exciting to report that new equipment is now being installed in both the kitchen and bar that were rebuilt in the old back-of-house areas that did not need to be gutted after the roof collapse. The footprint of the old kitchen will remain empty until Phase 2 of the $15 million restoration project, when it will be transformed into a bigger kitchen and an adjacent event center.

Manager Kern Mattei, who has overseen operations for the past three decades, was gracious enough to fill us in on the details when we spoke to him recently about progress on the site during the month of March. We also took some photos of the exterior spaces during a visit late in the month.

The wooden deck outside The Molokai lounge has been rebuilt for future guest use. More theming and enhancements are in the works. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)
The wooden deck outside The Molokai lounge has been rebuilt for future guest use. More theming and enhancements are in the works. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)

We’ll get into all the details in the updates section below, along with the contributions of creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his team of artists. Unlike the old 1970s era back of house, the 2024 version will include not only state-of-the-art equipment, but also a lot of traditional Ma-Kai and Polynesian theming where appropriate.

The state of the kitchen and bar gives us hope that the current timeline for a grand opening during the summer months will remain stable. The wildcard factor remains the ambitious transformation of the 2.7-acre grounds, which we detailed in our previous story.

Progress was not easily visible across the vast expanse during March as the complex project’s many moving parts still have not coalesced. Permits are pending while various crews continue to work on their specific projects, Mattei said. We did spot some more cool detail work by Allsmiller’s crew, also discussed below.

Mattei and the artists will get a much-deserved break in early April, but it won’t be all play and no work at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando. Check out the preview below for details on all their activities.

Recent coverage
* Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead (February 2024)
* Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer (January 2024)
Story archive: Full coverage of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

******************************************
A classic image of The Mai-Kai, captured by author Sven Kirsten in 2010. Also appearing at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando in April is Mai-Kai history book author Tim "Swanky" Glazner
A classic image of The Mai-Kai, captured by author Sven Kirsten in 2010. Also appearing at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando in April is Mai-Kai history book author Tim “Swanky” Glazner.

UPCOMING EVENTS: The Mai-Kai at Tiki-a-Go-Go and The Hukilau

While most guests eagerly await the grand opening this summer, those lucky enough to be attending two of the state’s major Tiki events will get exclusive info and access in the coming months.

First up is the sold-out Tiki-a-Go-Go, scheduled for April 5-7 in Orlando. The inaugural event leans heavily into symposiums featuring old-school Tiki, Florida and Disney topics. There will also be two days of live music and entertainment, vendors, guest Tiki bars, and more.
Previous coverage: Click here for our full preview
Follow The Atomic Grog at Tiki-a-Go-Go: Instagram | Facebook

We’re honored to be hosting two of the presentations featuring The Mai-Kai at the Caribe Royale Resort. Just announced: Mai-Kai manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist will both be attending and participating in events Friday and Saturday. Here’s the latest on how attendees can get a taste of The Mai-Kai, including some new details:

Continue reading “Mai-Kai kitchen and bar take shape as team heads to Tiki-a-Go-Go event (March 2024 update)”

Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender

Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender

Updated May 9

More than a quarter century into the modern revival, the appetite for Tiki weekenders has never been more voracious. But if you’re creating a new event, how do you stand out on an ever-more-crowded calendar?

Tiki-a-Go-Go 2024 in Orlando

PHOTOS, VIDEO: The first Tiki-a-Go-Go is a retro roadtrip through mid-century culture, appreciation
More event recaps
* The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project
* Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

For the organizers of the inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando, it was simple: Go back to the roots of the revival with an emphasis on what inspired the fascination with retro culture in the first place.

Their location in Central Florida in the shadow of the theme parks also makes the perfect setting to focus on Florida’s role in 20th century kitsch in addition to the over-arching Tiki craze. The icing on the cake is a partnership with the annual Magical Tiki Meet Up that folds that Disney World gathering into the weekend.

The result is a distinctive new event that adds even more depth and nuance to the annual Tiki event calendar. Event passes sold out in late March, with only a few tickets remaining for additional activities for passholders.

Tiki-a-Go-Go will host Tiki revival veterans including author Sven Kirsten, beverage director Marie King of Don the Beachcomber, and clothing designer Margo "Rocket Betty" Scott. (Tiki-a-Go-go / Facebook)
Tiki-a-Go-Go will host Tiki revival veterans including author Sven Kirsten, beverage director Marie King of Don the Beachcomber, and clothing designer Margo “Rocket Betty” Scott. (Tiki-a-Go-go / Facebook)

April 5-7 – Tiki-a-Go-Go at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando (Friday-Saturday). Featuring symposiums and classes (Sven Kirsten, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Ed Hamilton, Spike Marble, “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, Tiki Tom-Tom, Rocket Betty, David “Dr. Skipper” Marley, et al.), guest cocktail bars, live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, The Kreepy Tikis, Hot Rod Hornets, more), supper club and burlesque, artists and vendors, plus more. Magical Tiki Meet Up (Sunday) at the Magic Kingdom and Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World.
More below: Personalize your experience | Q&A with the organizers
* Tiki-a-Go-Go on social media: Instagram | Facebook page and group

The venue is the Caribe Royale Resort, which will host all the Friday and Saturday events. The property was recently completely reimagined with the perfect tropical atmosphere and amenities for Tiki-a-Go-Go guests. All the rooms are suites with the standard one-bedroom including a living room with a sleeper sofa. Maximum occupancy is five in a suite and six in a villa.

The Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando. (Official photo)
The Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando. (Official photo)

There’s a giant pool with a 75-foot waterslide, a spa and hot tubs, multiple fitness and sports activities, plus eight restaurants and bars (including the Rum Bar). Most important for the purposes of Tiki-a-Go-Go, the resort features more than 240,000-square feet of meeting space.

Continue reading “Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender”

Exclusive preview: The Hukilau 2024 attracts bands, bars and VIPs from around the globe, returns to The Mai-Kai

The Hukilau 2024 attracts bands, bars and VIPs from around the globe, returns to The Mai-Kai

Updated June 6

Proving that the modern Tiki scene is truly a worldwide phenomenon, The Hukilau has lined up one of the most geographically diverse groups of musicians, cocktail and rum experts, bartenders, and special guests in recent memory.

Tickets go on sale at 6 p.m. Monday, March 25, for The Hukilau 2024
Tickets are on sale now for The Hukilau 2024. Go to TheHukilau.com (click the logo).

When the East Coast’s longest-running Polynesian Pop weekender returns for its 22nd gathering in South Florida this June, its guests (aka villagers) will not only get an exclusive experience at the historic Mai-Kai, they will have a rare opportunity to traverse the globe … Hukilau-style.

Where else can you taste spirits with London’s “Rum Ambassador,” then rock out with a Russian band while enjoying tropical drinks from a Paris bartender? Follow that up with classic cocktails and a Tiki history class with an acclaimed New Orleans author and bar owner, poolside parties featuring mixologists from Los Angeles to Cozumel, and live surf and exotica music from Italy and Spain.

You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse group of entertainers and experts at a retro-themed Tiki event. The Hukilau’s organizers are also making a conscious attempt this year to include symposiums that spotlight the cultural diversity prevalent in today’s worldwide Tiki bar scene.

The last time The Hukilau held an event at The Mai-Kai in September 2021, villagers celebrated the sale and upcoming preservation of the Polynesian palace (left). Now, with a reopening likely this summer, organizers are planning special experiences for the 2024 event June 6-9. At right is the new porte-cochère in October 2023 after its reimagination by creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The last time The Hukilau held an event at The Mai-Kai in September 2021, villagers celebrated the sale and upcoming preservation of the Polynesian palace (left). Now, with a reopening likely this summer, organizers are planning special experiences for the 2024 event June 6-9. At right is the new porte-cochère in October 2023 after its reimagination by creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

All this – plus a chance to be among the first to see the restored Mai-Kai – await guests at the June 6-9 event. With the restaurant in the final stages of its multi-year, multimillion-dollar refurbishment, it’s unclear if it will be fully open. But even if not, The Hukilau ticket-holders will get exclusive access and a tour. Note: An Aloha or South Seas pass is required to join the tour. [More info]

Event tickets are now available via TheHukilau.com website. Rooms are also available for booking at the host hotel, the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort.

Following is a sneak preview:

The Hukilau – June 6-9 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (Messer Chups, Surfer Joe, L’Exotighost, Slowey and the Boats, Lords of Atlantis, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, The Mermers, Skinny Jimmy Stingray), symposiums and classes (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Spike Marble), 20+ guest cocktail bars, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
More info below: Bands | Presenters | Guest bars | Special events | Hotel
* The Hukilau on social media: Instagram | Facebook page and group

MORE PREVIEWS
* The Mai-Kai restoration work expands, sneak previews offered at The Hukilau NEW
* Inside (and outside) The Mai-Kai with Tiki carver Will Anders NEW
* Symposiums, vendors and more announced for 22nd Tiki weekender June 6-9

The Hukilau 2023 featured an authentic Polynesian show on the poolside stage at the Beachcomber Resort in South Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Hukilau 2023 featured an authentic Polynesian show on the poolside stage at the Beachcomber Resort in South Florida. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

This will be the event’s fourth straight year at the lush and tropical Beachcomber in Pompano Beach, just northeast of Fort Lauderdale. The boutique hotel offers a laid-back atmosphere and beachy vibe, which sets The Hukilau apart. There will also be events at The Mai-Kai, with details still to be determined (more info below).

Continue reading “Exclusive preview: The Hukilau 2024 attracts bands, bars and VIPs from around the globe, returns to The Mai-Kai”

Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola’s cocktail and rum adventures

Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola's cocktail and rum adventures

The tropical drinks world became a less exciting and flamboyant place earlier this month when Italian master mixologist Daniele Dalla Pola closed up shop at Esotico Miami after nearly 5 years of crowd-pleasing cocktails and cuisine.

Daniele Dalla Pola puts on a show while making his signature cocktails during the final night at Esotico Miami. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)
Daniele Dalla Pola puts on a show while making his signature cocktails during the final night at Esotico Miami. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)

But his influence and creative flair will live on at the adjacent Kaona Room, which will continue to be operated by his son while Dalla Pola sets off on his next adventure. The remaining partners will transform the Esotico space into a new bar and restaurant concept, but the vintage Tiki-themed speakeasy remains open and serving some of the best exotic cocktails (and food) in Miami.

Dalla Pola’s exit was sudden but not unexpected under the circumstances. Legal issues with his work visa make it necessary for him to leave the United States and return to his native Italy, among other destinations, in the coming months. He eventually plans to return to help run the Kaona Room with Billy Dalla Pola when he can legally do so. But in the meantime, he has multiple projects in the works.

Full coverage below: Closing night at Esotico
The Kaona Room keeps torch burning | Dalla Pola’s further adventures
Photos, video: Esotico Miami memories
Cocktail recipe: Esotico Rum Cup

Esotico (left) has closed its doors but its secret speakeasy, the Kaona Room, will continue with its intimate and authentically Tiki vibe and decor. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)
Esotico (left) has closed its doors but its secret speakeasy, the Kaona Room, will continue with its intimate and authentically Tiki vibe and decor. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / March 2, 2024)

Esotico opened on Aug. 15, 2019, a joint venture between Dalla Pola and Miami’s Graspa Group. At 3,400 square feet, it took up a huge space in the ground floor of the Canvas Condominiums in downtown’s Arts & Entertainment District. [See opening photos]

It closed March 2, a little more than 6 months shy of its 5-year mark. Dalla Pola posted a heartfelt farewell on his Instagram page:

Aloha! Closing the bar today and writing these words is not easy, but this is a step I take because it’s time for a change, time to refresh, time to rethink, and to build something new. I step out from my project Esotico Miami which will move on under a new concept led by my trusted partners, Graspa Group.

Although I will leave Miami for some time, my son Billy Dalla Pola, will continue what I’ve started at The Kaona Room. … As I move forward, I’ll be excited to announce something new, hopefully very soon. Stay tropical!

Daniele Dalla Pola didn't waste any time hitting the road after the closing of Esotico Miami
Daniele Dalla Pola didn’t waste any time hitting the road after the closing of Esotico Miami.

Esotico was the next evolutionary step for the acclaimed bar owner, who made his name in the drinks world with Nu Lounge Bar in Bologna (in which he remains a partner). Dalla Pola first came to the United States more than 25 years ago, and his son was born in Miami in 1999.

Dalla Pola represented rum giant Bacardi while bartending in Miami before establishing himself as a force on the worldwide beverage scene. His presentations on Tiki cocktails have always been well received. Besides the bar in Italy, he owns a piece of the Alamea brand of liquors, which was founded in 2016 and is now distributed in 14 countries.

His career now comes full circle as he once again hits the road to attend events and spread the gospel about rum, cocktails and Tiki culture. His first stop after leaving Miami was Shanghai for the Asian Bar Awards, followed by more appearances across China sponsored by Bacardi.

We’ll detail more of his upcoming plans below, including a new signature rum and a cocktail book. But first, here’s what’s been happening in Miami.

Continue reading “Beyond Esotico Miami: Kaona Room and Daniele Dalla Pola’s cocktail and rum adventures”

REVIEW: El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist’s secret weapon

El Dorado's new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist's secret weapon

I’m honored to have been chosen as a “rum influencer” of high enough stature to receive an unsolicited bottle of El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend (LBI / DHE). For non-geeks, those acronyms stand for “La Bonne Intention / Diamond High Ester,” signifying that this is a blend of never-before-released “high ester” marques from two unique stills at Guyana’s Diamond Distillery.

Specifically, we’re taking about high-ester distillate from the John Dore Double Retort Copper Pot Still and the La Bonne Intention marque from the four-column metal French Savalle Still. The former still dates back to the 1950s and is the only one of its kind at the historic distillery. The latter is much older, inherited from another distillery in Guyana that operated as far back as the 1800s.

El Dorado High Ester Blend includes rums from two unique stills at Guyana's Diamond Distillery.
El Dorado High Ester Blend includes rums from two unique stills at Guyana’s Diamond Distillery.

A side note here that the Diamond distillery and El Dorado share ownership (Demerara Distillers Ltd., aka DDL), so this release can be seen as El Dorado throwing its hat into the ring that independent bottlers have long dominated but has just recently gained at lot of traction in rum enthusiast circles: High-proof, high-ester, uncompromising rums with a pedigree. Rums from Jamaica, known for its “high-ester funk bombs,” have been most notable in this category.

This rum clocks in at a cask strength 57% ABV (114 proof), well above El Dorado’s normal (and industry standard) 40%, which I heartily applaud. It’s a different animal than El Dorado’s flagship aged rums (the 8-, 12- and 15-year-old blends) as well as the dark but lightly aged 151-proof rums (from Diamond, Hamilton, Lemon Hart, et al.) that are essential bottles in our Tiki arsenal. Just not as far removed as you might think. More on that shortly.

The bottle says it was distilled in 2012, which means it likely spent around 12 years in ex-Bourbon casks in Diamond’s aging warehouse. Indeed, the color as very similar to El Dorado 12. The nose, however, is another matter. The flavors are much deeper, with heady aromas of vanilla, toffee and honey most noticeable to my admittedly unsophisticated olfactory senses. There were some subtle cinnamon and fruit aromas as well.

At first sip, I immediately noticed the orange peel and spices prevalent in the blend, as advertised. Sweet vanilla is present, along with slight hints of chocolate and caramel. The spicy finish starts strong before fading slowly, perhaps the best feature of a neat sip.

Continue reading “REVIEW: El Dorado’s new High Ester Blend could be a mixologist’s secret weapon”

Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead

Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead

The light at the end of the tunnel is about to become much brighter at The Mai-Kai in South Florida as the historic restaurant prepares for an ambitious transformation of its sprawling 2.7-acre grounds.

Jump below: Latest refurbishment news | Landscape reimagination imminent |outside Update on permits, timeline
* The Mai-Kai at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival
Preview: The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog at Tiki-a-Go-Go

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

Meanwhile, the artists working in and around the vintage A-frame building have turned the energy level up a notch in anticipation of the home stretch of Phase 1 of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar project. All available information points to a summer reopening, with the most optimistic estimate being June.

Excitement for the reopening was fueled in late February by an article in the Wall Street Journal that proclaims Fort Lauderdale a “cool” destination for “hip, hungry travelers.” While extolling the city’s “booming food scene and throwback architecture,” the article mentions the reopening of The Mai-Kai:

Fans of midcentury design are waiting for June, though, when the Mai-Kai will reopen after a 30-month, $15 million renovation. The Polynesian-style restaurant, built in 1956, was arguably the apotheosis of tiki culture. Partnering with distiller Maison Ferrand to resurrect the high ester rum used in classic tiki cocktails like the Jet Pilot, it hopes to retake that honor.

New owner Bill Fuller is leading the restoration efforts, including the creation of a new signature rum. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
New owner Bill Fuller is leading the restoration efforts, including the creation of a new signature rum. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The Journal got that information directly from owner Bill Fuller, who assembled the team that purchased The Mai-Kai in September 2021 after a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen forced the October 2020 closure that has now stretched past three years. Fuller’s historic preservation firm, Barlington Group, spearheaded the purchase. Another company he owns, Mad Room Hospitality, will operate the restaurant along with the founding Thornton family. The new Mai-Kai Rum No. 1 is a blend of Barbados and Jamaican rums created by master distiller Don Benn at the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, where it will will shipped directly to Florida to be bottled.

That $15 million figure is new, a much higher number than we’ve previously seen reported. It speaks not only to the extra time spent on the detailed restoration, but also the unwavering commitment from the ownership group. Back in June 2022 during a presentation at The Hukilau, Fuller told the faithful fans of The Mai-Kai: “If we need to spend an extra million dollars or two, we’re going to do it because we want it to be perfect.” He has obviously doubled down on that promise.

And while a June reopening date is far from certain, it’s a goal that Fuller and his team have set. Like everything else involving this restoration, it doesn’t hurt to set the bar high and reach for the stars.

The entrance to The Mai-Kai is about to receive a total transformation as crews prepare for a new driveway to be installed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)
The entrance to The Mai-Kai is about to receive a total transformation as crews prepare for a new driveway to be installed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, February 2024)

Recent coverage
* Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer (January 2024)
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline

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FEBRUARY 2024: Restoration efforts reach new heights, expand in new directions

As detailed in our previous reports in January and February (see links above), we’re limited from showing the exquisite interior renovations during the final stages of work, but we did get a chance to chat in late February with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, who filled us in on what he and his crew were up to during that month. Fellow Central Florida artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly shared some images of their work on social media, which you can find below.

We also paid a visit to 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park to document the work on the exterior, briefly chatting with manager Kern Mattei and South Florida artist Tom Fowner, who recently joined the restoration team full-time. Fowner has worked with The Mai-Kai previously, most notably on one of the three Tiki carvings that greet guests near the porte-cochère.

Overall, February was very productive. “I feel that we’ve done more this month,” Allsmiller said. Following are some of his thoughts on what was accomplished, along with what’s still to come.

The addition of Fowner has helped Allsmiller, Scheidly and artist Conrad Teheiura Itchener expand the scope of their work in their central workshop in the Hawaii dining room. “We needed help, and he was free,” Allsmiller said.

Artist Tom Fowner strips all the old material off a vintage lamp that hangs high under The Mai-Kai's A-frame. After the lamp frame is shored up, he will restore the outer materials and it will receive new bulbs and wiring before it returns to its perch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)
Artist Tom Fowner strips all the old material off a vintage lamp that hangs high under The Mai-Kai’s A-frame. After the lamp frame is shored up, he will restore the outer materials and it will receive new bulbs and wiring before it returns to its perch. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward, March 2024)

Fowner, who recently contributed his Tiki-carving talents to the build-out of the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, went right to work at The Mai-Kai refurbishing some of the massive lamps that hang high under the 40-foot A-frame. We caught him out front, stripping everything off one of the well-worn frames. He said they’re trying to restore them “in a similar fashion” to the originals.

Reaching these uppermost areas filled with vintage lamps, many created by Oceanic Arts in the 1950s and ’60s, has been the most challenging. The crew used scaffolding to reach the ceiling in the rear of the building, above the Tonga dining room. Allsmiller said they removed the large signature fish trap and cleaned it up. “It’s ready to go back up,” he said.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai update (February 2024): Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead”

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

If there were any doubts that the inaugural “next gen” Don the Beachcomber restaurant and tropical bar would not live up to the high standards of its namesake, they were quickly put to rest during last week’s grand opening in Madeira Beach on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast.

Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

In-depth coverage below
* Menus and overview: Cocktails | Food
* Decor, music & more | Tips and guidance
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Doctor Funk
Previous: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida (April 2024)

The first location in a planned national rollout of escapist establishments inspired by the founding father of faux Polynesian cocktails opened to the public on Friday, Feb. 23, after three days of private parties for friends, family and VIPs. Owned and operated by Tampa- based 23 Restaurant Services, the vast 298-capacity restaurant was firing on all cylinders from the get-go.

“We are thrilled with our opening weekend, starting with a largely attended VIP party on Thursday evening,” Marc Brown, president of 23 Restaurant Services, said via email Monday. “We had over 1,200 guests join us Friday through Sunday.”

“We continue to be so excited to be a part of this community and look forward to sharing our amazing vibe and delicious food and drinks with you all,” he said, noting the huge social media reaction and “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

We attended Thursday’s pre-opening party as well as lunch and dinner seatings during Friday’s service, witnessing a nearly flawless launch by every measurable standard. The well-trained staff of managers, greeters, servers, food-runners, bussers, and bartenders operated like a well-oiled machine. And if there were any culinary or mixological misfires from the kitchen or bar, they were few and far between.

When we arrived late for the first official dinner service, all but one of the 20 tables and booths inside the highly immersive restaurant was full, and all of the 30 or so bar seats were taken. On the patio under a large thatched roof, at least a third of the tables were full despite a steady drizzle. Our Uber driver said he had been taking passengers there all day.

Customers were three deep at the bar for hours during the peak of service, beverage director Marie King told us later. “It was a good night.” And the crowds kept coming. The restaurant was just as packed when we left hours later, around 10 p.m.

The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Managing partner Sebastien Amoruso seemed very satisfied while surveying the scene and monitoring first-day operations. “It’s a good day,” he said during dinner service. “I’m happy. For the first day, we’re doing great.”

Amoruso estimated that 500 guests would be seated on opening day, but this might not include many who bellied up to the bar and didn’t register in the computerized point-of-sale system. I counted roughly 112 seats inside and 115 outside, plus lots of room for standing near the bar.

More seats could be added if needed, Amoruso, said. If opening weekend is any indication, that may be necessary. Saturday night was even busier than Friday, reported Donn Beach biographer Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who attended both.

The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

But the venue never seemed crowded, with plenty of room for guests to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Amoruso cited the expertise and experience of 23 Restaurant Services.

Continue reading “LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success”

Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

BREAKING NEWS: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

Updated Feb. 28

Nearly 100 years after its namesake founder developed and popularized the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept, the Don the Beachcomber brand is re-launching this week with the first of multiple locations scheduled to roll out in Florida over the next several years.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Sunakora Zombie
Previous coverage: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating.  (Don the Beachcomber photos)
The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

The restaurant in Madeira Beach, between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, Feb. 23. Private events for friends, family and VIPs were held in the days prior. Partygoers no doubt will hoist a birthday toast Thursday to the Tiki bar pioneer.
* More Don the Beachcomber history

Ernest Raymond Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach and opened the first Don the Beachcomber as a speakeasy during Prohibition in 1932, was born on Feb. 22, 1907, in rural Texas. His colorful life story will be documented in an upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film The Donn of Tiki).

The new restaurant occupies an indoor-outdoor space at the Cambria Hotel at 15015 Madeira Way. It will be open seven days and nights, operating from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays.

“We’re fully staffed and ready to go” with more than 100 team members, said Lisa Longest, the director of marketing for Don the Beachcomber and other brands owned by Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services. Friday’s grand opening will include a ribbon-cutting attended by city dignitaries right before the 11 a.m. opening, she said in a phone conversation Thursday.

A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)
A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)

Call (727) 870-8454 or go to DonBeachcomber.com for more information. They are currently not taking reservations, so it’s first-come, first-served.

Originally planned for late 2023, then pushed to early 2024, the restaurant finally cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles and passed its final inspection, clearing the way for the grand opening. “We had to do a full build-out,” Longest said of the large space on the ground floor of the hotel. “It took time to get all the permits.”

This is a far cry from Don the Beachcomber’s tiny original bar in Hollywood. The restaurant has a total capacity of 298 with 92 seats inside and 120 outside.

Preview the food and drinks

The restaurant’s food is inspired by the faux Polynesian flavors pioneered by Don the Beachcomber, but the menu will also feature “elevated dishes that will appeal to all,” Longest said in an email following our phone conversation. Dishes will include a pupu platter featuring hand-made crab rangoon, chicken satay and sticky rib skewers, plus signature wings. “We will also feature tempura cauliflower, a variety of fried rice options, fresh grouper, and an array of gourmet burgers,” she said.

A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.

We got a sneak peek at the food and drink menus, which were designed by 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson. The offerings are sure to please every taste – from hardcore Tikiphiles, to adventurous locals, to the hotel guests who simply stumble upon this slice of paradise. In fact, the main menu’s cover is emblazoned with Donn Beach’s mantra: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Continue reading “Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida”

In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event

In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event

Updated Feb. 14

Miami Rum Congress adjourns for its fifth gathering of industry and brand VIPs in February 2024 with two new venues and an expanded schedule of evening activities. Like a vintage 5-year-old rum, the event is approaching its prime years of maturity and showing potential for an expanded audience.
* Jump below: Daily schedule | Q&A with organizer Federico Hernández

Miami Rum Congress 2024

Miami Rum Congress 2024 – Feb. 9-10 at the Miami Beach Convention Center and Feb. 11 at The Gates Hotel South Beach.
* Click here for tickets | Overview, FAQ
Social media recap: Photos, coverage of Miami Rum Congress events UPDATED

The event is geared toward professionals and hardcore enthusiasts, but it also appeals to amateurs who want to dip their toes into the ever-popular spirit. The new main venue will help draw a broad audience. No longer confined by the ritzy yet cramped Hilton Cabana hotel in the Mid-Beach area, the event is moving 4 miles south to the more versatile Miami Beach Convention Center in South Beach for most of its events.

The Gates Hotel, which will host guests as well as a Sunday party, is a half mile away, roughly a 12-minute walk. The convention center, home of such varied events as the Miami International Boat Show and Florida Supercon, has ample space to host multiple groups simultaneously.

The convention center recently completed an extensive renovation and expansion that has been nominated for an Urban Land Institute award, honoring projects that elevate the standards of the industry. The center hosts more than 600,000 visitors a year and is home to $10.2 million in public art acquired by the city. There’s also 12 acres of green space, including a lush tropical park.

Daniele Dalla Pola (left) and Elis Carriero of Esotico Miami and the Kaona Room discuss the finer points of bartending in the Bartenders Head to Head Debate seminar at Miami Rum Congress on Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Daniele Dalla Pola (left) and Elis Carriero of Esotico Miami and the Kaona Room discuss the finer points of bartending in the Bartenders Head to Head Debate seminar at Miami Rum Congress on Feb. 10, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

But beyond the spiffy new facilities, what should excite locals and others who must drive to Miami Rum Congress is the convention center’s 6 acres of surface parking. No more wasting valuable rum-tasting time doing endless circles around the Hilton’s neighboring streets and tiny municipal lots, hoping for an empty space. Beachside hotels notoriously have limited guest parking.

The new location is also closer to downtown Miami and its nightlife, most notably the acclaimed tropical cocktail and rum havens owned and operated by Daniele Dalla Pola: His flagship Esotico Miami and the adjacent hidden Tiki speakeasy, the Kaona Room. Dalla Pola and his team will host rum dinners and other special events before, during and after the main Rum Congress.

It’s roughly 4 miles (around 30 minutes in peak Miami traffic) across the lesser-known Venetian Causeway (a $2.25 toll) from the convention center area to Esotico. There are larger, free causeways (195 and 395) to the north and south, but those routes are longer and less direct. On the Venetian route, it’s also a quick 5 minute jaunt from Esotico to Wynwood, the area’s vibrant art district.

The new Miami Rum Congress venues on South Beach: The Miami Beach Convention Center and The Gates Hotel. (Official photos)
The new Miami Rum Congress venues on South Beach: The Miami Beach Convention Center and The Gates Hotel. (Official photos)

Now that we’ve covered the logistics, let’s break down the activities day-by-day. Industry attendees and hardcore devotees will likely be attending many, if not all, of the happenings. But locals and rum fans across the state might want to pop in for just a day or two. There’s plenty going on for all levels of interest. Check MiamiRumCongress.com for the latest updates and more information.

Continue reading “In year 5, Miami Rum Congress matures into more complex and accessible spirits event”