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Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

BREAKING NEWS: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida

Updated Feb. 22

Nearly 100 years after its namesake founder developed and popularized the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar concept, the Don the Beachcomber brand is re-launching this week with the first of multiple locations scheduled to roll out in Florida over the next several years.

Bonus cocktail recipe below: Sunakora Zombie
Previous coverage: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating.  (Don the Beachcomber photos)
The indoor dining areas at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., include booths plus table and bar seating. (Don the Beachcomber photos)

The restaurant in Madeira Beach, between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, is scheduled to open to the public on Friday, Feb. 23. Private events for friends, family and VIPs were held in the days prior. Partygoers no doubt will hoist a birthday toast Thursday to the Tiki bar pioneer.
* More Don the Beachcomber history

Ernest Raymond Gantt, who later changed his name to Donn Beach and opened the first Don the Beachcomber as a speakeasy during Prohibition in 1932, was born on Feb. 22, 1907, in rural Texas. His colorful life story will be documented in an upcoming book (Searching for Don the Beachcomber) and film The Donn of Tiki).

The new restaurant occupies an indoor-outdoor space at the Cambria Hotel at 15015 Madeira Way. It will be open seven days and nights, operating from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays.

“We’re fully staffed and ready to go” with more than 100 team members, said Lisa Longest, the director of marketing for Don the Beachcomber and other brands owned by Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services. Friday’s grand opening will include a ribbon-cutting attended by city dignitaries right before the 11 a.m. opening, she said in a phone conversation Thursday.

A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)
A view of the interior and a vintage Chinese tile at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla., in January 2024. (Facebook photos)

Call (727) 870-8454 or go to DonBeachcomber.com for more information. They are currently not taking reservations, so it’s first-come, first-served.

Originally planned for late 2023, then pushed to early 2024, the restaurant finally cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles and passed its final inspection, clearing the way for the grand opening. “We had to do a full build-out,” Longest said of the large space on the ground floor of the hotel. “It took time to get all the permits.”

This is a far cry from Don the Beachcomber’s tiny original bar in Hollywood. The restaurant has a total capacity of 298 with 92 seats inside and 120 outside.

Preview the food and drinks

The restaurant’s food is inspired by the faux Polynesian flavors pioneered by Don the Beachcomber, but the menu will also feature “elevated dishes that will appeal to all,” Longest said in an email following our phone conversation. Dishes will include a pupu platter featuring hand-made crab rangoon, chicken satay and sticky rib skewers, plus signature wings. “We will also feature tempura cauliflower, a variety of fried rice options, fresh grouper, and an array of gourmet burgers,” she said.

A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A sneak preview of the food menu at the new Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, Fla.

We got a sneak peek at the food and drink menus, which were designed by 23 Restaurants Services creative director Justin Peterson. The offerings are sure to please every taste – from hardcore Tikiphiles, to adventurous locals, to the hotel guests who simply stumble upon this slice of paradise. In fact, the main menu’s cover is emblazoned with Donn Beach’s mantra: “If you can’t get to paradise, I’ll bring it to you.”

Continue reading “Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida”

Minimalist Tiki

Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss

Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss

Like many recent years, 2023 was defined by loss, from a deadly natural disaster to the passing of a beloved artist. But there are two other words that better sum up 2023: Aspiration and revival. Among the year’s highlights are the return of three historic restaurants, the resurrection of a legendary rum, a groundbreaking cocktail book that looks ahead by honoring the past, plus an overall renewed appreciation for Tiki culture and cocktails. If nothing else, it gives us hope for an eventful 2024.
Related: The Year in Tiki 2023: A look back at the top events in photos, video
Bonus recipes below: Beachcomber Punch | Ray’s Mystique

1. TRAGEDY IN MAUI: Lahaina devastated by wildfires

Wildfires ravaged Maui's historic resort city of Lahaina in August 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)
Wildfires ravaged Maui’s historic resort city of Lahaina in August 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wildfires swept across the island of Maui on Aug. 8, killing at least 100 people in one of the nation’s deadliest disasters. The fires destroyed most of Lahaina – the original capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom – on the northwest coast. Residents fled as the blazes incinerated thousands of structures, causing more than $5 billion in damage.

Among the historic structures lost were the Old Lahaina Courthouse, Waiola Church, Pioneer Inn, and Kimo’s restaurant. Lahaina’s famous banyan tree, planted in 1873, had most of its foliage charred, though was still standing after the wildfires.

Before the fires, the Lahaina Historic District was a bustling tourist destination with stores and restaurants attracting many visitors. The district included 60 historic sites with Front Street ranked one of the “Top Ten Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association. Lahaina was also a popular whale-watching site. It has a long history as a shipping and whaling town.

The wildfires were attributed to dry, gusty conditions created by a strong high-pressure area north of Hawaii, and Hurricane Dora to the south. The death toll is the largest for a wildfire in the United States since the Cloquet Fire of 1918 in northern Minnesota, which claimed 453 lives.

The historic tree in Lahaina's Banyan Court Park, shown in 2016, survived the 2023 wildfires. (Wikimedia Commons)
The historic tree in Lahaina’s Banyan Court Park, shown in 2016, survived the 2023 wildfires. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Biden ordered the mobilization of “all available federal assets” to respond to the wildfires, including the Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard, and FEMA. Other countries pledged aid, and fund-raising efforts across the U.S. raised $30 million within 10 days. The Maui Strong Fund, which provides financial resources to support the immediate and long-term recovery needs for the people and places affected by the wildfires, has raised more than $177 million to date and awarded grants totaling more than $86 million.

The disaster was also a call to action for many in the Tiki community, which united for fund-raisers and other special events. From bars and restaurants, to concerts and special events, supporters rallied to help in any way they could. Mark Riddle donated profits from the sale of his Lahaina Sunset album, which was inspired by a trip to Maui.

In mid-December, the heart of Lahaina reopened to residents and business owners as the historic banyan tree began sprouting new leaves. As of late December, Lahaina opened its remaining schools and welcomed tourists back to areas unaffected by the fires. Maui county officials say rebuilding the burned structures won’t begin for another 18-24 months, and big-picture plans are hazy. Rebuilding completely, including replacing all of the lost structures, will cost an estimated $5.5 billion.

With the exception of Lahaina, Maui is open and there is plenty to see and experience, according to the GoHawaii.com website. Guests are urged to “visit with aloha, compassion and empathy,” and to support local businesses. The MauiNuiFirst.com website offers many other suggestions.

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2. DON THE BEACHCOMBER: Anticipation for new restaurant chain, film and book reaches fever pitch

A classic portrait of Don the Beachcomber inspired a new mug by Eekum Bookum. The new restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla., will feature a similar photo op. (Facebook photos)
A classic portrait of Don the Beachcomber inspired a new mug by Eekum Bookum. The new restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla., will feature a similar photo op. (Facebook photos)

While slowly building for years, interest in the founding father of the 20th century Polynesian restaurant explosion went through the roof in 2023 as three major projects neared the finish line. By the end of the year, a new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Southwest Florida was hiring staff and putting the final touches on construction. The Donn of Tiki documentary was 99 percent complete as the filmmakers finished up the end credits and licensing rights. Meanwhile, the manuscript for Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s book, Searching for Don the Beachcomber, was nearing the design and editing stages. After several years of non-stop work, these projects are now poised for a major splash in the new year and beyond.

The revival of the Don the Beachcomber brand took center stage after the announcement in February that Florida-based 23 Restaurant Services would be reviving the restaurant chain nationwide, beginning with multiple locations in the Sunshine State expected to open in the next several years. Skeptics were quickly assured of the legitimacy of the project when veteran bar manager Marie King was plucked from the venerable Tonga Hut to become director of beverage. In addition to leading the oldest Tiki bar in Los Angeles, King had previously built the cocktail program at the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., which closed in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2018. The design of the new restaurants is in the capable hands of artist Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, long admired for his expertise and craftsmanship in building traditional Tiki bar spaces.

Continue reading “Top 10 stories of 2023: Tiki resurgence and appreciation breathes life into year marked by loss”

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”

First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024

EXCLUSIVE: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in January 2024

Updated February 2024

The much-anticipated re-launch of the iconic Don the Beachcomber brand will kick off in early 2024, when the first of several new restaurants will open in Florida. All indications point to a February grand opening in Madeira Beach on the southwest Gulf Coast.

NEW: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida (February 2024)

Don the Beachcomber

The indoor-outdoor space on the ground floor of the waterfront Cambria Hotel was originally scheduled to open in November or December. The Don the Beachcomber website currently says “early 2024.”

The space is still under construction, so more delays are possible. However, management started seeking employees several weeks ago, and photos shared on social media show the interior decor nearing the final stages of installation.

A reel posted Dec. 14 on the official pages on Instagram and Facebook provides “a sneak peek into paradise.”

If all goes according to plan, expect a public opening in February with a soft opening for “friends and family” a week prior. An official annoucement on an exact date likely won’t be made until after a certificate of occupancy is issued.

A general rule of thumb in the restaurant business is to begin hiring at least six weeks before a grand opening. The first “now hiring” post appeared Dec. 1 on the Don the Beachcomber Instagram page.

The “GOATS wanted” ad encourages “career seekers” and “badass dreamers” to apply via the website of parent company 23 Restaurant Services. Among the jobs posted on the website are bartender, cook, dishwasher, expeditor, host/hostess, manager, managing partner, server, and service assistant.

Detail photos of the interior decor at the Don the Beachcomber location in Madeira Beach, Fla., posted Nov. 13 on the official Facebook page.
Detail photos of the interior decor at the Don the Beachcomber location in Madeira Beach, Fla., posted Nov. 13 on the official Facebook page.

Jump to more below
YouTube preview: Marie King talks cocktails, upcoming locations
Sneak peek: Renderings, mission statement revealed at Tiki Oasis
Merchandise: Mugs, glassware, apparel, ephemera
Bonus cocktail recipe: Sunakora

The Madeira Beach space was originally slated to be a new Tiki Docks location, but 23 Restaurant Services shifted its strategy away from the Florida beach bar concept and accelerated its focus on the more traditional Don the Beachcomber brand. Additional Polynesian restaurants named for the tropical cocktail genre’s godfather have been announced for Viera in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast and Hamlin in Orange County just north of Disney World.

A photo posted Dec. 11 on Facebook by Daniel "Tiki Diablo" Gallardo shows the entrance to the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla.
A photo posted Dec. 11 on Facebook by Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo shows the entrance to the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Madeira Beach, Fla.

Though not yet listed on the official website, there’s also a stand-alone Don the Beachcomber bar planned for Tampa, revealed in October by Marie King, the 23 Restaurants Services director of beverage. King is a respected veteran in the tropical drinks world after managing California’s historic Tonga Hut from 2012 to early 2023. She also ran the bar program at the last Don the Beachcomber in California from 2009 to 2011.

According to the official timeline, the waterfront Viera location at the corner of Viera and Lake Andrews boulevards is set to open in 2025. But King said the smaller Tampa bar could open its doors first, likely in 2024.

Continue reading “First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024”

Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening (summer 2023 recap)

Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening (summer 2023 recap)

As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.

In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.

SEE BELOW: Porte-cochère photos | Parking lot project starts | Updated reopening timeframe | Beam extensions restored | New AC units installed

Historic fiberglass panels are restored and fully lit under The Mai-Kai's porte-cochère on Sept. 21 as work begins on the reimagination of the parking lot. All the trees are being preserved. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Historic fiberglass panels are restored and fully lit under The Mai-Kai’s porte-cochère on Sept. 21 as work begins on the reimagination of the parking lot. All the trees are being preserved. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

Meanwhile work continues on the indoor guest areas, infrastructure and a new back-of-house kitchen and bar, outlined in our related story. We hope to bring you up to speed on what’s been going on at the historic South Florida restaurant over the past few weeks, followed by an extensive summer recap.
RELATED: Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)
MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment

Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant.

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)

On Sept. 7, the first restored panels were installed above The Mai-Kai entrance with working lights for the first time in decades. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
On Sept. 7, the first restored panels were installed above The Mai-Kai entrance with working lights for the first time in decades. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.

Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.

Continue reading “Outside The Mai-Kai: Artistic flourishes set stage for reimagination, early 2024 reopening (summer 2023 recap)”

New Don the Beachcomber locations launching in Florida, up to 15 planned across Southeast

New Don the Beachcomber locations launching in Florida, up to 15 planned across Southeast

LATEST UPDATES
* Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida (February 2024)
* EXCLUSIVE: First new Don the Beachcomber location on track to open in early 2024 (December 2023)
* Florida is ground zero for revival of iconic brand (October 2023)

The Feb. 22 birthday of Tiki bar pioneer Don the Beachcomber (1907-1989) is typically a red-letter day for many bartenders and home enthusiasts, who celebrate by mixing up classic tropical cocktails to toast the originator of such iconic drinks as the Zombie, Nui Nui, and Three Dots and a Dash. This custom has intensified recently with the announcement of new book and film projects that celebrate the life of times of the creator of what’s now known as Polynesian Pop, aka Tiki culture.

Don the Beachcomber

Jump to more below
Sneak peek: Renderings, video of the new location near Orlando
Bonus recipe below: Don’s Beach Planter cocktail

But the occasion gained special importance this year with the announcement that a Tampa-based hospitality company will begin rolling out a chain of new Tiki-themed restaurants featuring the Don the Beachcomber branding in 2023. According to a press release from 23 Restaurant Services, “there are currently two Don the Beachcomber restaurants and bars under development in Central Florida, with the first slated to open by the end of the year.”

The company’s president, Marc Brown, said in the release that he expects as many as 10 to 15 restaurants to be spread across the Southeast over the next several years, with plans to expand nationally. Brown’s company bought the rights to the Don the Beachcomber brand in 2021, aiming to incorporate it into its successful Tiki Docks concept in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Ernest Raymond Gantt, aka Don the Beachcomber, was a former bootlegger who kicked off the Tiki craze with his first bar in Hollywood, Calif., in 1933. Within a few years, imitators sprang up across the country. (Courtesy of 23 Restaurant Services)
Ernest Raymond Gantt, aka Don the Beachcomber, was a former bootlegger who kicked off the Tiki craze with his first bar in Hollywood, Calif., in 1933. Within a few years, imitators sprang up across the country. (Courtesy of 23 Restaurant Services)

The birthday of Donn Beach, who legally changed his name from Ernest Raymond Gantt after the success of his Don the Beachcomber restaurants in the 1930s, seemed like a great time to announce the ambitious plan that 23 Restaurant Services calls “an expansive growth strategy.”

“Each of the restaurants will feature the eccentric, Polynesian-inspired design and flamboyant, rum-based drinks that have become synonymous with Don the Beachcomber locations for more than 90 years,” the press release says.

“Don the Beachcomber is the most iconic brand in Tiki history, so it’s impossible to overstate how excited we are about what lies ahead,” Brown said. “We look forward to leveraging our expertise in management and operational excellence to reintroduce the world to the legend that is Don the Beachcomber.”

Searching for Don the Beachcomber by Tim "Swanky" Glazner

To accomplish this, 23 Restaurant Services will be guided by an advisory board featuring some of the top artists, writers, and bartenders from the current Tiki scene:

Marie King, who will lead the new Don the Beachcomber cocktail program, previously managed the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles. She has been a leader and mainstay in the industry since running the bar at the Don the Beachcomber in Southern California before it closed in 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward from The Hukilau 2022 in Pompano Beach)
Marie King, who will lead the new Don the Beachcomber cocktail program, previously managed the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles. She has been a leader and mainstay in the industry since running the bar at the Don the Beachcomber in Southern California before it closed in 2018. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward from The Hukilau 2022 in Pompano Beach)

“Assembling this dynamic and legendary group of experts to serve as our advisory board was the first step in developing a plan to share and represent the history and life of Don the Beachcomber with the utmost authenticity,” Brown said. “We could not be more excited to share the work we are doing together to bring Don the Beachcomber back to life.”

In addition to the advisers, Brown has taken a huge first step in bringing back Don the Beachcomber’s classic cocktails by , former beverage director and general manager of Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, as director of beverage for 23 Restaurant Services. King also served as beverage director of the last Don the Beachcomber restaurant in the continental U.S., located in Huntington Beach, Calif., from 2009 to 2018. Like 23 Restaurant Services, the owners of this location purchased the name and did not have any connection to the original company.

Continue reading “New Don the Beachcomber locations launching in Florida, up to 15 planned across Southeast”

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 Hukilau 2020: A week of virtual events honor 19th annual Tiki weekender, help those in need

The Hukilau 2020: A week of virtual events to honor 19th annual Tiki weekender, help those in need

Updated June 26

The Hukilau’s 2020 event in Fort Lauderdale may have been wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the Polynesian Pop lifestyle in the privacy of your own Tiki bar or with other villagers in your local scene. Following are a week’s worth of suggestions that pay homage to the participants, along with some ways you can lend a hand in these trying economic times.
See below: Bonus recipe for The Last Fang
* Virtual Main Event at The Mai-Kai on Friday and Saturday, June 5-6

The Hukilau

Many of us were looking forward to the 19th annual edition of the East Coast’s largest Tiki weekender on June 3-7 at the B Ocean Resort and The Mai-Kai restaurant. But we’ll have to wait for next year’s 20th anniversary to meet up with all our old friends, savor rum and Tiki cocktails made by some of the world’s top bartenders, dance to live bands and DJs, watch Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid and her aquaticats perform through the portals of Wreck Bar, plus so much more.

But as the shutdowns, stay-home mandates and restrictions due to the pandemic stretch into a fourth month, it’s possible to get a taste of The Hukilau without going far or putting yourself and others at risk. We’ve come up with ideas stretching over seven days, from educational symposiums to a special virtual event set for Friday and Saturday at The Mai-Kai. While The Hukilau’s kickoff party typically doesn’t launch until Wednesdays, we know many villagers like to arrive early and get a head start. The Hukilau 2019 also featured special events for bartenders starting Monday, so we’re following that plan.

Follow The Hukilau
* TheHukilau.com | Facebook: Page and Group | Instagram

Related posts
* The Hukilau hits the road to benefit closed Tiki bars
* Support Tiki bars now: Visit their online stores, contribute to fundraisers
* Daiquiris of Hope: Keeping the spirit of our favorite bars and bartenders alive
The Tiki Times: See what’s canceled, rescheduled – plus new online events

Here’s an outline of suggested Hukilau-related things to do this week. If you have any to add, shoot us an email or a message on our social media pages: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

MONDAY, JUNE 1: Learn about rum

The London Docks and Rums of the British Empire
Watch the replay: The London Docks and Rums of the British Empire hosted by Matt Pietrek of Cocktail Wonk and Minimalist Tiki.

Rum and education are two of the foundational elements of The Hukilau, so what better way to start the week than a special presentation by Matt Pietrek. The former Microsoft specialist and writer has turned his passion for rum and Tiki cocktails into a second career, earning an impressive three nominations in the upcoming 2020 Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in July.

Matt Pietrek demonstrates a flaming garnish during his Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at The Hukilau 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Matt Pietrek demonstrates a flaming garnish during his Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class at The Hukilau 2019. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Pietrek was nominated for Best Cocktail & Spirits Writing for an article on his long-running Cocktail Wonk blog, plus Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book for Minimalist Tiki: A Cocktail Wonk Look at Classic Libations and the Modern Tiki Vanguard, written with his wife Carrie Smith and released last summer. The blog is also among the heavyweight industry players nominated in the Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication category.

In his debut at The Hukilau last year, Pietrek did double duty with a symposium (How the British Navy Influenced the Birth of Tiki) and Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy class (Stocking Your Home Tiki Bar). Pietrek also joined The Atomic Grog for The Rums of The Mai-Kai: From the Back Bar to Your Glass, a special presentation and discussion in the main dining room at the historic restaurant. He was in the midst of digging up more fascinating facts for this year’s Hukilau guests when everything was put on hold.

But Pietrek has kept busy over the past several months with regular appearances online in a very active and engaged rum community. This new presentation covers The London Docks and Rums of the British Empire, an offshoot of his fascination with Navy Rum. Minimalist Tiki is a DIY effort by Pietrek and Smith, so you can support them directly by purchasing the book online.

If you need to stock up on some rum while planning your week of festivities, we recommend you support the brands who support The Hukilau with sponsorship money, free samples, and merchandise. Among the 2019 sponsors were Angostura, Appleton, Cockspur, Diplomatico, Don Q, Gubba, Hamilton, Lemon Hart, Orgeat Works, Plantation, Pusser’s, The Real McCoy, Real Syrups, Rhum Barbancourt, Rum Bar, Rums of Puerto Rico, St. Benevolence, Sandy Feet, Santa Teresa, Tiki Lovers, Swedish Punsch, Tanduay, and Worthy Park.

TUESDAY, JUNE 2: Learn about cocktails

Let's Get Tropical with Georgi Radev and Jupiter Jones
Watch the replay: Let’s Get Tropical with Georgi Radev and Jupiter Jones, featuring Oriol Elias on The Craft of Tiki Cocktails.

The Hukilau’s Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy classrooms may be dark this year, but there’s been no shortage of bartender knowledge spreading on the Internet, thanks to many talented mixologists around the world keeping their audience engaged. I’ve never seen so many professional recipes and trusted information available daily like it is now.

Elite among these engaging bartenders is Georgi Radev, owner/operator of Laki Kane in London, author of Let’s Get Tropical: More than 60 Cocktail Recipes from Caribbean Classics to Modern Tiki Drinks (2019), and a veteran Okole Maluna Cocktail Academy instructor. Last year, he taught Tiki on the Thames and Tiki Mayhem (the latter with international colleagues Daniele Dalla Pola and Ian Burrell

Oriol Elias presents a cocktail seminar on Tiki in Spain at the 2017 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. (Atomic Grog photo)
Oriol Elias presents a cocktail seminar on Tiki in Spain at the 2017 Miami Rum Renaissance Festival. (Atomic Grog photo)

Since the pandemic hit, Radev has been tireless. He launched “Mixology From The Fridge” on YouTube and Facebook, featuring dozens of entertaining how-to videos with recipes for cocktails, syrups and more. You can support Radev by watching his YouTube videos, buying his book and ordering items from the Laki Kane online store.

Radev joined forces with another online juggernaut, Tiki marketing maven and event organizer Jupiter Jones, for a weekly “Tiki Tuesday” broadcast on the Zavvy network of shows and podcasts. Their past guests have included Tonga Hut manager and rum/cocktail expert Marie King; Tiki and music historian Brother Cleve; and Trader Vic’s marketing exec Eve Bergeron, granddaughter of company founder Victor Bergeron. All of these VIPs had presentations or pop-up bars last year at The Hukilau, and Brother Cleve was scheduled to return in 2020 as a DJ.

This week’s guest, Spain’s Oriol Elias, is a noted bartender and rum expert as well as an authority on his country’s Tiki history. He was preparing for his first Hukilau presentation this year as a new cocktail academy instructor. Instead, we can enjoy his presentation on The Craft of Tiki Cocktails, which includes the category’s rich history and techniques, along with tips and tricks to help you create your own delicious libations. Continue reading “The Hukilau 2020: A week of virtual events honor 19th annual Tiki weekender, help those in need”

Photos: 10 highlights from The Hukilau 2019 in Fort Lauderdale

Photos: 10 highlights from The Hukilau 2019 in Fort Lauderdale

NOTE: The Hukilau 2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A series of online events was held in its place. The 2019 recap below was posted before the pandemic. The Hukilau is returning to a live format in September 2021.

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The Hukilau’s 2020 entertainment lineup will be announced on Feb. 3, when event tickets and passes go on sale for the 19th annual Tiki weekender June 3-7 in Fort Lauderdale. While The Mai-Kai remains the nerve center of the Polynesian Pop celebration for the 18th straight year, most of the festivities will be centered at the B Ocean Resort on Fort Lauderdale Beach.

After five years as host hotel, the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina closed for a years-long refurbishment and re-imagining on the day after The Hukilau 2019. To give you a preview of what you can expect during the whirlwind weekend, following is a look back at last year’s festivities. While this Top 10 list is nowhere near complete in capturing the diversity of activities that encompassed the five-day bash, it offers a snapshot of some of the more memorable moments.

See below: Bonus cocktail recipes from the Rum Island Pool Parties
Passion Fruit West Indies (Pagan Idol) | Playboy (Tiki Underground)

The Hukilau 2019 was held June 5-9 at the Pier Sixty-Six Hotel & Marina, B Ocean Resort and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring Tikiyaki Orchestra, Tikiyaki 5-0, Surfer Joe, The Volcanics, The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, Gold Dust Lounge, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, The Swingin’ Palms, Slowey and the Boats, King Kukulele, Brother Cleve, Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Ian “Rum Ambassador” Burrell, and 25 top Tiki bars and bartenders from around the world.
* TheHukilau.com | Facebook: Page and Group | Instagram
Previous recap: The Hukilau 2019 photos and video from social media

Mahalo to the venues, the organizers, all the participants and (especially) all the villagers who attended. Special thanks to those who provided photos for use below. Here’s a sampling of what we enjoyed, in no particular order …

Continue reading “Photos: 10 highlights from The Hukilau 2019 in Fort Lauderdale”

The Year in Tiki 2019: Recap all the top events with photos and video

The Year in Tiki 2019: Recap all the top events with photos and video

The Tiki Times

Once again, The Atomic Grog documented an entire 12 months of events in 2019, following the top Tiki and rum events, plus mid-century modern, surf and rockabilly music, Disney and other happenings of interest to the Tiki community. Check below for official artwork and links to the official sites along with our own unique coverage. Under many events, you’ll also find images and videos from social media plus links to news sites.
NEW EVENTS: UPDATED 2020 CALENDAR
Social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

THE TIKI TIMES: 2019 EVENTS RECAP

Jan. 12 – The Original Tiki Market Place 7th Anniversary in Garden Grove, Calif.
* Atomic Grog event preview
The Original Tiki Market Place 7th Anniversary print by Clee Sobieski

Jan. 17 – Tiki Bingo at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.
* Atomic Grog event preview
Tiki Bingo at The Mai-Kai

Jan. 19 – The Mai-Kai Takeover in Fort Lauderdale.
Special event: ‘Demerara Rum – The Mai-Kai’s Secret Weapon’
Demerara Rum: The Mai-Kai's Secret Weapon on Jan. 19, 2019, at The Mai-Kai The Atomic Grog was pleased to present a special happy-hour talk during The Mai-Kai Takeover event on Jan. 19, presented by the Magical Tiki Meet-Up and Retro Rekindled. Click here to check out our full event recap, including photos and highlights of our Demerara rum discussion.

Continue reading “The Year in Tiki 2019: Recap all the top events with photos and video”