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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

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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)”

Minimalist Tiki

BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

Riding a wave of success following the February opening of the first of many new Don the Beachcomber restaurants, the team behind the ambitious brand re-launch took the stage at Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando earlier this month to offer a sneak preview of new locations planned for Florida.

The presentation before hundreds of faithful fans gathered in an expansive ballroom at the Caribe Royale Resort did not disappoint, revealing new details about the flagship restaurant that will be built just a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World. Parent company 23 Restaurant Services also broke the news of a new “brand within a brand” dubbed the Gantt Reserve Collection from Don the Beachcomber.

The new Don the Beachcomber bar concept was unveiled at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The new Don the Beachcomber bar concept was unveiled at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Jump to more below:
* Full coverage of Tiki-a-Go-Go presentation
NEW: Renderings, plans for Orlando restaurant revealed
* Gantt Reserve Collection bars introduced
NEW: Upcoming South Florida location uncovered
* The Donn of Tiki makes a splash at Florida Film Festival
* Donn Beach biography expected next spring

This smaller, more bar-centric concept will be rolled out much faster than the 300-seat restaurant in Madeira Beach or the even larger one planned for the Orlando area. If the build-out goes according to plan, guests will be enjoying elevated Don the Beachcomber cocktails at Gantt Reserve Collection bars in Tampa this summer, then Plantation in southeast Florida in the fall.

We also learned that the Don the Beachcomber in Hamlin (opening in summer 2025) will feature not only views of the nightly fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, but also another Gantt Reserve Collection bar tucked inside, speakeasy style. Our full recap below will include details on these projects, new custom mugs, plus more information gathered after Tiki-a-Go-Go.

Justin Peterson (right) introduces the participants in the 'Don the Beachcomber Returns!" panel at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. From left: John Mulder, Sven Kirsten, Marc Brown, Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Justin Peterson (right) introduces the participants in the ‘Don the Beachcomber Returns!” panel at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024. From left: John Mulder, Sven Kirsten, Marc Brown, Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Don the Beachcomber presentation caps first annual Tiki event in Orlando

The juxtaposition was intentional. The inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go kicked off April 5 with a panel discussion on the restoration and reopening of The Mai-Kai, Florida’s historic Tiki temple that will soon return from a nearly four-year slumber. The daily programming wrapped up 30 hours later with a presentation on another legendary brand that recently re-launched in the Sunshine State with bold expansion plans.

The April 6 panel Don the Beachcomber Returns! was hosted by 23 Restaurant Services creative director Justin Peterson and featured company President Marc Brown, beverage director Marie King, author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, historian Sven Kirsten, and Eekum Bookum mug master John Mulder.

Before unveiling the news on planned openings, the group discussed the flawless debut of the first new restaurant and bar based on the legacy of Donn Beach, who kick-started the Tiki bar craze in 1932 with his groundbreaking speakeasy in Hollywood, Calif. His influence is still felt today with a new wave of tropical cocktail bars around the world paying him respect, inspiring a new film and upcoming book.

Bartenders set up for the grand opening of the Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Bartenders set up for the grand opening of the Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23, 2024. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

After acquiring the rights to the Don the Beachcomber name, Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services opened the first location in Madeira Beach on Feb. 23. The company’s other brands include Ford’s Garage, Yeoman’s Top Golf Swing Suite, and Tiki Docks.
Review & photos: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

Peterson praised King and Jennifer Paci, director of new restaurant openings, for the smooth debut. “The food and drinks are just immaculate,” he said. He also gave a shout-out to the the artists who built the interior, notably Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, Patrick Vassar, Tom Fowner, and Dave “Basement Kahuna” Wolfe.

King said she designed the cocktail menu based on historic Don the Beachcomber recipes, adding her own spin where appropriate: “I had the daunting privilege of re-creating a Don the Beachcomber menu with the mindset of ‘What would Donn do today?’ ” King is a veteran manager and bartender with decades of experience in the California scene, including a stint at the last Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach as well as 11 years at the venerable Tonga Hut in Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

The challenge in Florida, she explained, is introducing a beach/tourist crowd to a style of cocktails they may not be familiar with. So she tries to ease them in with lighter offerings, such as a Frosé featuring rum and rosé. “Donn didn’t have tequila drinks on his menu, but I think that today he would have reinvented his philosophy and brought in some tequila drinks,” King said. “So we do that as well.”

Marie King talks about her experience as beverage director for the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants during Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando on April 6. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Marie King talks about her experience as beverage director for the new Don the Beachcomber restaurants during Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando on April 6. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Another hurdle that took King out of her comfort zone was training the large, mostly inexperienced, staff on the nuances of Don the Beachcomber and Tiki culture. “We taught them who Donn was, who Sunny (Sund) was, what the business was, Hawaii, L.A., Chicago, the Mob, everything,” King said.

The training included everyone “from dishwasher to host,” utilizing the systems that Paci and 23 Restaurant Services employ to ensure a well-versed staff. “Everyone you come into contact with has a little bit of knowledge about what the legacy means,” King said. “You as the guests should feel like you’ve just walked into a Don the Beachcomber under their tutelage.”

But King’s most intense training was saved for her young bartenders, who she lovingly calls her “kittens.” She said she spent three days of boot camp “before any other soul walked in the building” with just the bartenders. “We did drills, we did mock service.” The end result speaks for itself, as many have corroborated.

Sven Kirsten speaks during the Don the Beachcomber presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go about his experience at the new Madeira Beach location. Seated on the panel are Marc Brown (left), Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / April 6, 2024)
Sven Kirsten speaks during the Don the Beachcomber presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go about his experience at the new Madeira Beach location. Seated on the panel are Marc Brown (left), Marie King, and Tim Glazner. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward / April 6, 2024)

“I was blown away,” said Kirsten, who visited the Madeira Beach restaurant for the first time just three days earlier. “It’s in a very nondescript building, and in that way it really fulfills the purpose of being an escape. You step from a mundane world into this incredible escapist space.” Kirsten literally wrote the book on this topic. His influential contributions to the culture include The Book of Tiki and Tiki Pop.

Kirsten was also impressed with the packed house and the eclectic crowd, which he said was comprised of many families with “little tykes having a great time.” He added with a laugh: “It wasn’t just you Tiki nerds.”

“That’s what Tiki needs,” he continued. “It needs everybody to get into the act. It was wonderful to see that in Madeira Beach.”

Mulder added to that topic, talking about a recent visit with his granddaughter. She loved the non-alcoholic drinks and the desserts, while he was also enamored by the environment. “The decor is perfect,” said the creator of the signature Legend Returns mug. “It’s really immersive. You really feel like you’re in a Tiki bar. I was really, really impressed.”

An image shared at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024 shows new Rum Barrel mugs from Don the Beachcomber and Tiki Farm. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
An image shared at Tiki-a-Go-Go in April 2024 shows new Rum Barrel mugs from Don the Beachcomber and Tiki Farm. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Peterson took the opportunity to reveal some new mug designs expected to roll out in Madeira Beach and elsewhere in the coming months. You can also expect to find them in the online store, Shop.DonBeachcomber.com.

By popular demand, the first to arrive will be a classic Rum Barrel mug, currently in production by Tiki Farm. Peterson said they hope to have them in hand by July, just in time for Tiki Oasis.

The creative director also showed off his first Don the Beachcomber mug design, based on his new signature logo of Donn Beach’s profile. He said he wanted it to be different than the other mugs created over the years inspired by Beach’s likeness.

Attendees at the 'Don the Beachcomber Returns!' presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go on April 6 got a peek at Justin Peterson's concept art for a new mug, along with the sculpt by Tiki Farm. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Attendees at the ‘Don the Beachcomber Returns!’ presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go on April 6 got a peek at Justin Peterson’s concept art for a new mug, along with the sculpt by Tiki Farm. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

The audience saw slides featuring Peterson’s conceptual artwork as well as photos of the sculpt created by Tiki Farm. The final glaze will have a matte finish that looks like wood, he said. The lei and flower will be pink and yellow, respectively, and the logo will be white.

Peterson called it “a dream come true to have a mug with my name slapped on the bottom of it,” adding that he’s hoping for a late summer release.

Also touted were several mug collaborations with noted Tiki artists. Big Toe is designing a bowl that Peterson said is as intricate as Mulder’s Legend Returns mug. Mitchell Spain Ceramics, which has perfected a method of creating what looks like rust on ceramics, is making “vintage style tumblers” that may be ready in time for The Hukilau in June. Also in the pipeline is a mug from Taboo Relics, due later this year or early next year.

Renderings, plans for Orlando restaurant revealed

The highlight of the Don the Beachcomber Returns! presentation April 6 at Tiki-a-Go-Go was the discussion and details on the new locations expected to open over the next several years. The excitement level was high, not just because of the historic nature of the news. Many attendees live not far from ground zero of the expansion in Florida.

An updated rendering of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant planned for the Orlando area, revealed April 6 during a presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
An updated rendering of the new Don the Beachcomber restaurant planned for the Orlando area, revealed April 6 during a presentation at Tiki-a-Go-Go. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

First on the agenda was the previously announced build-out planned for Hamlin Town Center, just north of Disney World, which has moved up on the schedule slightly to summer 2025. “We plan to break ground relatively soon,” said Peterson, the creative director. “When that opens, it will be the crown jewel in our collection.”

Continue reading “BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida”

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

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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)”

Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender

Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender

Updated May 9

More than a quarter century into the modern revival, the appetite for Tiki weekenders has never been more voracious. But if you’re creating a new event, how do you stand out on an ever-more-crowded calendar?

Tiki-a-Go-Go 2024 in Orlando

PHOTOS, VIDEO: The first Tiki-a-Go-Go is a retro roadtrip through mid-century culture, appreciation
More event recaps
* The Mai-Kai reveals new images, plans for restoration at Orlando event, continues $15M project
* Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida

For the organizers of the inaugural Tiki-a-Go-Go in Orlando, it was simple: Go back to the roots of the revival with an emphasis on what inspired the fascination with retro culture in the first place.

Their location in Central Florida in the shadow of the theme parks also makes the perfect setting to focus on Florida’s role in 20th century kitsch in addition to the over-arching Tiki craze. The icing on the cake is a partnership with the annual Magical Tiki Meet Up that folds that Disney World gathering into the weekend.

The result is a distinctive new event that adds even more depth and nuance to the annual Tiki event calendar. Event passes sold out in late March, with only a few tickets remaining for additional activities for passholders.

Tiki-a-Go-Go will host Tiki revival veterans including author Sven Kirsten, beverage director Marie King of Don the Beachcomber, and clothing designer Margo "Rocket Betty" Scott. (Tiki-a-Go-go / Facebook)
Tiki-a-Go-Go will host Tiki revival veterans including author Sven Kirsten, beverage director Marie King of Don the Beachcomber, and clothing designer Margo “Rocket Betty” Scott. (Tiki-a-Go-go / Facebook)

April 5-7 – Tiki-a-Go-Go at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando (Friday-Saturday). Featuring symposiums and classes (Sven Kirsten, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Ed Hamilton, Spike Marble, “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller, Tiki Tom-Tom, Rocket Betty, David “Dr. Skipper” Marley, et al.), guest cocktail bars, live music (The Hula Girls, The Intoxicators, The Disasternauts, The Kreepy Tikis, Hot Rod Hornets, more), supper club and burlesque, artists and vendors, plus more. Magical Tiki Meet Up (Sunday) at the Magic Kingdom and Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World.
More below: Personalize your experience | Q&A with the organizers
* Tiki-a-Go-Go on social media: Instagram | Facebook page and group

The venue is the Caribe Royale Resort, which will host all the Friday and Saturday events. The property was recently completely reimagined with the perfect tropical atmosphere and amenities for Tiki-a-Go-Go guests. All the rooms are suites with the standard one-bedroom including a living room with a sleeper sofa. Maximum occupancy is five in a suite and six in a villa.

The Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando. (Official photo)
The Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando. (Official photo)

There’s a giant pool with a 75-foot waterslide, a spa and hot tubs, multiple fitness and sports activities, plus eight restaurants and bars (including the Rum Bar). Most important for the purposes of Tiki-a-Go-Go, the resort features more than 240,000-square feet of meeting space.

Continue reading “Event preview: Tiki-a-Go-Go looks to the past for a fresh take on the modern weekender”

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success

If there were any doubts that the inaugural “next gen” Don the Beachcomber restaurant and tropical bar would not live up to the high standards of its namesake, they were quickly put to rest during last week’s grand opening in Madeira Beach on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast.

Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach looked immaculate before opening to the public at 11 a.m. on Feb. 23 (left). By the evening, nearly every indoor seat was filled. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

In-depth coverage below
* Menus and overview: Cocktails | Food
* Decor, music & more | Tips and guidance
Bonus cocktail recipe below: Doctor Funk
Previous: Revived Don the Beachcomber brand opens first location in southwest Florida
BREAKING NEWS: Don the Beachcomber announces new bar concept, three upcoming locations in Florida (April 2024)

The first location in a planned national rollout of escapist establishments inspired by the founding father of faux Polynesian cocktails opened to the public on Friday, Feb. 23, after three days of private parties for friends, family and VIPs. Owned and operated by Tampa- based 23 Restaurant Services, the vast 298-capacity restaurant was firing on all cylinders from the get-go.

“We are thrilled with our opening weekend, starting with a largely attended VIP party on Thursday evening,” Marc Brown, president of 23 Restaurant Services, said via email Monday. “We had over 1,200 guests join us Friday through Sunday.”

“We continue to be so excited to be a part of this community and look forward to sharing our amazing vibe and delicious food and drinks with you all,” he said, noting the huge social media reaction and “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The vintage booths at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach, seen before the grand opening on Feb. 23, were designed by Tiki Diablo with contributions from others in the Tiki community. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

We attended Thursday’s pre-opening party as well as lunch and dinner seatings during Friday’s service, witnessing a nearly flawless launch by every measurable standard. The well-trained staff of managers, greeters, servers, food-runners, bussers, and bartenders operated like a well-oiled machine. And if there were any culinary or mixological misfires from the kitchen or bar, they were few and far between.

When we arrived late for the first official dinner service, all but one of the 20 tables and booths inside the highly immersive restaurant was full, and all of the 30 or so bar seats were taken. On the patio under a large thatched roof, at least a third of the tables were full despite a steady drizzle. Our Uber driver said he had been taking passengers there all day.

Customers were three deep at the bar for hours during the peak of service, beverage director Marie King told us later. “It was a good night.” And the crowds kept coming. The restaurant was just as packed when we left hours later, around 10 p.m.

The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)
The outdoor patio at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach has a different feel during daytime and evening hours. The huge poles were carved on-site by Tiki Diablo and his crew. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward / Feb. 22-23, 2024)

Managing partner Sebastien Amoruso seemed very satisfied while surveying the scene and monitoring first-day operations. “It’s a good day,” he said during dinner service. “I’m happy. For the first day, we’re doing great.”

Amoruso estimated that 500 guests would be seated on opening day, but this might not include many who bellied up to the bar and didn’t register in the computerized point-of-sale system. I counted roughly 112 seats inside and 115 outside, plus lots of room for standing near the bar.

More seats could be added if needed, Amoruso, said. If opening weekend is any indication, that may be necessary. Saturday night was even busier than Friday, reported Donn Beach biographer Tim “Swanky” Glazner, who attended both.

The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)
The elaborately themed bar at Don the Beachcomber in Madeira Beach is prepped and ready to go before the grand opening on Feb. 23. (Photos by Hurricane Hayward)

But the venue never seemed crowded, with plenty of room for guests to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Amoruso cited the expertise and experience of 23 Restaurant Services.

Continue reading “LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success”

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. 28

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.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
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 Restaurant 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”

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.

LIVE COVERAGE & REVIEW: Don the Beachcomber grand opening in Florida is a smashing success
* 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)”