The Mai-Kai restoration work expands, sneak previews offered at The Hukilau (May 2024 update)

The Mai-Kai restoration work expands, sneak previews offered (May 2024 update)

Updated July 10

As The Mai-Kai prepares for an invasion of Hukilau villagers this week, the expansive restoration project continues to engulf the 2.7-acre historic property. Passholders treated to special tours will see several of the fully restored indoor guest areas, but the massive parking lot project remains in low gear until all the permits are in place.

The Hukilau photos, recaps
NEW: Inside the Molokai Bar and tour of The Mai-Kai restoration
Hukilau villagers return to The Mai-Kai
Mai-Kai from the Outside In with Will Anders

Since our last update at the end of April, several projects have advanced while others await a green light to take flight. The new kitchen, bar and back-of-house areas continue to come to life while creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his team add their finishing touches. They also continue to restore, replicate and reimagine many other areas across the property.

A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. At right you can see the work being done to restore the rock work. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2024)
A view of The Mai-Kai from Federal Highway. At right you can see the work being done to restore the rock work. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, May 2024)

The Hukilau offers guided tours of The Mai-Kai

Multi-day passholders attending the long-running Tiki weekender will get exclusive guided tours of The Mai-Kai on Friday, June 7. [See previous coverage] They will be escorted in small groups, allowing for a unique glimpse into the day-to-day operations of the renovation crew.

Upon arrival, tour attendees will receive a restoration update as they gather in The Molokai bar for a cocktail. They will then break into smaller groups for a behind-the-scenes sneak peek at some of the restored dining rooms and reimagined back-of-house areas.

There will be a strict “no photos” policy inside The Mai-Kai. The owners and staff request that guests respect their desire to be the ones to reveal their finished work. The creative director suggests the proper mindset: “Just take it in with your eyes, and know that you’ve seen something that nobody else has seen.” The tours will be given by Allsmiller, artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, manager Kern Mattei, and yours truly. I hope to see you there!

The Hukilau 2024 preview & flashback: Inside (and outside) The Mai-Kai with Tiki carver Will Anders
The Hukilau 2024 preview & flashback: Inside (and outside) The Mai-Kai with Tiki carver Will Anders
The South Florida artist will share his experiences creating authentic Polynesian art – both large and small – during a presentation on June 8 at the annual Tiki weekender on Pompano Beach.
Audio & photos Walking tour with Will Anders, Kern Mattei, Hurricane Hayward in 2018
More on The Hukilau: Symposiums, vendors and more announced for 22nd Tiki weekender June 6-9

Latest news on the restoration

Operating under these same photo guidelines, we visited the restaurant in late May to get an update on the $15 million project that kicked off in early 2022 following the partnership between the founding Thornton family and a new ownership team led by historic preservationist Bill Fuller of Barlington Group. The sale was necessary after a catastrophic back-of-house roof collapse in October 2020 that destroyed the 1970s-era kitchen in the 67-year-old facility.

We got an update on the new kitchen and bar from Mattei, the longtime manager, plus news from Allsmiller on his projects. Photos of the outdoor area also show some slow progress on prep work for the ambitious reimagination of the entry experience and parking lot.

Recent Mai-Kai coverage
* The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project (April 2024 update)
* Mai-Kai kitchen and bar take shape as team heads to Tiki-a-Go-Go (March 2024)
Story archive: Full coverage of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

Lamp project nearing home stretch

At left is a finished lamp, shared on Instagram by Scott "Flounder" Scheidly on May 16. "There’s still a ton of work to do at The Mai Kai but I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel," he wrote. Fellow artist Tom Fowner shared the photo at right that shows the condition of some of the massive hanging lamps in the showroom, before and after restoration.
At left is a finished lamp, shared on Instagram by Scott “Flounder” Scheidly on May 16. “There’s still a ton of work to do at The Mai Kai but I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he wrote. Fellow artist Tom Fowner shared the photo at right that shows the condition of some of the massive hanging lamps in the showroom, before and after restoration.

Among the project updates from Mattei and Allsmiller:

Continue reading “The Mai-Kai restoration work expands, sneak previews offered at The Hukilau (May 2024 update)”

Minimalist Tiki

Exclusive: The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project (April 2024 update)

The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project (April 2024 update)

Key members of The Mai-Kai team traveled to Orlando in early April to share updates and plans for the $15 million restoration project that is entering its final stages in South Florida. The beloved restaurant has been closed since late 2020, but new interest in its history and rejuvenation has never been higher.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Tiki-a-Go-Go: Panel discussion overview | New kitchen, bar details | Artists showcase their work | Landscape architect’s plans | Pop-up cocktails
Latest news: April refurbishment updates

Hurricane Hayward kicks off the panel discussion on The Mai-Kai on the first day of the inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando on April 5. (Atomic Grog photo)
Hurricane Hayward kicks off the panel discussion on The Mai-Kai on the first day of the inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando on April 5. (Atomic Grog photo)

An audience of several hundred attended the panel discussion Return to Paradise: The Mai-Kai Rises Again, moderated by The Atomic Grog at the first annual Tiki-a-Go-Go. It was an honor to interview and get insights from manager Kern Mattei, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, public relations director Pia Dahlquist, author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, The Hukilau organizer Richard Oneslager, plus Jesse Muller from landscape architecture firm Perry-Becker Design.

The sold-out event at the at the Caribe Royale Resort ran from April 5-7 and also included a pop-up bar featuring Mai-Kai cocktails, served by Mattei and his son Cheyne. [See photos below] The veteran manager also joined us for the presentation Mai-Kai Cocktails: Tiki History in a Glass. Mahalo to everyone who attended the packed symposium.

The Mai-Kai's iconic sign, as seen from Federal Highway in Oakland Park. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, April 2024)
The Mai-Kai’s iconic sign, as seen from Federal Highway in Oakland Park. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward, April 2024)

Following is a full recap of the panel discussion, including exclusive new images from the presentation. At the end of the month, we caught up with Mattei and Allsmiller for an update on all the work going on at The Mai-Kai, also detailed below.

The next major Mai-Kai event is planned for June, when The Hukilau will offer attendees holding Aloha and South Seas passes exclusive tours of the restored interior and a sneak peek at what’s still to come. The 22nd Tiki weekender is scheduled for June 6-9 at the Beachcomber Resort on Pompano Beach. Click here for our exclusive preview and click here to buy tickets.

Recent coverage
* Mai-Kai kitchen and bar take shape as team heads to Tiki-a-Go-Go (March 2024)
* Exterior reimagination up next as $15 million Mai-Kai project plows ahead (February 2024)
Story archive: Full coverage of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

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

Tiki-a-Go-Go welcomes The Mai-Kai for presentations, cocktails

It was fitting that the first presentation at the first Tiki-a-Go-Go was focused on Florida’s beloved Polynesian palace, established in 1956. This new Tiki weekender puts a heavy focus on vintage Tiki and Florida attractions in its programming. Click here for a photo recap of the event, which featured two days of live music and entertainment, vendors, guest Tiki bars, and more.

Return to Paradise: The Mai-Kai Rises Again at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando, April 5, 2024

Return to Paradise: The Mai-Kai Rises Again kicked off the event on Friday, April 5 at 11 a.m. in the Caribe Royale Resort’s massive Caribbean Ballroom. The enthusiastic attendees applauded throughout the presentation as the panel of experts talked about the history and future of the historic restaurant.

The first to speak was Glazner, author of Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant and the upcoming Searching for Don the Beachcomber. He admitted that he was “very skeptical” of a possible restoration after hearing about the scope of the damage caused by a roof collapse over the kitchen in October 2020.

Continue reading “Exclusive: The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project (April 2024 update)”

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)”

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

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

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”

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”

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.

Recent Mai-Kai coverage
* 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”

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”

Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward

Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai's renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward

The city of Oakland Park’s Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday night unanimously approved the sweeping renovation plans for The Mai-Kai, moving the ambitious $8.5 million project to rejuvenate and reopen the 66-year-old restaurant one step closer to final approval.

On Jan. 6, signs posted outside The Mai-Kai by the city of Oakland Park serve as notice of the proposed development and the Jan. 11 public hearing before the Historic Preservation Board. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
On Jan. 6, signs posted outside The Mai-Kai by the city of Oakland Park serve as notice of the proposed development and the Jan. 11 public hearing before the Historic Preservation Board. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

In a nearly two-hour public hearing in the City Hall Commission Chambers and streamed online via Zoom, the board members OK’d The Mai-Kai’s application for a “certificate of appropriateness” to make a wide range of changes to the 2.7-acre property, which is registered as both a local and national historic landmark. City code requires such an approval for work to proceed on “any alteration requiring a building permit which may change the exterior appearance of an individually designated historic building or structure.”

The approval came with a list of six recommendations by city staff that will still need to be adhered to. But those addenda to the plan likely won’t require a return to the full five-member board. After the meeting, the head of The Mai-Kai’s ownership group, Bill Fuller, told us that he was pleased that the city and board were able to “collaborate with us on the restoration plans.” He described the hearing as “very productive” and “the culmination of what The Mai-Kai will look like” when it reopens.

The overall plans are now headed to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee, which could give it the final go-ahead. This next step covers many other details not related to the historic status, such as parking, Fuller said in an interview Thursday. His team is eager to move forward “as quickly as possible,” he said.

The Mai-Kai's main entrance can be seen on the right in a view from the parking lot on Jan. 6. Under the new site plan, the driveway will be rerouted around the massive banyan trees to the left. The porte-cochère area would be reimagined with outdoor seating, a bar and a stage. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mai-Kai’s main entrance can be seen on the right in a view from the parking lot on Jan. 6. Under the new site plan, the driveway will be rerouted around the massive banyan trees to the left. The porte-cochère area would be reimagined with outdoor seating, a bar and a stage. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The committee is scheduled the review the project at its Jan. 26 meeting. After that, it should be full-steam ahead for the renovation plans. “We’re going to be guns blazing to get it open,” Fuller said. The Mai-Kai has been closed for 26 months and counting, so the owners and investors are eager to begin operating the cash registers again.

Fuller said the benchmark goal is to open in time for the June 9-12 return of The Hukilau, the Polynesian Pop weekender that draws thousands to The Mai-Kai from around the world. That would fit in with the announced goal to be back in business by the time summer starts.

To meet this deadline, however, the initial site plan will not include every piece of the project, Fuller said. The new event space, for example, will come later in Phase 2. Since that space, along with the adjacent new kitchen, entail new construction from the ground up, they will be pushed back until after the initial reopening, he said.

Plans shown at the Jan. 11 public hearing show The Mai-Kai building's current footprint with the main entrance on the right.
Plans shown at the Jan. 11 public hearing show The Mai-Kai building’s current footprint with the main entrance on the right. The current dining rooms and undamaged areas are shown in grey. The colored areas were all compromised by the roof collapse and are scheduled to be rebuilt. The Phase 1 upgrades, shown in green and referenced in the text, will be completed before the reopening. The Phase 2 additions include the new kitchen (orange) and event space (red). Click on the image for a large view.

Fuller said The Mai-Kai will employ a “provisional kitchen” until the permanent structure is completed. This will mean that a limited food menu will be offered at first, but Fuller promised a full beverage menu.

The approval of the certificate of appropriateness, or COA, was crucial in allowing The Mai-Kai to lock into the most important elements of its reimagining of the South Seas themed tropical paradise on Federal Highway. Without it, they were unable to obtain building permits for the major enhancements.

The restaurant has been closed since October 2020, when a torrential rainstorm and malfunctioning sprinkler system caused a massive roof collapse over the kitchen. A large chunk of the back of house had to be demolished, but most of the historic guest areas of the sprawling, 450-capacity venue remained unscathed. It’s the first extended closure since The Mai-Kai’s opening on Dec. 28, 1956.

When the scope of the restoration became evident, the founding Thornton family embarked on a joint venture with Fuller, the developer and historic preservationist who leads Miami’s Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality. The partnership paid $7.5 million for The Mai-Kai and took out a $6 million mortgage, according to reports of the sale in October 2021. Another $1 million was added to the budget for crucial enhancements, Fuller revealed at The Hukilau in June.

At The Mai-Kai on Jan. 6, a notice from the city of Oakland Park announces the upcoming development plan for the historic site. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
At The Mai-Kai on Jan. 6, a notice from the city of Oakland Park announces the upcoming development plan for the historic site. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Fuller and Barlington Group have a wealth of experience with commercial properties in South Florida, many of them historically significant. Tenants include Fort Lauderdale’s Toasted Bagelry & Deli, plus Little Havana’s Blackbird Ordinary, 8 Burger, Little Havana Cigar Factory, and the 87-year-old landmark Ball & Chain music venue. Mad Room Hospitality, which operates Ball & Chain, will run The Mai-Kai along with the Thornton family.

To ensure both the economic viability of The Mai-Kai and the restoration of all its classic elements, Fuller and a team of architects and designers mapped out a creative plan to modernize the kitchen, add an event space and reimagine the property while keeping most of the historic elements intact. Initial artwork and renderings were unveiled at an Oakland Park neighborhood participation meeting in late April.

The new ownership group requested the COA approval “for the renovation and improvement” of the property at 3599 N. Federal Highway in Oakland Park, just north of Fort Lauderdale. The initial plans were first submitted to the Development Review Committee in May, but due to a number of delays they did not come up for approval before the Historic Preservation Board until this week.

The Mai-Kai's rear Tiki garden, as seen on Jan. 6, is being refreshed by with new wooden bridges over the tropical water features, plus new posts and chain dividers. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Mai-Kai’s rear Tiki garden, as seen on Jan. 6, is being refreshed by with new wooden bridges over the tropical water features, plus new posts and chain dividers. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

In the meantime, The Mai-Kai completed an overall of the aging infrastructure. Leaky roofs were fixed and replaced, a modern air-conditioning system was installed, and much of the electrical system was rewired. The popular takeout cocktail program, which began during the pandemic, continues on special holiday weekends.
Exclusive updates: News, photos of all the work done in 2022

Work inside on restoring the elaborately themed dining rooms and Tiki garden has been ongoing since July. But updates, changes and additions to the exterior and grounds were stalled while awaiting the plans to be approved in their entirety.

Among the key elements of the plan presented to the board:

Continue reading “Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans, clearing way for project to move forward”