As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.
In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.
Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work 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.
While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.
Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.
Making this feat a reality is a team of artists and craftspeople under the direction of manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. This over-arching job is mammoth, encompassing the restoration of the Molokai bar, eight elaborately themed dining areas, plus other guest spaces.
In this update, we’ll catch up with the Orlando-area artists as they continue their mission to return The Mai-Kai to the same condition it was when the last major redesign was completed in the early 1970s. That’s when the last dining rooms were added and the building’s current footprint was solidified, some 15 years after its 1956 opening.
First, let’s walk through a chronological recap from May and June:
EARLY MAY: Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy refurbishing lamps in the Hawaii dining area, the 60-capacity room to the right of the showroom stage. “They touched almost all of them,” Mattei said. They also finished the ceiling in Hawaii, adding new panels.
They were assisted by longtime Mai-Kai handyman Gustavo in removing the window between Hawaii and Samoa, then adding new wood and lighting. The window was cleaned and put back in place, restoring this little-known feature to its vintage condition:
They also started on the adjacent Moorea dining area, a 40-capacity room that’s slightly elevated to offer the most distant views of the Polynesian Islander Revue to the north beyond Hawaii. The opposite southern glass wall, featuring rare yellow Chinese jade tiles, offers views of the outdoor garden. The crew immediately targeted the woodwork, matting and lamps for repair.
The lamp-builders also pivoted back to the Tonga Room, the elevated 80-capacity space in the back of the showroom. They had made great progress there in previous months, but the huge space still had many lamps that needed work.
Below at left is a restored tapa in The Mai-Kai’s Hawaii Room. A vintage turtle shell lamp will be returned to the center (note the electrical outlet). At right are some of the many restored lamps in the Tonga Room.
MID-MAY: Work wrapped up in the Hawaii dining room as Allsmiller and Scheidly put finishing touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. “Once the turtle shells go back on the walls, it’s going to be beautiful in here,” Allsmiller said.
In their workspace in the main showroom, the lamp brigade finished all of the low-hanging lamps in the Tonga dining area, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts. Those high in the A-frame will be touched later. Traditionally one of the darkest parts of restaurant, this area looks much brighter with all the lamps refurbished and featuring modern LED lighting.
In the left photo below, Allsmiller shows off a lamp project on May 18. At right, he points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa in the hallway near the Tonga Room and entrance to the kitchen. After the colors are touched up and it’s covered in Mod Podge, you won’t even notice, he said. “We’re trying to save them, bring them back.”
Back in Moorea, Allsmiller explained how they’re trying to restore the walls even though some of the materials are no longer available. He said they’re using materials salvaged from elsewhere, then changing the design slightly so chair backs will no longer damage the matting. “We’re saving material and reusing it,” he said.
He said the typical plan of attack for each room is to work on the walls first and save the lamps for last, or whenever they’re waiting for materials. On May 18, I found them in the nerve center – the main showroom workspace – buried in new lamp projects.
Both Scheidly and Allsmiller were working on total rebuilds of old lamps from the Tonga Room, found broken and in bad shape (see photo below). “I like the challenge,” Allsmiller said of not having the blueprints. He said he can make an educated guess of what the lamps should look like. Schematics for some of the Oceanic Arts lamps were found in The Mai-Kai warehouse, but many others are mysteries.
Work was also progressing into Samoa, a secluded dining area that seats 44 in one of the oldest rooms at The Mai-Kai. The “demolition crew” had been busy tearing out all the old, damaged wall materials. This is a big help to the designers, allowing them to concentrate on restoration. Work was also advancing on the refurbishing of the ceiling and beams.
A limited number of tickets are still available for The Hukilau 2021, scheduled for Sept. 16-19 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach, according to an email announcement. The 19th Tiki weekender will also include a special event at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
Regarding concerns over safety and COVID, the email announcement noted that “all signs still point to a fun, safe, outdoor event.” It added: “In the event that The Hukilau 2021 must be cancelled, or at any point you would prefer to hang back, we are offering full refunds for all passes and tickets, including service fees.” Have questions? Check out the online FAQ at TheHukilau.com or email organizer Richard Oneslager.
Ticket options range from all-inclusive passes to à la carte events. Here are the highlights:
Beachcomber Pass ($269): Villagers buying the entry-level pass receive admission to Friday and Saturday’s Rum Island Pool Parties, Saturday’s Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus a “Bungalow Party Pass” at the Beachcomber. The pool parties and bungalows will feature complimentary drinks from top Tiki bars and bartenders from around the country, plus live entertainment and sponsor booths. Also included is Saturday’s Save Paradise Party at The Mai-Kai, which will feature a private seating in the outdoor porte-cochère and access to buy authentic Mai-Kai cocktails along with a special announcement on the future of the historic restaurant. Entertainment will be provided by Polynesian Islander Revue performers. Passholders can also add a rum tasting pass ($25) and symposiums ($10 each) à la carte. (Symposium tickets sold on a space-available basis.)
Aloha Pass ($299): This mid-level pass includes all of the Beachcomber perks, plus admission to Thursday’s kickoff party featuring live music and cocktails. Beachcomber passholders also receive a complimentary rum tasting pass and access to all symposiums, plus free transportation to The Mai-Kai. Both Beachcomber and Aloha passholders can also buy à la carte tickets to Friday’s luau on the beach ($49 cocktails only, $129 food and drinks) and Sunday’s Tiki brunch ($49).
South Seas Pass ($599): Villagers at the top tier receive all of the same benefits that the other passholders receive, with the cost of the Friday luau (cocktails and dinner) and Sunday brunch included in the pass. They will also get early admission to the luau and bazaar, plus priority seating at symposiums. South Seas villagers will also be treated to a small custom Tiki created by Tiki Tony, plus a special reception at Saturday’s Mai-Kai party.