Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision

Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision

When guests return to The Mai-Kai in 2024, they will be treated to a detailed restoration of the interior of the historic South Florida restaurant, which celebrates its 67th anniversary today (Dec. 28). Walking into the elaborately themed dining areas and rear garden will be like stepping back in time to the early 1970s, when the last major renovation was completed at the Polynesian palace.

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway in 1968 shows the lush landscaping around the new building that later became a gift shop and Bora Bora banquet room. The Tiki carving remains in the same spot today. (Photo courtesy of Tim Glazner, MaiKaiHistory.com)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway in 1968 shows the lush landscaping around the new building that later became a gift shop and Bora Bora banquet room. The Tiki carving remains in the same spot today. (Photo courtesy of Tim Glazner, MaiKaiHistory.com)

But before they even enter the building, they will be greeted with a new entryway and lushly landscaped parking lot that will completely immerse them in a South Seas fantasy world. The design will shield vehicles from the outside world, and vice versa.

While the details of these plans are new, the inspiration comes from original owners Bob and Jack Thornton, and their early vision for the property on the north side of the entrance driveway. Only now, with a new ownership team joining forces with the Thornton family and backed by a multimillion-dollar investment, can that vision be fully realized.

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* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
* Fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight
* Restoration Guide: Past news, refurbishment photos

The new entrance driveway to The Mai-Kai will take guests into the area north of the giant banyan trees and away from the porte-cochère. This is the former location of the Bora Bora building. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September 2023)
The new entrance driveway to The Mai-Kai will take guests into the area north of the giant banyan trees and away from the porte-cochère. This is the former location of the Bora Bora building. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, September 2023)

There has been little visible change in the landscaping of the sprawling 2.7 acres surrounding the original 1956 building and its soaring A-frame since the removal of the Bora Bora building in April. Some projects were completed, most notably the restoration and reimagination of the porte-cochère, which will be turned into an outdoor seating area and bar after the driveway is rerouted.

The work on the parking lot began in earnest in mid-September after county and state permits were finally approved. This sweeping project is the final major piece in the restoration puzzle that kicked into high gear in early 2023 after its approval by the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board.

Unlike the work on the interior, which is steeped in mystery, the transformation of the new entryway will be visible to passersby on Federal Highway, aka U.S. Highway 1. The rear of the property has begun to take on an air of secrecy, however, after construction crews recently completed the installation of a new 8-foot-high privacy wall.

The Mai-Kai's old 4-foot wall was replaced with a new 8-foot privacy wall, shown in views looking south from Northeast 20th Avenue. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / October and December 2023)
The Mai-Kai’s old 4-foot wall was replaced with a new 8-foot privacy wall, shown in views looking south from Northeast 20th Avenue. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / October and December 2023)

Bordering the entire west side of the property along Northeast 20th Avenue, which runs parallel to U.S. 1, the new concrete wall is twice as high as the old one and serves as a visual and noise buffer between The Mai-Kai in the abutting neighborhood of single-family homes.

From the outside, the wall shields the parking lot entirely. You can see the A-frame and the top of the main building, but not much else. Once new trees and vegetation are added and grow in, the restaurant will be totally hidden.

The wall is currently covered with an undercoat of green primer. The final color will be similar, and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller is working on themed designs for the inside of the wall.

Inside, the lot is still a huge expanse of dirt with landscaping and hardscaping yet to begin. But that will change soon. Manager Kern Mattei reports that more crews and heavy equipment should be arriving early in 2024 to begin transforming the exterior spaces of The Mai-Kai into a truly immersive tropical paradise.

The Mai-Kai's new privacy wall hides all but the A-frame and top of the building. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / December 2023)
The Mai-Kai’s new privacy wall hides all but the A-frame and top of the building. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / December 2023)

Our next story will include an update on the renovations and restoration, plus a full recap of the work completed in 2023. Below, we’ll turn back the clock and look at the legacy of what became known as the Bora Bora Room, plus more photos and details on its removal. Then we’ll catch up with all the parking lot work over the past several months.

Continue reading “Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision”

Minimalist Tiki

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai's renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space

When The Mai-Kai completes a multimillion-dollar renovation, guests of the historic restaurant will be treated to several major enhancements, including a more immersive arrival experience and a new banquet hall.

The Mai-Kai

The head of the new ownership group broke the news and unveiled artist renderings during an online presentation for the city of Oakland Park and The Mai-Kai’s neighborhood residents in late April.

Also crucial to the reopening plans for the 65-year-old Polynesian palace, the refurbishment includes upgrading the aging roofs and air conditioning system, along with the ground-up construction of a new kitchen.

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022
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Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.
Renderings of refurbishment plans for The Mai-Kai, presented to residents of Oakland Park on April 26.

Fans of The Mai-Kai’s vintage look and feel should not fear these changes, however. The chief executive who leads both the land management firm that bought a controlling interest and the hospitality company that will be operating The Mai-Kai says there are no plans to alter the experience once guests walk through the doors.

This includes a planned revival of the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. From the nautical-themed Molokai bar to the dining rooms named for South Seas islands, a night at The Mai-Kai will remain a transportive time capsule considered to be the last grand mid-century Polynesian supper club in the world.

“There are thousands of beautiful historic properties all over the world that are sitting vacant without their proper use, said Bill Fuller, managing partner of Miami’s Barlington Group “This is just an amazing example of a historic property that is sustainable.” Fuller’s real estate development company specializes in revitalizing cultural institutions and neighborhoods across the country.

A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)
A rendering of a new event space proposed for the rear of The Mai-Kai under plans being proposed to the city of Oakland Park. (Design by Typhoon Tommy)

In a question-and-answer session after the April 26 meeting to share the “plans and visions” for the reopening, Fuller spoke in realistic terms about how to best preserve The Mai-Kai: “Although we are restricted based on the historic preservation, it is absolutely imperative that we are successful from a business perspective so that we can preserve all the other great attributes of The Mai-Kai,” he said. “Not just the architectural features, but the entire immersive experience including the shows, the music, the food, the drinks.”

The new ownership team, led by Fuller’s Tiki Real Estate LLC, paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage. The real estate purchase is valued at more than $16 million. “Over the last few months, we have been developing plans and securing permits,” Fuller said at the start of the neighborhood participation meeting. “We anticipate reopening in the fall of this coming year.”

“We care deeply about the community of Oakland Park and are grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve had,” Fuller said. After the presentation, a neighborhood resident praised the plans and said he was thrilled that The Mai-Kai will be returning as a staple destination in the area. “It will be a great day to see it open,” he added.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Roof project: Crucial work underway to shore up historic structure
Entrance experience: Flow of parking lot to be reimagined
New event space: Banquet hall planned next to reconstructed kitchen
Behind the scenes: The Mai-Kai interior intact with exciting additions in the works
What’s next? New owner promises continued effort to restore and upgrade

A blessing in disguise? Roof collapse leads to ownership change, renovations

The Mai-Kai is a local and national historic landmark, a beloved Polynesian restaurant that opened on Dec. 28, 1956. For more than six decades, it resolutely withstood the tests of time and gained a loyal worldwide following among of generations of guests.

Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai's longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton, The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner and producer of its authentic Polynesian shows. (Mai-Kai photo)

But all that changed suddenly and dramatically in October 2020, when a blast of intense tropical weather led to the collapse of the aging roof over the kitchen. The damage rendered a large swath of the back-of-house beyond repair. This rear addition, which featured a flat roof and was not part of the original A-frame, was built during an expansion in the early 1970s.

Facing the biggest crisis in the restaurant’s history, The Mai-Kai owners signed a deal late last year that ensures both the future of the enduring brand and the family legacy started by brothers Robert and Jack Thornton. The family matriarch and widow of Bob Thornton, former Polynesian Islander Revue performer Mireille Thornton, will remain the show’s creative director as well as The Mai-Kai’s heart and soul.

Key family and management will continue to steer the ship, but the future of The Mai-Kai is now in the very capable hands of Fuller and his companies. Several Barlington Group properties – including Ball and Chain and Taquerias El Mexicano in Little Havana’s historic Calle Ocho – are also managed by Mad Room Hospitality.

Past coverage
* The Mai-Kai fans rejoice as new partnership paves way for reopening

Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai's new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.
Bill Fuller, who heads The Mai-Kai’s new ownership group, shows plans and renderings and describes proposed renovations to the historic restaurant during an online meeting with Oakland Park residents on April 26.

“We’re looking forward to working closely with the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality to sustain The Mai-Kai the world has come to know and love,” the family said in the announcement of the sale in September.

Fans and followers of The Mai-Kai have been on the edge of their seats ever since, wondering what was going to happen to their beloved Tiki temple. Now, finally, we’re about to find out what Fuller and his team have in store for us.

“For over 60 years, The Mai-Kai has hosted millions who enjoy an immersive Polynesian experience,” Fuller said at the top of his Oakland Park presentation. “My companies formed a partnership with the Thornton family and we are collectively investing heavily to restore The Mai-Kai so that we can all enjoy it for the next 60 years.”

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE: The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans include reimagined entryway, new event space”

Lost cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Classic Daiquiri lost favor when Cuba fell, but influence endures

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Classic Daiquiri lost favor when Cuba fell, but influence endures

Updated August 2023
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The humble Daiquiri is arguably the most definitive rum cocktail, perhaps even the prototype for the 20th century tropical drink explosion. It influenced Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic, and countless others who followed in their footsteps.

Cuba’s most famous cocktail can be traced back to the late 1800s, but the simple combination of rum, lime and sugar was not groundbreaking. Martinique and Guadeloupe had the Ti Punch while Jamaica had its Planters Punch. An argument can be made that this intoxicating combination was invented on the high seas in the 1700s, when the British Navy introduced Grog to its sailors.

A vintage image from a Don the Beachcomber menu.
A vintage image from a Don the Beachcomber menu.

In this pantheon, the Daiquiri is distinctive for its precise craft and the clean, crisp rum of its homeland. In Potions of the Caribbean: 500 Years of Tropical Drinks and the People Behind Them (2014), Jeff “Beachbum” Berry praised the Daiquiri as the most perfectly balanced of all the rum-lime-sugar proto-cocktails.

Though deeply linked to Cuba, the Daiquiri was actually invented by an American engineer, Jennings Cox, who ran a mining company in the small village of Daiquiri during the Spanish-American War. The original was more like a punch, batched and served over crushed ice. It was not reconfigured into a single cocktail, strained into an empty coupe, until around 1913, after Cox’s death

That’s when the Daiquiri really began to take off. Its popularity grew from a local favorite to a destination drink for tourists who flocked to the Caribbean island’s legendary bars such as Havana’s La Floridita, especially during Prohibition. It also caught the attention of Facundo Bacardi, who used the simple drink to promote his expanding rum empire.

A vintage Bacardi ad from Cuba. Havana's La Floridita and owner/bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert became known worldwide for perfecting the craft of the Daiquiri.
A vintage Bacardi ad from Cuba. Havana’s La Floridita and owner/bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert became known worldwide for perfecting the craft of the Daiquiri.

It’s likely that both Donn Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic) ran across the Daiquiri during their travels in the Caribbean before opening their bars in California that kick-started the Tiki cocktail craze in the 1930s.

Their menus are loaded with Daiquiris, much like The Mai-Kai. Open since 1956, the South Florida historic landmark still features many drinks that can be traced back to Donn Beach, such as the Special Reserve Daiquiri.

There’s also a blended classic (Floridita Daiquiri) and an acclaimed original creation of mixologist Mariano Licudine, the Derby Daiquiri.

Of all the Daiquiris that appeared on a Mai-Kai menu, the Cuban Daiquiri is the only one that faded into the history books. It was an opening-day drink in 1956, but it likely became a victim of the era’s political upheaval, not to mention the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba that began in 1960 and lasts to this day.

The Mai-Kai's 1956-57 menu, which featured the Cuban Daiquiri (upper right).
The Mai-Kai’s 1956-57 menu, which featured the Cuban Daiquiri (upper right).

Before the 1958 revolution, Mai-Kai owners Bob and Jack Thornton were known to take weekend jaunts to the island aboard a private plane. They brought back rare bottles of Cuban rum, which can still be found displayed in the restaurant’s back bar (see photo below).

The Derby Daiquiri took the Cuban Daiquiri’s place on the menu in 1959. It was revived during a menu expansion in the early 1970s, but it was removed for good in the 1980s and became largely forgotten.

The Daiquiri was sullied during the cocktail dark ages of the late 20th century by cheap imitations and dreaded frozen slushie-style machines. But the classic recipe maintained a quiet dignity. The traditional Daiquiri has seen an amazing resurgence during the 21st century craft and Tiki cocktail revival.

Continue reading “Lost cocktails of The Mai-Kai: Classic Daiquiri lost favor when Cuba fell, but influence endures”

Mai-Kai cocktail review: The quest for the elusive Moonkist Coconut

Mai-Kai cocktail review: In search of the elusive Moonkist Coconut

Updated May 2024
See below: Our Moonkist Coconut review | Ancestor recipes NEW | The back story NEW | Official Mai-Kai recipe
Postscript: Moonkist Coconut on Make and Drink (video) NEW
Related: The Mai-Kai cocktail guide

The Moonkist Coconut is one of the most distinctive – and dodgy – drinks on The Mai-Kai’s vast and colorful cocktail menu.

Moonkist Coconut, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut in The Molokai bar, September 2015. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Don’t get us wrong. This classic cocktail has been on the iconic South Florida restaurant’s acclaimed tropical drink menu since it opened in 1956. And its quality and consistency are beyond reproach. It’s one of many “rum rhapsodies” on the menu that can be traced back to Tiki pioneer Don the Beachcomber. It’s a bolder and spicier option to the Piña Colada.

The trick is getting this exotic elixir served in its trademark coconut. The young, green coconuts that The Mai-Kai fashions into drinking vessels are seasonal. And the off-season seemingly drags on forever. Not that you really should fret. When the smooth, heavy coconuts are unavailable, you’ll get your drink in a nice big old fashioned glass, often garnished with an orchid (see photo above). Note that you also will receive the drink in a glass during happy hour, when it’s half-priced.

Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Moonkist Coconut at The Mai-Kai, July 2011. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

If you receive the drink in its traditional vessel, you’re encouraged to take it home as a souvenir. But unless you’re an expert at cleaning and preserving coconut shells, you probably won’t want to hold onto it for long.

When trying to duplicate this presentation at home, you have several options. The easiest is to employ a coconut mug, but if you’re really trying to impress you might want to explore the produce isle of your local grocery. While it may be tempting to pick up a hard-shelled mature coconut (the brown, husky variety), they’re extremely difficult to fashion into a drinking vessel. A better option, which is explored in more detail below, is a soft-shelled young coconut.

Whichever vessel you end up with, we’re sure you’ll enjoy the “official” recipe below, updated to mirror the latest version of the classic served at The Mai-Kai.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai cocktail review: The quest for the elusive Moonkist Coconut”