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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)

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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)”

Minimalist Tiki

Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)

Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)

When The Mai-Kai reopens for guests, there will be tons of fresh features on the exterior: A lushly landscaped entryway with flowing water and rock work, a redesigned and immersive parking lot, plus a new outdoor bar and stage. But when you enter the main building, it will be like stepping into a time machine set for 1973.
RELATED: The Mai-Kai renovations, May-June 2023: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
SEE BELOW: May-June chronology | Design projects in depth

Scott "Flounder" Scheidly (left) and creative director "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller have mastered the art of restoring vintage lamps at The Mai-Kai. (Photos by Kern Mattei and Hurricane Hayward / June 2023)
Scott “Flounder” Scheidly (left) and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller have mastered the art of restoring vintage lamps at The Mai-Kai. (Photos by Kern Mattei and Hurricane Hayward / June 2023)

Making this feat a reality is a team of artists and craftspeople under the direction of manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller. This over-arching job is mammoth, encompassing the restoration of the Molokai bar, eight elaborately themed dining areas, plus other guest spaces.

On top of this, Mattei is managing on-site workflow during the massive infrastructure project [see sidebar] while Allsmiller has his hand in any project that requires thematic design and an artist’s touch. In our last detailed story, we took a long look behind the scenes as Allsmiller and Scott “Flounder” Scheidly were deeply immersed in detail work throughout the sprawling 26,000-square-foot building.
PREVIOUS: Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam
UPDATES: Latest news, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

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The Mai-Kai at Tiki Oasis
The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog are headed to Tiki Oasis
Join us for two special seminars at the world’s original Tiki weekender Aug. 2-6 in San Diego

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In this update, we’ll catch up with the Orlando-area artists as they continue their mission to return The Mai-Kai to the same condition it was when the last major redesign was completed in the early 1970s. That’s when the last dining rooms were added and the building’s current footprint was solidified, some 15 years after its 1956 opening.

First, let’s walk through a chronological recap from May and June:

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MAY AND JUNE UPDATES

Restored lamps in the Hawaii dining room, early May 2023. (Photo by Kern Mattei)
Restored lamps in the Hawaii dining room, early May 2023. (Photo by Kern Mattei)

EARLY MAY: Allsmiller and Scheidly were busy refurbishing lamps in the Hawaii dining area, the 60-capacity room to the right of the showroom stage. “They touched almost all of them,” Mattei said. They also finished the ceiling in Hawaii, adding new panels.

They were assisted by longtime Mai-Kai handyman Gustavo in removing the window between Hawaii and Samoa, then adding new wood and lighting. The window was cleaned and put back in place, restoring this little-known feature to its vintage condition:

Handyman Gustavo (from left),
(Photos by Kern Mattei)

They also started on the adjacent Moorea dining area, a 40-capacity room that’s slightly elevated to offer the most distant views of the Polynesian Islander Revue to the north beyond Hawaii. The opposite southern glass wall, featuring rare yellow Chinese jade tiles, offers views of the outdoor garden. The crew immediately targeted the woodwork, matting and lamps for repair.

The lamp-builders also pivoted back to the Tonga Room, the elevated 80-capacity space in the back of the showroom. They had made great progress there in previous months, but the huge space still had many lamps that needed work.

Below at left is a restored tapa in The Mai-Kai’s Hawaii Room. A vintage turtle shell lamp will be returned to the center (note the electrical outlet). At right are some of the many restored lamps in the Tonga Room.

Restored tapas in The Mai-Kai's Hawaii Room (left) and lamps in the Tonga Room. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)
(Photos by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)

MID-MAY: Work wrapped up in the Hawaii dining room as Allsmiller and Scheidly put finishing touches on the lamps, walls and ceiling. “Once the turtle shells go back on the walls, it’s going to be beautiful in here,” Allsmiller said.

In their workspace in the main showroom, the lamp brigade finished all of the low-hanging lamps in the Tonga dining area, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts. Those high in the A-frame will be touched later. Traditionally one of the darkest parts of restaurant, this area looks much brighter with all the lamps refurbished and featuring modern LED lighting.

In the left photo below, Allsmiller shows off a lamp project on May 18. At right, he points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa in the hallway near the Tonga Room and entrance to the kitchen. After the colors are touched up and it’s covered in Mod Podge, you won’t even notice, he said. “We’re trying to save them, bring them back.”

"Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller shows off a lamp project (left) and points out work being done to restore an old framed tapa. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)
(Photos by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)

Back in Moorea, Allsmiller explained how they’re trying to restore the walls even though some of the materials are no longer available. He said they’re using materials salvaged from elsewhere, then changing the design slightly so chair backs will no longer damage the matting. “We’re saving material and reusing it,” he said.

He said the typical plan of attack for each room is to work on the walls first and save the lamps for last, or whenever they’re waiting for materials. On May 18, I found them in the nerve center – the main showroom workspace – buried in new lamp projects.

Both Scheidly and Allsmiller were working on total rebuilds of old lamps from the Tonga Room, found broken and in bad shape (see photo below). “I like the challenge,” Allsmiller said of not having the blueprints. He said he can make an educated guess of what the lamps should look like. Schematics for some of the Oceanic Arts lamps were found in The Mai-Kai warehouse, but many others are mysteries.

Scott "Flounder" Scheidly (left) and "Typhoon Tommy" Allsmiller works on rebuilding vintage lamps at The Mai-Kai. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)
(Photo by Hurricane Hayward / May 2023)

Work was also progressing into Samoa, a secluded dining area that seats 44 in one of the oldest rooms at The Mai-Kai. The “demolition crew” had been busy tearing out all the old, damaged wall materials. This is a big help to the designers, allowing them to concentrate on restoration. Work was also advancing on the refurbishing of the ceiling and beams.

Continue reading “Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)”

Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The late Dr. Fong has a funky and famous history

Updated March 2024
See below: Ancestor recipes UPDATED | Tribute recipe | Dr. Fong review
Related: Mai-Kai cocktail guide | More “lost cocktails” | Tropical drink family tree

The concept of a “Polynesian” cocktail is somewhat of a misnomer. While most tropical drinks have names and imagery that recall Polynesia, most are actually Caribbean rum concoctions reinvented by American restaurateurs. One notable exception is the distinctive Doctor Funk, also sometimes known as Dr. Fong.

Bernhard Funk
The real Doctor Funk (from The Cyclopedia of Samoa, via TikiCentral.com)

Doctor Funk was an actual person as well as a real Polynesian drink. Born in 1844 in Germany, Dr. Bernhard Funk migrated to Samoa around 1881 and was reputedly the first medical practitioner in the capital city. He became friends with Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and was the bedside doctor when Stevenson died in 1894 in Samoa.

Dr. Funk was not only a skilled doctor but also a mixologist of some note. The Doctor Funk was a notorious drink that became known throughout the region. It was mentioned by travel writer Frederick O’Brien (1869-1932) in his books White Shadows in the South Seas (1919) and Mystic Isles of the South Seas (1921). The latter calls the drink “a portion of absinthe, a dash of grenadine – a syrup of the pomegranate fruit, the juice of two limes, and half a pint of siphon water.” It was apparently served by the doctor as a “medicinal tonic.”

Doctor Funk
From a Don the Beachcomber menu.

Dr. Funk thrived in Samoa, marrying the daughter of a chief, but health problems caused him to return to Germany, where he died in 1911. After his death, a granite stone was placed in his honor on the shore of the mysterious Lake Lanoto’o in Samoa, where Funk had built a health resort. The secluded lake still contains goldfish, illegally introduced to Samoa by Dr. Funk. For a lot more on the life and times of Bernhard Funk, check out this great research on Tiki Central by Sven Kirsten (bigbrotiki), Tom Duncan (TikiTomD), and many others.

A drink this legendary and rooted in the South Pacific was perfect fodder for Tiki bar pioneers Donn Beach (Don the Beachcomber) and Victor Bergeron (Trader Vic’s). Both created Doctor Funk cocktails in the 1930s and ’40s with pretty much the same flavor profile. But over the years there became so many different versions by Beach, Bergeron and many others, it became impossible to pinpoint a definitive “original” version.

The Dr. Fong cocktail returned to The Mai-Kai in September 2016 during a special event celebrating the release of the book ‘Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.’ (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Dr. Fong cocktail returned to The Mai-Kai in September 2016 during a special event celebrating the release of the book ‘Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant.’ (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Doctor Funk also inspired variations with names such as Dr. Fong and Dr. Wong. Many of these became synonymous with the (now somewhat politically incorrect) Fu Manchu-style Tiki mug that was widely produced in the mid-century. Restaurants across the country simply invented their own drinks called Doctor Funk or Dr. Fong to go into the mug (see “bilge” at the very bottom of this review).

When The Mai-Kai opened in 1956, the menu included a Dr. Fong cocktail based on one of the Don the Beachcomber versions of Doctor Funk. This is where bartender Mariano Licudine worked for nearly 20 years, mixing the drinks that became the template for most of the original 1956-57 Mai-Kai menu.

Luckily for us, Tiki historian and author Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has over the past 15 years decade published two of Beach’s Doctor Funk recipes, which I’ve included below. In 2016, thanks to another author, guests at The Mai-Kai were finally able to taste the authentic Dr. Fong after an absence of more than 40 years.

Dr. Fong was featured on a special lost cocktails menu in September 2016 during the book release party for Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant by Tim “Swanky” Glazner.

The special event also featured several other long-lost cocktails (Hanalei Bay and the Demerara Float) plus two days of gatherings of Mai-Kai enthusiasts from across the country.

Dr. Fong, August 2017

The book chronicles the history of the iconic restaurant, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. [Pick up a copy on Amazon]

Dr. Fong returned again in August 2017 as part of The Mai-Kai’s monthly Flashback Friday promotion, including a special new recipe. See more below under the Tribute recipe notes.

Continue reading “Lost Cocktails of The Mai-Kai: The late Dr. Fong has a funky and famous history”