Modern Caribbean Rum

Mai-Kai update (January 2024): Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer

Mai-Kai update (January 2024): Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer

The multimillion-dollar reimagination of The Mai-Kai is an unprecedented project in its size and scope as a local and national historic landmark restaurant. Since worked kicked off in 2022, projects have touched nearly every corner of the 67-year-old, 2.7-acre property in South Florida.

Jump below: Latest news on the refurbishments | Timeline of current projects

The first phase of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai is expected to be completed in summer 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)
The first phase of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai is expected to be completed in summer 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, January 2024)

Now, as 2024 brings us into the home stretch, interest is building not only for updates on the status of the renovations, but also for news on a potential reopening date. Closed since an October 2020 roof collapse irreparably damaged the 1970s-era kitchen, The Mai-Kai is on track to have guests return this year. The only question is exactly when?

Unfortunately, that question will probably not be answered with accuracy until it’s much closer to the finish line. Project timelines can change on a dime, and most of the final hurdles will be left in the hands of inspectors and government officials in Broward County and the city of Oakland Park.

Until then, we’ll take any news we can get. We were able to confirm the accuracy of the latest projection, shared on the restaurant’s official Instagram page: “We are now looking at this summer,” said the comment on a Jan. 23 posting in response to questions about the reopening date.

Recent coverage
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
* Beyond Bora Bora: Reimagination of Mai-Kai entry experience evokes original vision

Artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly shared photos on Instagram of his work cleaning up one of The Mai-Kai's last remaining Oceanic Arts wooden masks
Artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly shared photos on Instagram of his work cleaning up one of The Mai-Kai’s last remaining Oceanic Arts wooden masks. “Luckily this was protected under the porte-cochère out front but will be relocated to the inside for preservation,” he wrote.

Organizers of The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender in nearby Pompano Beach, are making two sets of plans for their June 6-9 event. Plan A would include events at a fully reopened Mai-Kai, while Plan B would feature limited access and sneak previews, perhaps cocktails and entertainment. The general consensus among Hukilau organizers, which include Mai-Kai investor Richard Oneslager and public relations director Pia Dahlquist, is that there’s a 50-50 chance of either plan happening. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more news on The Hukilau, which has included The Mai-Kai in its festivities since its second year in 2003.

In the meantime, we made our first visit of the new year to the property that straddles the Oakland Park border with Fort Lauderdale on Federal Highway. You can find our observations and photos below, along with updates from manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai update (January 2024): Renovations engulf entire property, reopening estimated for summer”

Minimalist Tiki

Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight

Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight

The multi-year, multimillion-dollar restoration of The Mai-Kai reached a turning point this fall when multiple construction projects were underway, both inside and outside the historic property in South Florida. These key elements – the rebuilding of the back-of-house kitchen and bar, plus the reimagination of the parking lot – are the last major pieces of the puzzle that need to completed before a projected early 2024 reopening can become reality.

Jump below: Porte-cochère | Showroom | Chinese ovens | Other projects

The area above the entrance doors was completely refurbished by The Mai-Kai's artistic team. The vintage fiberglass panels were restored, new artwork was created for the large beams, the wooden rail pins were replaced with sculpted hard foam, and a new LED lighting package was added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Oct. 20, 2023)
The area above the entrance doors was completely refurbished by The Mai-Kai’s artistic team. The vintage fiberglass panels were restored, new artwork was created for the large beams, the wooden rail pins were replaced with sculpted hard foam, and a new LED lighting package was added. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Oct. 20, 2023)

But despite all this hubbub, the artists who are bringing the design and decor of the vintage restaurant back to life remain focused on their many highly detailed tasks. Working in and around the construction zones is merely a day at the office for creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow craftsmen, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and Conrad Teheiura Itchener. Meanwhile, manager Kern Mattei continues to handle the day-to-day operations with aplomb.

After a hot and grueling summer, everyone working inside the building got some welcome relief when the new air-conditioning system finally roared to life in the fall after being installed in July. Most of the building had been without AC since the roof collapse in October 2020 that triggered the closing and eventual sale of The Mai-Kai to the Barlington Group and a new ownership team that partnered with the founding Thornton family.

The rewiring of the 67-year-old building was an epic task for electricians. Power was out for months during the summer, awaiting Florida Power & Light crews scheduled to make the restaurant’s six new breaker boxes operational. Power was eventually restored in early October. Then, on Oct. 12, vents were blasting cold air into the vintage Molokai bar almost exactly three years after the closing. By early November, the showroom, Tonga Room and the gift shop were also being cooled as the electricians started bringing other parts of the building online.

NEXT: Work begins on reimagination of The Mai-Kai entry experience
* Mai-Kai refurbishment 2023 year-end recap: Updates, photos, timeline
MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

A major piece of decor returned from storage to The Molokai bar on Nov. 2. The signature maiden masthead is one of many nautical pieces that date back to the bar's 1970 retheming using props from the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty." (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Nov. 2, 2023)
A major piece of decor returned from storage to The Molokai bar on Nov. 2. The signature maiden masthead is one of many nautical pieces that date back to the bar’s 1970 retheming using props from the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty.” (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Nov. 2, 2023)

The air wasn’t the only cool thing happening in the refurbished bar. While it could be considered merely symbolic, the return of the “Molokai Maiden” masthead to her perch was a highlight not only for fans but also for the craftsmen working endless hours on the restoration. The alluring mermaid has been a longtime icon, immortalized with a memorable mug in 2014 by artist Crazy Al Evans, produced by The Swank Pad.
* Video: Maiden of the Molokai mug by Crazy Al (2014)

Most of the bar’s decor was finished earlier this year, but reinstalling the mermaid was a pretty big deal for the crew. “It really feels like The Mai-Kai’s coming back now that she’s up there,” Itchener said. He was joined by Allsmiller and Scheidly for the task, which they documented with a video on Instagram:

Following is a look at some of the major projects the artists were working on this fall.

**************************************************

The porte-cochère: Restoration meets reimagination

A nighttime view of the recently renovated lighted panels and beams under The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère. (Photo by Kern Mattei / October 2023)
A nighttime view of the recently renovated lighted panels and beams under The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère. (Photo by Kern Mattei / October 2023)

Racing against the clock to finish their work before construction crews arrived to excavate the driveway, Allsmiller and his team completed their work on the beams and vintage panels under the porte-cochère. When new LED lighting was installed and tested in October, the result was a sight not seen in decades.

Numerous hurricanes knocked out the accent lights, while the 65-year-old fiberglass panels and adjacent wooden rails over the front doors fell into disrepair over the years. The entire area was reimagined by Allsmiller and Scheidly. They were joined by Itchener, who helped turn the black metal support beams into faux bamboo.

Continue reading “Mai-Kai update, fall 2023: Artists shine amid construction as final renovation projects take flight”

Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)

Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)

As the renovation of The Mai-Kai reaches a crucial point outdoors, work is progressing on the restoration of the historic South Florida restaurant’s guest areas alongside a near total rebuild of the back-of-house facilities.

SEE BELOW: Samoa Room meticulously restored | Lamps & lights get detailed revamp | Molds reshape vintage decor | Woodworkers set stage for artists | New back-of-house taking shape

Creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller (right) and artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly work in the nerve center of their lamp-rebuilding efforts in the showroom at The Mai-Kai on Aug. 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller (right) and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly work in the nerve center of their lamp-rebuilding efforts in the showroom at The Mai-Kai on Aug. 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

It’s a two-pronged effort overseen by Kern Mattei, a second-generation employee who grew up at The Mai-Kai and is now in his 30th year as manager. An October 2020 roof collapse took out the massive kitchen and back bar. A change in ownership in September 2021 kick-started the renovation efforts, which now enter the final phases.

On the job since early 2022, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has brought both his passion for historic Polynesian design and his vast experiece as a theme park scenic artist to The Mai-Kai’s many restoration projects. For most of this year, he’s been joined by another central Florida artist, Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, creating a well-oiled machine that can seemingly handle any task, no matter how challenging.

They were joined this summer by another multifaceted artist who has been crucial in helping them use inventive techniques to restore some of the areas most in need of TLC. Along with the woodworking crew tasked with repairing all of The Mai-Kai’s damaged walls and ceiling, Conrad Teheiura Itchener is a key member of the team bringing the Tiki temple back to life.

Conrad Teheiura Itchener pours wet foam into a mold to re-create framing for vintage wall decor (left) and unveils a finished wall panel on Aug. 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Conrad Teheiura Itchener pours wet foam into a mold to re-create framing for vintage wall decor (left) and unveils a finished wall panel on Aug. 11. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Meanwhile, the new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller of Barlington Group is pumping all of its resources into modernizing the infrastructure, from new roofs to a revamped electrical grid and air-handling system. Helping Mattei rebuild the kitchen and back-of-house is Fuller’s sister company, Mad Room Hospitality, which oversees other historic restaurants including Miami’s Ball & Chain.

Following is an extensive recap of all the work done inside The Mai-Kai since our last stories in early July. Meanwhile, a related story contains up-to-the minute news on the reimagination of the parking lot as well as a projected reopening date.

RELATED: Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening (summer 2023 recap)
FULL COVERAGE: Latest news, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

Manager Kern Mattei talks about the early years of The Mai-Kai during the presentation "Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai" at Tiki Oasis in San Diego on Aug. 5. (Photo by Sven Kirsten)
Manager Kern Mattei talks about the early years of The Mai-Kai during the presentation “Tiki History Reimagined: The Restoration and Reopening of The Mai-Kai” at Tiki Oasis in San Diego on Aug. 5. (Photo by Sven Kirsten)

Previous coverage
* The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog at Tiki Oasis
* The Mai-Kai renovations, May-June 2023: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
* Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)

**************************************************
Some of the vintage lamps in The Mai-Kai's Samoa Room that have been completely refurbished along with the walls and ceiling. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / Aug. 18, 2023)
Some of the vintage lamps in The Mai-Kai’s Samoa Room that have been completely refurbished along with the walls and ceiling. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Aug. 18, 2023)

SAMOA ROOM: One of the original dining areas meticulously restored

Over the past six months, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly have methodically brought many of The Mai-Kai’s elaborately themed dining rooms back to life: New Guinea, Hawaii, Moorea, and the lower areas of Tonga. But the completion of the one of the oldest dining areas, Samoa, remained elusive.

Continue reading “Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)”

The Hukilau highlights: Photos and memories from 2023 Tiki weekender in South Florida

The Hukilau highlights: Photos and memories from 2023 Tiki weekender in South Florida

The Hukilau made its 20th live appearance in South Florida (and 21st overall) last week at the scenic Beachcomber Resort on the Pompano Beach oceanfront. The idyllic setting was perfect for a Tiki weekender featuring four days of nonstop music, cocktails and education on modern and historic Polynesian Pop.
RELATED: The Hukilau 2023 live coverage, photos and video from social media

The Hukilau 2023 – June 8-11 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club in Pompano Beach. Featuring live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, Shorty’s Swingin’ Coconuts, The Swingin’ Palms, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, Dan Cunningham, The Ohana Hawaiian Jazz Trio), symposiums and classes (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, David Wondrich, Matt Pietrek, Garret Richard, Spike Marble, Tiki Tom-Tom, Doc Parks), guest bars and industry professionals, pop-up cocktail bars, pool parties, Tiki Treasures Bazaar, plus more.
* TheHukilau.com | Instagram | Facebook page and group

The Atomic Grog’s photos and memories from June 8-11 at the Beachcomber Resort

Continue reading “The Hukilau highlights: Photos and memories from 2023 Tiki weekender in South Florida”

The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam

The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts ramp up

The structural footprint of The Mai-Kai changed dramatically last month with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building, which will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and fully immersive tropical-themed parking lot, outdoor seating area and porte-cochère at the historic South Florida restaurant.

Previous coverage
* Behind the scenes at The-Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023
* The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

The Mai-Kai's Bora Bora building on April 14 (left), two weeks before its removal. By April 29, all that remained was an empty lot on the northeast corner of the property that will be transformed into a new entry experience. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward and Kern Mattei)
The Mai-Kai’s Bora Bora building on April 14 (left), two weeks before its removal. By April 29, all that remained was an empty lot on the northeast corner of the property that will be transformed into a new entry experience. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward and Kern Mattei)

Amid the ruckus outside, the restoration efforts inside the main building advanced quietly but deliberately. Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and fellow Orlando-area artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed the New Guinea dining room, a vintage space that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening. They also restored the ceiling and walls near the Tonga dining room, and by the end of the month were full immersed in the Hawaii room.

Laser-focused on The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of custom lamps, they cranked out replicas and refurbished many originals created 50 years ago. After they finish, it will be impossible to tell which lamps are rebuilt and which are vintage, an over-arching theme of the restoration efforts.

"Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller shows off a refurbished lamp at The Mai-Kai on April 25. He and fellow artist Scott "Flounder" Scheidly completed restoring all the lamps in the New Guinea dining room (right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
“Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller shows off a refurbished lamp at The Mai-Kai on April 25. He and fellow artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed restoring all the lamps in the New Guinea dining room (right). (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Meanwhile, the back-of-house area was a total construction zone as crews prepared for the installation of a new bar and kitchen. Up on the roof, workers were busy sealing the main A-frame and working on new vents, along with the structures to hold the new air-conditioning system.

After electrical work was done, a painting crew put the finishing touches on the men’s restroom. Electricians continued an infrastructure overhaul, preparing for the upcoming installation of a new circuit breaker system.

Despite all the chaos, manager Kern Mattei managed to crank out another round of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktail quarts and gallons to go on April 26-27. Depending on the progress on the electrical work., which may force the shutdown of the bar’s coolers, the next chance to enjoy the classic tropical drinks may take place only at The Hukilau weekender in June.

Photos provided by manager Kern Mattei show the progress of work on The Mai-Kai's soaring main A-frame. The roof was sealed to prevent leaks (left), then repainted.
Photos provided by manager Kern Mattei show the progress of work on The Mai-Kai’s soaring main A-frame. The roof was sealed to prevent leaks (left), then repainted.

Below are updates on all the work that took place in April, including video and many exclusive photos.

Jump to April news and updates below
* Bora Bora Room removed | Photo gallery
* Dining rooms return to vintage glory | Photo gallery
* Work begins on new bar and kitchen
* Former Molokai bar waitress remembered

UPDATES: Get the latest news and photos on our social media pages
* Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
Atomic Grog blog: Recent social media posts, past coverage

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway on April 7 after the thatching of the A-frame roofs over the rear dining rooms was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway on April 7 after the thatching of the A-frame roofs over the rear dining rooms was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

It’s no surprise that April saw an acceleration of renovation work on multiple fronts. In March, The Mai-Kai officially began the $8.5 million project after three permits cleared the way for three major projects:
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing.
* Removal of the Bora Bora building.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen.

The repairs and refurbishments became necessary after the 26,000-square-foot restaurant suffered a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen in late October of 2020. The plans – which include both restoring the main building and upgrading and enhancing the parking lot and back of house – became clear after the founding Thornton family sold a majority interest to a new ownership team led by the Barlington Group and historic preservationist Bill Fuller.

The permit approvals restarted the roof thatching project in March. By April, thatching was completed on the porte-cochère as well as the A-frame roofs over the back dining rooms. All that remained was detailing and finishing work, which will happen later.

Outside under the porte-cochère on April 14, a crew works on spackling and smoothing the wood, getting it ready to be finished. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Outside under the porte-cochère on April 14, a crew works on spackling and smoothing the wood, getting it ready to be finished. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

As April progressed, The Mai-Kai applied for three new permits that will keep projects moving quickly. On April 25, the city of Oakland Park issued a mechanical permit that will allow for the installation of the new kitchen. It won’t expire until Oct. 23, which fits in with the timeline we’re hearing about a reopening coming in the fall.

A mechanical permit for “fire suppression” was applied for in April, then issued in May This likely covers not only a new sprinkler system, but a fine-tuning off The Mai-Kai’s elaborate rooftop exhaust system that pulls smoke from the main showroom after the fire-dancers perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in the early 1960s, it’s the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai renovations, April 2023: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam”

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at The Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at The-Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023

With contractors and construction crews moving full-speed ahead on a massive renovation of the infrastructure and exterior of The Mai-Kai, a small team of craftsmen continues to meticulously restore the historic South Florida restaurant’s elaborately themed interior guest areas in exacting detail.

Just inside the entrance to The Mai-Kai on Federal Highway, creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller is hard at work restoring the interior of the historic restaurant on March 9. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Just inside the entrance to The Mai-Kai on Federal Highway, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller is hard at work restoring the interior of the historic restaurant on March 9. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The city of Oakland Park’s recent approval of permits that will allow the major pieces of the $8.5 million project to move forward has grabbed all the attention so far in 2023. But inside the beloved Polynesian palace, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has been busy in the new year with a wide array of restoration projects.

We’ll take an in-depth look at Allsmiller’s work below. But first, here’s a status report from manager Kern Mattei on the progress of the entire renovation project. This covers everything that has happened since his detailed walk-through of the property with us on March 9.

Workers put the finishing touches on the thatched roof of The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère on March 24, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Workers put the finishing touches on the thatched roof of The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère on March 24, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Completion of porte-cochère roof kicks off many projects to come

By the end of March, the work on thatching the outdoor roofs was progressing nicely after a long pause due to permitting issues. We visited on March 16 to pick up takeout cocktails, then again on March 24 and March 31 for a peek at the progress, both inside and out.

The most noticeable change for guests passing by or picking up quarts and gallons to go this week (April 6-7) will definitely be the completion of the thatched roofs. On March 24, workers were putting the finishing touches on the porte-cochère, which has shielded arriving guests from the elements for the past six decades.

A view of the porte-cochère and entrance to The Mai-Kai after the thatching was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 24, 2023)
A view of the porte-cochère and entrance to The Mai-Kai after the thatching was completed. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 24, 2023)

Installed shortly after the 1956 opening, the porte-cochère has been re-thatched and the structure periodically refurbished over the years. But the current project is the most extensive in recent history. [See past coverage]

Later, after the driveway is replaced and landscaping has begun, Allsmiller will work on restoring all the design elements beneath the roof on the center beam and trim. Automobile traffic will no longer pass beneath, allowing guests to sit outside with a cocktail and enjoy the shade and ambience.

Scott Scheidly (left), a Central Florida artist better known as Flounder, works with creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller under The Mai-Kai's refurbished porte-cochère on March 15, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Scott Scheidly (left), a Central Florida artist better known as Flounder, works with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller under The Mai-Kai’s refurbished porte-cochère on March 15, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Mattei said they plan to reinstall of the canoe that used to hang under the roof, and also restore all the fishnets and lighting. In the meantime, Allsmiller now has a much cooler outdoor area to work alongside his new assistant, fellow Central Florida artist Scott Scheidly (aka Flounder). The large canopy reduces the temperature in the blazing Florida sun significantly.

Next to the porte-cochère, the Bora Bora Room is being readied for demolition. The removal of the 1960s-era building, approved Jan. 11 by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and new parking lot flow. A subcontractor for the job has yet to be named.

Pieces of the Bora Bora will live on, however, after the removal of all vintage decor that can be repurposed. Mattei showed us a pile of lava rock that had been removed, stashed away for use later in the entryway landscaping.

Thatch work on the A-frame roofs over the rear dining areas at The Mai-Kai nears completion on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Thatch work on the A-frame roofs over the rear dining areas at The Mai-Kai nears completion on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Meanwhile, electricians are busy rewiring the entire property, creating a new grid that will allow for the installation of a half-dozen new air-conditioning units on the roofs. The modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system will replace the old chiller system and its water cooling tower hidden behind the Bora Bora building.

With the porte-cochère job complete, the company installing the synthetic thatching moved on to finish the uncompleted work on the A-frames over the rear dining rooms. On March 31, work was progressing on the Tahiti and Moorea roofs, which were added during the early 1970s expansion. [See past coverage]

When this is done, the crew from Tiki King will take a break before returning for perhaps the biggest thatching project: Restoring the materials to The Mai-Kai’s towering main A-frame.

A view from Federal Highway of The Mai-Kai's new thatching over the Tahiti Room (left) and the massive main A-frame. Crews recently finished sealing and painting the 66-year-old structure. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 31, 2023)
A view from Federal Highway of The Mai-Kai’s new thatching over the Tahiti Room (left) and the massive main A-frame. Crews recently finished sealing and painting the 66-year-old structure. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 31, 2023)

This iconic structure, which reaches more than 40 feet at its peak, has undergone changes over the years. Originally, the rear contained thatching while the front portion featured giant screens to let in the air (and rain) to keep the indoor gardens flourishing. [See photo]

While there are no plans to bring back the open-air concept, Mattei said potential designs being debated by the ownership team should give it a more traditional look. We spotted painters on the roof March 24. By March 31, all the undercoating and sealant had been added to the exterior to defend against future leaks.

“It’s finished for now, until we figure out what’s going on,” said Mattei, explaining the process of troubleshooting for pesky leaks before the thatching and final paint job are done. The artwork on the front will be restored by the painter who did the original five decades ago.

A wide view of the southern portion of the front of The Mai-Kai shows the roofing work in progress. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 31, 2023)
A wide view of the southern portion of the front of The Mai-Kai shows the roofing work in progress. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 31, 2023)

Around the back of the building, crews were up on the refurbished flat roof, installing support beams to hold all the new air-conditioning units. The first of these half-dozen new AC boxes was sitting in the back-of-house space that used to house the kitchen, before the October 2020 roof collapse that forced its removal and shut down the restaurant.

Mattei said there’s no rush to rebuild that area until after the underground plumbing is reinstalled to modern standards. The previous kitchen dated back to the 1970 expansion.

However, there is much work ongoing inside the back of house area that survived the roof collapse. Since the permit approvals, a large portion of the existing space used by staff was gutted in preparation for its reimagination.

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Behind the scenes at The Mai-Kai as restoration ramps up in 2023”

BREAKING NEWS: The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects

There was no fancy groundbreaking or ribbon cutting, but March 6 was a significant date in the long journey toward the restoration and reimagination of The Mai-Kai, southeast Florida’s historic Polynesian restaurant. That’s when work officially began on three different projects that had been stalled for months awaiting building permits.

The Mai-Kai received final approval of three key building permits on March 3, clearing the way for major projects to begin. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 9, 2023)
The Mai-Kai received final approval of three key building permits on March 3, clearing the way for major projects to begin. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / March 9, 2023)

The city of Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee approved the site plan at a Jan. 26 meeting, but details remained to be ironed out as they made their way through the governmental process before permits could be issued. Committee approval was considered to be the final hurdle, so the wait to get started seemed interminable for the owners and staff, who have been planning the massive renovations for nearly a year while working on smaller restoration projects.

But even those projects became bogged down due to The Mai-Kai’s status as a local and national historic landmark. For example, work on replacing old thatched roofing, which began in late summer, had to stop in October and await multiple approvals. On Jan. 11, the city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved both Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the ambitious $8.5 million project.

That left the 10-member Development Review Committee, composed of officials from various departments and disciplines across the city, to weigh in and give the project a green light. The approval, also unanimous, ended up being a flashing red light for five weeks as the general contractor and others waited at the starting line, engines idling.

Workers were busy shoring up The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère on Thursday, March 9. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Workers were busy shoring up The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère on Thursday, March 9. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The three long-awaited permits finally came through on Friday, March 3, joining an earlier approval that will together enable The Mai-Kai to move full-steam ahead in an effort to re-open the beloved restaurant in late 2023. It has been closed since Oct. 25, 2020, when a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen rendered the 26,000-square-foot restaurant unable to serve diners for the first time in its 66-year history.

After more than two years of downtime, not a minute was wasted in kick-starting work on multiple fronts last week. While you may not yet notice anything new as you drive by the 2.7 acres at 3599 N. Federal Highway (aka U.S. 1) northwest of coastal Fort Lauderdale, there’s a lot going on inside and to the rear of the property. Work started on Monday, March 6, and by the time I visited on Thursday, March 9, the property was abuzz with activity. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind” since the permits were approved, said manager Kern Mattei, who deals with most of the on-site logistics. “We’ve been super busy.”

Guests picking up take-out cocktails this week should be able to get a peek at some of the action. Just be aware that construction may require the closure of some areas of the parking lot, so keep an eye out for updated directions and those ubiquitous orange cones.

The Atomic Grog’s exclusive coverage of The Mai-Kai renovations
* New details on restaurant’s reimagination, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele in Atlanta
* Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board OKs plans, clears way for project to move forward

A slide shown at the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board meeting on Jan. 11, where the removal of the Bora Bora building was unanimously approved. The project is out for bid and will begin soon.
A slide shown at the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board meeting on Jan. 11, where the removal of the Bora Bora building was unanimously approved. The project is out for bid and will begin soon.

Mattei gave me an overview of The Mai-Kai’s current state along with plans for projects relating to all three permits, graciously allowing me a peek behind the scenes on March 9. Many of the photos above and below were taken during that visit. Here’s a synopsis of the three permits issued March 3 and the projects they encompass:

* Removal of the Bora Bora building. An essential first step in the total reimagination of The Mai-Kai’s entry and parking lot experience, this will be the first project to be completed. Mattei said that the demolition job is out for bid by the general contractor. Once a firm is selected, the removal of the building will likely happen quickly, since the permit expires May 2. In the meantime, Mattei said, he and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller are overseeing the removal of all salvageable pieces from the historic building, which dates back to the early 1960s and has been vacant since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Once the building is removed, the massive landscaping project can begin.

* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing. Already underway since last year but now four months behind schedule after work was halted, this project was quickly re-started last week. Workers on hydraulic lifts were busy shoring up the crossbeams of the soaring A-frame structure. Allsmiller will lead an effort to repair the stylized extension on the peak of the A-frame, restoring it back to its original design. Realistic synthetic thatch approved by the city will then cover the entire roof. The thatching project will also include The Mai-Kai’s massive main A-frame, along with the two smaller peaked roofs over the back dining rooms that are nearly complete. Wood, thatch, and other materials were already on site March 9, awaiting installation by South Florida’s Tiki King. The porte-cochère permit doesn’t expire until Aug. 30. A separate re-roofing permit is “in review,” the step before approval. The previous roofing permit expired March 2.

A view inside The Mai-Kai's former kitchen on March 9. The brown steel beams will go on the roof to support the new air-conditioning system. To the bottom right is bamboo and thatch awaiting installation on the A-frame roofs. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A view inside The Mai-Kai’s former kitchen on March 9. The brown steel beams will go on the roof to support the new air-conditioning system. To the bottom right is bamboo and thatch awaiting installation on the A-frame roofs. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen. Also running through Aug. 30, this over-arching permit allows The Mai-Kai to install a temporary kitchen in space that onece contained back-of-house offices. A permit that was issued last May (expiring Aug. 8) covers the installation of a new air-conditioning system on all of the completed roofs. Steel beams that will go onto the roof to support the AC units are ready and waiting, painted to blend in with the decor. The general contractor was working in the old staff locker rooms March 9, peeling off the drywall and ceiling. I did not get a look at this, since it was a hard-hat area, but we know from the plans that this will be the location of the new permanent back bar. The provisional kitchen is a stopgap measure to get the restaurant up and running as quickly as possible, albeit with a limited menu. The buildout of a full kitchen will be part of Phase 2, estimated to be a year or more down the road. The second phase will also include the event center, which will be built next to the kitchen in what was once storage space.

Continue reading “BREAKING NEWS: The Mai-Kai officially begins work on first phase of $8.5 million renovation projects”

EXCLUSIVE: New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta

New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta

Tiki fans packed a conference room early on the first day of Inuhele: Atlanta’s Tiki Weekend on Jan. 20, eager to hear and see details of the upcoming multimillion-dollar refurbishments planned for the historic Mai-Kai restaurant in South Florida. The Atomic Grog was happy to oblige, presenting exclusive photos, renderings and video of the project that is poised to shift into high gear in the coming months.

Hurricane Hayward kicks off his presentation, "Okole Maluna! The Return of The Mai-Kai," at Inuhele in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo by Tim Glazner)
Hurricane Hayward kicks off his presentation, “Okole Maluna! The Return of The Mai-Kai,” at Inuhele in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 2023. (Photo by Tim Glazner)

Jim “Hurricane” Hayward sprinkled the presentation on the 225-seat room’s large screen with new images and architectural plans. Appearing via pre-recorded video, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller took viewers on 10-minute walk-through of his work in The Molokai bar, one of the restaurant’s oldest dining rooms, plus a stroll through the gardens. The video received a great response after the interior designer and craftsman urged attendees to enjoy their Mai-Kai cocktails after the presentation.

Other upcoming projects were detailed for the first time, including new Mai-Kai mugs and other merchandise by contemporary Tiki artists, plus a signature rum blend from two historic Caribbean distilleries. After digesting all the news, the approximately 175 guests were invited to quench their thirst with authentic Mai-Kai cocktails in a poolside VIP lounge for a meet-and-greet event.

The fourth Inuhele event was held Jan. 20-22 at the Atlanta Sheraton Downtown, just two blocks from the historic Trader Vic’s location, where many attendees paid a nightly pilgrimage. Highlights included a wide array of presentations all three days, an authentic luau, rocking live bands, a marketplace featuring many top artists and craftspeople, daily room parties and special events, plus more. Check out our event preview for an overview of the diversity and creativity of Inuhele’s offerings. Event recap and more photos coming soon!

Jump to more below:
* Chapter 1: The Legacy
* Chapter 2: The Deluge
* Chapter 3: The Renewal
EXCLUSIVE: Updates, new images of the site plan
EXCLUSIVE: New rum, mugs, other merchandise
PHOTOS: Images of presentation, after-party | Video

Judging by the turnout for the presentation at Inuhele in Atlanta, there’s a great deal of interest in The Mai-Kai’s refurbishment plans. (Atomic Grog photo)

Recent coverage of The Mai-Kai
* Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward
* The Mai-Kai turns 66 as work progresses on multiple renovation projects

It was a pleasure to share all the latest exclusive information on The Mai-Kai refurbishment plans with an enthusiastic audience. It was the first presentation on the first day, and the line to enter the “Jungle Room” stretched down the hall and into the lobby.

Mahalo to Jonathan and Allison Chaffin and their expert staff for the great event. And okole maluna to hospitality director Lucky Munro and Mai-Kai historian Tim “Swanky” Glazner for their help with the cocktails. The support staff at the presentation was also very gracious, helping us solve a few technical issues and get the event on track as fast as we could. We hope to see y’all next year!

Swanky pours the Black Magic while Hurricane Hayward handles the Barrel O' Rum.
Swanky pours the Black Magic while Hurricane Hayward handles the Barrel O’ Rum. (Atomic Grog photo)

Inuhele, which started in 2018 as the Atlanta Tiki home bar tour, means “cocktail journey.” So I thought it was only fitting to kick off the show by talking about my personal cocktail journey at The Mai-Kai. My fascination with the delicious drinks, and the Tiki revival in general, started there around 15 years ago and is still going strong. Go to The Mai-Kai Cocktail Guide to see the results of this journey.

Past presentations at The Hukilau and The Mai-Kai have included deep dives into the cocktails, the menu, and the restaurant’s historic rum collection. In 2022, we turned our attention on the blog to the massive renovation project, posting exclusive news and photos as work progressed. When the opportunity arose to share our insights at Inuhele, we jumped at the chance.

None of this would have been possible without the crucial cooperation and assistance of several key members of The Mai-Kai team who have be extremely helpful over the years with all of our coverage: General manager Kern Mattei and public relations director Pia Dahlquist. Also mentioned at the top of the presentation was the leader of the new ownership team, Bill Fuller, a founder of both real estate development firm Barlington Group and restaurant management group Mad Room Hospitality.

I thanked Fuller for having the vision to restore and reimagine The Mai-Kai, and for providing access and graciously answering all my questions as I continue to cover the most magical restaurant in the world.

Images from the title slide show three eras of The Mai-Kai: The 1950s, when the restaurant was built in a desolate area far west of the popular beachfront. A recent view from what is now a very busy Federal Highway. And a rendering by "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller of the planned event center addition, coming in the second phase of the renovations
Images from the title slide show three eras of The Mai-Kai: The 1950s, when the restaurant was built in a desolate area far west of the popular beachfront. A recent view from what is now a very busy Federal Highway. And a rendering by “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller of the planned event center addition, coming in the second phase of the renovations.

CHAPTER 1 – The Legacy

While most Tikphiles in attendance knew quite a bit about the 66-year history of The Mai-Kai, we couldn’t discuss the significance of the current renovations without a brief tour through the past. Opened Dec. 28, 1956, in the small Fort Lauderdale suburb of Oakland Park, The Mai-Kai became a local and national historic landmark in 2014.

The dining rooms were outfitted with authentic artifacts from Polynesia, along with much work by budding restaurant decor firm Oceanic Arts. Massive Tikis by legendary carver Barney West were installed in the early 1960s. Sadly, only one survives. But it’s due to be restored as part of the refurbishments.

The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue was the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii) until the 2020 closing due to a roof collapse over the kitchen and back-of-house area. The show’s original bandleader, Toti Terorotua, came from Don the Beachcomber in Hawaii and continued to perform until shortly before his death in 2020. Inuhele guests were treated to the sounds of Terorotua & His Tahitians, his band from the 1950s, before and after the presentation.

A slide from the Inuhele presentation: The 1970 expansion increased the restaurant's capacity from 350 to its current 450, plus another 150 in The Molokai. For the next five decades, The Mai-Kai could service more than 700 diners comfortably at any one time during the busy season
A slide from the Inuhele presentation: The 1970 expansion increased the restaurant’s capacity from 350 to its current 450, plus another 150 in The Molokai. For the next five decades, The Mai-Kai could service more than 700 diners comfortably at any one time during the busy season.

Launched in 1962, the stage show is poised for a comeback under the leadership of Mireille Thornton. She started as a dancer, soon became the show producer and choreographer, then married owner Bob Thornton. The family, led by daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi, remains part of the ownership team and will continue to run the restaurant and serve as its creative force.

The Mai Kai was already considered a landmark when it expanded in 1970. The $1 million project (see image above) included new dining rooms, lush landscaping of what is now the Tiki gardens, and the construction of the 7,000-square-foot back-of-house section that was compromised in October 2020. Also added were the kitchen’s rare Chinese wood-burning ovens, which were saved and will be relocated.

Also added: A redesign of The Molokai lounge using decor salvaged from the Marlon Brando film Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The nautical theme extends to the entrance area and back of house. One of the bar’s signature features is windows that are covered in a constant faux rainstorm that adds to the illusion of being trapped in a turn-of-the-century seaport saloon.

The 1970 additions would be the last major construction project at The Mai-Kai until 2022. For the next five decades, the restaurant cemented its reputation as the most grand Polynesian palace built during the mid 20th century.

A slide from the Inuhele presentation shows the area damaged and later lost after the October 2020 roof collapse. Photos by The Atomic Grog (top) and The Mai-Kai
A slide from the Inuhele presentation shows the area damaged and later lost after the October 2020 roof collapse. Photos by The Atomic Grog (top) and The Mai-Kai.

CHAPTER 2: The Deluge

The Mai-Kai managed better than most during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. While indoor service shut down, cocktails and food were available to go, and the restaurant fully reopened after two months. But the old adage “when it rains, it pours” proved to be true (literally) when a massive storm hit in late October at the same time a pipe burst in a main sprinkler system line, leading to the collapse of the roof over the 1970s-era kitchen.

Continue reading “EXCLUSIVE: New details on The Mai-Kai renovations, new merchandise revealed at Inuhele 2023 in Atlanta”

The Mai-Kai’s deadly Halloween quarts and gallons, plus more great moments in Zombie cocktail history

The Mai-Kai's deadly Halloween quarts and gallons, plus more great moments in Zombie cocktail history

We’re sorely missing The Mai-Kai’s beloved Hulaween party for the second year in a row, but luckily fans of potent Tiki cocktails will be able to drown their sorrows with a distinctive drink that hasn’t been served since the historic restaurant closed for refurbishments in October 2020.

See below: How to pour a Mai-Kai Zombie at home (VIDEO)
* 5 greatest moments in Zombie history

Halloween 2022 cocktails from The Mai-Kai

The Zombie, which traces its roots all the way back to tropical drink pioneer Don the Beachcomber, is available for a limited time as part of The Mai-Kai’s periodic takeout cocktail program. You can order the deadly classic by the quart and gallon, the perfect addition to weekend Halloween gatherings.

Pickup dates are Friday, Oct. 28 (4-6 p.m.) and Saturday, Oct. 29 (10 a.m.-noon). Call public relations director Pia Dahlquist 954-646-8975 to place your order.

Consume with caution, however, since this is one of the strongest cocktails ever created. Donn Beach’s original 1934 recipe included 4 ounces of three different rums, including overproof, and he famously limited guests to two drinks per visit.

Halloween 2022 cocktail menu from The Mai-Kai

The Mai-Kai’s version, created by former Beachcomber bartender Mariano Licudine for the restaurant’s 1956 opening, is more balanced and accessible yet still packs a potent punch (and a healthy dose of 151 rum). It replaced the equally strong Jet Pilot on the “Gallons To Go” menu for Halloween and is priced accordingly (gallon $156, quart $44).

Also on the menu are three other popular standbys: Barrel O’ Rum (gallon $95, quart $30), Black Magic (gallon $95, quart $30), and Mai Tai (gallon $142, quart $40). Click on the links for our comprehensive reviews and recipes for all the cocktails.

All are among the most acclaimed libations in our Mai-Kai cocktail guide, but the top-rated Zombie is a rare treat. It’s complex and a little difficult to execute in large batches, so it hasn’t been offered as part of the popular to-go initiative, which launched early in the pandemic and has continued during the closing.

The Mai-Kai's Zombie back from the dead for Halloween

It also requires some care for guests to pull off the perfect Zombie at home. Luckily, manager Kern Mattei and former Molokai bar server Claudia Marmolejo showed us how to mix up the perfect Halloween treat in a recent Facebook video:

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai’s deadly Halloween quarts and gallons, plus more great moments in Zombie cocktail history”

The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

The Mai-Kai's new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022

In the entertainment and hospitality industry, your biggest fans can also be your toughest critics. So when the new owner of South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai sat down with more than 100 Tiki enthusiasts during The Hukilau on June 11 for an open discussion of his plans to renovate the 65-year-old landmark, their reaction was crucial.

Related blog posts
* The Hukilau 2022: Daily recap, photos and video
* Beat the summer heat with takeout cocktails from The Mai-Kai

Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Bill Fuller, leader of the new ownership team that purchased The Mai-Kai in late 2021, speaks to attendees of The Hukilau 2022 at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach on June 11. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Judging by the many rousing ovations throughout the 50-minute presentation, veteran real estate developer and historic preservationist Bill Fuller passed the test with flying colors. The only murmurs of dissent came when the organizer of The Hukilau, Richard Oneslager, jokingly asked if it was true Fuller planned to replace the restaurant’s signature Chinese ovens with microwaves, and if The Molokai bar was being re-themed to Miami Vice.

Looming thunderstorms put a kibosh on the multimedia presentation planned for the open-air beachside gathering at the Beachcomber Resort in Pompano Beach. But Fuller’s words were more than enough to win over the crowd who came from around the world to the 19th Tiki weekender that traditionally culminates with a climactic evening at The Mai-Kai.

Closed since October 2020 due to massive flooding that damaged the kitchen beyond repair, the historic property is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar refurbishment. Plans spearheaded by Fuller’s ownership group, which partnered with The Mai-Kai’s founding Thornton family, became public in April after a presentation to the city of Oakland Park, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

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

Fuller elaborated on those plans during his talk at The Hukilau, divulging some new details. He was joined by two members of The Mai-Kai family, Kulani Thornton Gelardi and Kern Mattei, who also revealed some interesting new projects in the works.

After a spirited intro by event emcee King Kululele, Oneslager sat down with Fuller and led a question-and-answer session under the large thatched hut between the pool and beach at the quaint boutique hotel. The burning questions on everyone’s mind, Oneslager said to Fuller, were: “What’s going to stay? What’s going to change? And are you going to screw things up?”

Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)
Mireille Thornton on stage at The Mai-Kai in the early 1970s. (Mai-Kai photo)

Fuller said he was “lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to join forces with the family” in September 2021. The reason The Mai-Kai is being preserved is mainly due to the will of the Thornton family, he said. Gelardi’s mother, Mireille Thornton, inherited the ownership mantle from her late husband, Robert Thornton, in 1989.

The 85-year-old family matriarch will continue to choreograph and produce the restaurant’s authentic Polynesian show, which she joined as a dancer from Tahiti in the early 1960s. “She has her own nuances, which is what makes special experiences like this tick,” Fuller said. “You can’t just replicate it, you need to have that body of knowledge, that creativity and heritage. That’s what’s so rich within the walls of The Mai-Kai.”

The first question for Fuller from the audience echoed a common refrain on social media: Exactly when can we expect to be back within those walls?

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai’s new owner reveals renovation plans during The Hukilau 2022”