The multimillion-dollar reimagination of The Mai-Kai is an unprecedented project in its size and scope as a local and national historic landmark restaurant. Since worked kicked off in 2022, projects have touched nearly every corner of the 67-year-old, 2.7-acre property in South Florida.
Now, as 2024 brings us into the home stretch, interest is building not only for updates on the status of the renovations, but also for news on a potential reopening date. Closed since an October 2020 roof collapse irreparably damaged the 1970s-era kitchen, The Mai-Kai is on track to have guests return this year. The only question is exactly when?
Unfortunately, that question will probably not be answered with accuracy until it’s much closer to the finish line. Project timelines can change on a dime, and most of the final hurdles will be left in the hands of inspectors and government officials in Broward County and the city of Oakland Park.
Until then, we’ll take any news we can get. We were able to confirm the accuracy of the latest projection, shared on the restaurant’s official Instagram page: “We are now looking at this summer,” said the comment on a Jan. 23 posting in response to questions about the reopening date.
Organizers of The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender in nearby Pompano Beach, are making two sets of plans for their June 6-9 event. Plan A would include events at a fully reopened Mai-Kai, while Plan B would feature limited access and sneak previews, perhaps cocktails and entertainment. The general consensus among Hukilau organizers, which include Mai-Kai investor Richard Oneslager and public relations director Pia Dahlquist, is that there’s a 50-50 chance of either plan happening. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more news on The Hukilau, which has included The Mai-Kai in its festivities since its second year in 2003.
In the meantime, we made our first visit of the new year to the property that straddles the Oakland Park border with Fort Lauderdale on Federal Highway. You can find our observations and photos below, along with updates from manager Kern Mattei and creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The structural footprint of The Mai-Kai changed dramatically last month with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building, which will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and fully immersive tropical-themed parking lot, outdoor seating area and porte-cochère at the historic South Florida restaurant.
Amid the ruckus outside, the restoration efforts inside the main building advanced quietly but deliberately. Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and fellow Orlando-area artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed the New Guinea dining room, a vintage space that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening. They also restored the ceiling and walls near the Tonga dining room, and by the end of the month were full immersed in the Hawaii room.
Laser-focused on The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of custom lamps, they cranked out replicas and refurbished many originals created 50 years ago. After they finish, it will be impossible to tell which lamps are rebuilt and which are vintage, an over-arching theme of the restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, the back-of-house area was a total construction zone as crews prepared for the installation of a new bar and kitchen. Up on the roof, workers were busy sealing the main A-frame and working on new vents, along with the structures to hold the new air-conditioning system.
After electrical work was done, a painting crew put the finishing touches on the men’s restroom. Electricians continued an infrastructure overhaul, preparing for the upcoming installation of a new circuit breaker system.
It’s no surprise that April saw an acceleration of renovation work on multiple fronts. In March, The Mai-Kai officially began the $8.5 million project after three permits cleared the way for three major projects:
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing.
* Removal of the Bora Bora building.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen.
The repairs and refurbishments became necessary after the 26,000-square-foot restaurant suffered a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen in late October of 2020. The plans – which include both restoring the main building and upgrading and enhancing the parking lot and back of house – became clear after the founding Thornton family sold a majority interest to a new ownership team led by the Barlington Group and historic preservationist Bill Fuller.
The permit approvals restarted the roof thatching project in March. By April, thatching was completed on the porte-cochère as well as the A-frame roofs over the back dining rooms. All that remained was detailing and finishing work, which will happen later.
As April progressed, The Mai-Kai applied for three new permits that will keep projects moving quickly. On April 25, the city of Oakland Park issued a mechanical permit that will allow for the installation of the new kitchen. It won’t expire until Oct. 23, which fits in with the timeline we’re hearing about a reopening coming in the fall.
A mechanical permit for “fire suppression” was applied for in April, then issued in May This likely covers not only a new sprinkler system, but a fine-tuning off The Mai-Kai’s elaborate rooftop exhaust system that pulls smoke from the main showroom after the fire-dancers perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in the early 1960s, it’s the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).
Among the most loyal followers of The Mai-Kai are the thousands of guests who flock to Fort Lauderdale for The Hukilau, an annual celebration of Polynesian Pop culture that established a foothold in the historic restaurant in 2003 and remains inextricably linked.
The recent announcement of The Mai-Kai’s planned refurbishment and reopening sent joyous shockwaves throughout the Tiki community, but especially among The Hukilau’s longtime “villagers,” as they’re known. The 2020 event was canceled due to the pandemic, but we were able to get a taste of The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau in September 2021 during a special event in the porte-cochère. It was comforting to sip authentic cocktails and enjoy the musicians performing outside the front entrance, but many still longed to be inside.
When it was announced during the event that a deal had been struck and The Mai-Kai would be reopening, it made the experience even sweeter. Full details were released the following week (see story below), and the rest is history.
While the timeline is not clear on a reopening date, hopes are running high that the 20th anniversary of The Hukilau in 2022 will indeed include at least a partial return to indoor activities. The synergy is guaranteed to continue with the news that one of the investors in the new ownership team is The Hukilau’s head honcho, Richard Oneslager.
Beyond taking in all the activities – from the dinner show featuring the Polynesian Islander Revue to live bands in The Molokai bar – a ritual for many villagers during The Hukilau includes walking the sacred grounds and taking photos of their beloved Mai-Kai.
Below you’ll find a collection of those photos, shared with The Atomic Grog over the years. Many are appearing on the blog for the first time. Let’s enjoy the eye candy and look forward to once again returning in person for the grand reopening.
Hiroa Nui was installed in The Mai-Kai’s outdoor Tiki garden on Dec. 26. (Photo by Will Anders)
The Tiki, carved out of Florida oak, is 7 feet tall with a 2-foot base and stands on a 3-foot pedestal that once contained other notable Tikis over the years. It’s in the perfect spot for a photo op in front of the restaurant’s distinctive sign as guests wander through the lush tropical garden. “I wanted to set it up so you can get that magic picture with The Mai-Kai sign,” Anders said. Past coverage:‘King Kai’ leads procession of new Tikis into The Mai-Kai (June 2016)
Hiroa Nui was installed on Monday, Dec. 26, after just 30 days of work by the diminutive but immensely talented carver. The work was done mainly with a chainsaw and angle grinder, Anders said, with some detail work done by chisel. The hard wood was “pretty formidable to chisel,” he said.
Anders was inspired to create the traditional Tahitian carving by an old Tiki that once stood in a similar position in the garden. Photos are rare, but it was most famously pictured in the 1963 Mai-Kai calendar along with Mireille Thornton after she became choreographer of The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States, including Hawaii. She married owner Bob Thornton in 1974 and took over after his death in 1989.
A native of Tahiti, Mireille is kept the South Seas tradition alive for the past three decades while at the helm of the restaurant along with her son, managing owner Dave Levy. Anders, along with other Florida artists such as Tom Fowner and Jeff Chouinard, have recently contributed massive new carvings in the traditional styles of Polynesia.
Thanks to a dedicated group of artists and supporters, The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale has been blessed with the arrival of a new clan of Tiki carvings, most notably the 10-foot “King Kai” that now holds court in the outdoor garden. It’s believed to be the most extensive infusion of large stylized carvings since the 1960s. See below:Exclusive photo gallery of King Kai, new trio of Tikis | What else is new
King Kai, a Hawaiian Ku design carved by Fort Lauderdale artist Will Anders, was installed May 21 and christened during a special ceremony the next day. Anders had lots of help in realizing the project, which was the vision of The Hukilau’s Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White. She enlisted several key people to make the dream a reality: Securing two Florida Black Olive tree trunks and transporting them to South Florida, then erecting the finished carving at The Mai-Kai.
* See previous coverage
Those responsible are credited on a plaque that adorns King Kai’s base: White, Anders, Lonnie Dryden (who donated the heavy equipment used to transport the logs and helped install King Kai), Lee Cicchella of Paradise Found Landscaping (who donated the two trees), Pete Ginn (who also donated heavy equipment), plus Virginia Decker. That second giant log is sitting in Anders’ workshop, awaiting a future project. Stay tuned.
As if that weren’t enough, however, White also spearheaded a project to replace the three crumbling Tikis that greeted guests upon their arrival by car in the porte-cochère of the landmark restaurant, recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. In the first project of its kind at The Mai-Kai, three Florida artists joined forces to each carve a distinctive new Tiki.
The Tikis carved by Anders, Fort Lauderdale’s Tom Fowner and Tampa’s Jeff Chouinard were installed on May 28-29, just in time for The Hukilau. The Hawaiian Lono (Anders), Marquesan (Chouinard) and Tangaroa-style (Fowner) Tikis were carved by the artists from Central Florida Cypress. The Tikis they replaced were historic, believed to date back to the restaurant’s inception in 1956, but were in a serious state of decay. We’re told that the remnants might find a place inside the restaurant amid the many other South Seas artifacts.
As Anders and Fowner installed the new Tiki trio on the morning of May 28, The Mai-Kai’s longtime owner Mireille Thornton (wife of late founder Bob Thornton and choreographer/costume designer of the beloved Polynesian Islander Revue, arrived to see the new additions. “You guys are doing a great job,” she exclaimed when she first saw the Tikis.
The addition of the Ku and Lono by Anders are distinctive at The Mai-Kai since there aren’t many Hawaiian-style Tikis on the property. Bob Thornton, who founded the restaurant with his brother Jack, preferred other styles, Mireille said. If Fowner’s Tangaroa-style Tiki seems familiar, it’s because it was based on the design of The Mai-Kai’s vintage decanter. Chouinard, known for his public “guerilla” Tikis in the Tampa Bay area, previously donated a Tiki to The Mai-Kai at The Hukilau 2014. You can find it behind the stage in the main dining room’s garden.
The work of Anders, though largely uncredited, is ubiquitous at the 59-year-old Polynesian palace. For years, he has re-cast many of the smaller Tikis that are found throughout the property. Bob Thornton was wise enough to have molds made for most of the original pieces, but they sat in storage for decades until Anders volunteered to put them to good use. [See photos of Anders’ work on Tiki Central] He also created a giant Tiki based on The Mai-Kai’s Mara-Amu mug that can be found in another prime sport the garden next to King Kai. [More info and photos, Mara-Amu recipe]
The hot, wet and humid Florida weather is not kind to outdoor Tikis, but luckily The Mai-Kai’s molds and the work of Anders will keep the restaurant’s many Tikis in good condition. His latest project, completed just before The Hukilau on June 7, was the replacement of the stylized Tiki ash trays that guard the main entrance. They were stolen, so Anders jokes that his new castings contain a GPS chip. They’re also fastidiously secured in place (as are all the new Tikis), and cast using Anders’ usual method. Known as Portland cement (also called 123), it’s 1 part cement, 2 parts coarse sand, and 3 parts rock. He also puts steel inside for strength.
The wooden Tikis are a different story, however. Anders says he and Fowner hope to maintain them so they don’t meet the same fate as many of the larger carvings that date back to the early days of the restaurant. Famed California carver Barney West created many massive Tikis that were added in the early 1960s. Only two remain, both on the exterior of the property facing Federal Highway: An imposing 20-foot Moai stands just outside the fence near King Kai on the south side, while a smaller though no less impressive carving stands guard north of the main entrance. After more than 50 years in the elements, some worry how long these historic carvings may last.
The new year is off to a roaring start with comprehensive coverage of the carving and planned installation of two giant Tikis at The Mai-Kai during The Hukilau. Chicago’s Lost Lake was named Cocktail Bar of the Year, while Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove announced the release date for his long-awaited rum and cocktail book. In South Beach, “The Art of Tiki: A Cocktail Showdown” sells out, and we receive exclusive news on a new Tiki bar from celebrity chef Ralph Pagano. We also preview an art and rum event in Fort Lauderdale, plus Tiki Caliente in Palm Springs. Quick sips include The Broken Shaker opening an outpost in Los Angeles, Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid heating up Las Vegas, and the introduction of Rum Minute videos. Regular features spotlight lowbrow legend Robert Williams; Indianapolis surf band The Madeira; The Rum Line cocktail bar on Miami Beach; and the Imbibe website. The Rum of the Week, R.L. Seale’s 10-year-old from Barbados, is featured in the Winter Daiquiri.
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Note: For 2016, The Week in Tiki will remain bi-weekly, but we’ve simplified the schedule. Look for blogs recapping the first and second half of each month.
Giant carved Tikis to be donated to The Mai-Kai in June
Will Anders works on a Tiki that will rise in The Mai-Kai’s outdoor gardens in June. (Photo by Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White, January 2016)
The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale is renowned for the massive Tiki carvings that grace its grounds, some dating back a half-century. But in recent years, many have sadly succumbed to the elements. Every year, it seems, you’ll find another tribute mug to one of The Mai-Kai’s fallen Tikis.
In June, however, there will be a welcome new sight at the 59-year-old historic landmark. Two monumental Tiki carvings standing up to 10 feet tall will be unveiled in the restaurant’s outdoor tropical garden during The Hukilau, the annual Polynesian Pop celebration that draws enthusiasts from around the world. Marking the project happen were The Hukilau’s Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White and master carver Will Anders, plus several other people whose contributions were indispensable.
Anders began work on the Tikis in November, when two gigantic logs estimated to weigh 4,000 to 6,000 pounds each arrived at his Fort Lauderdale home. By early January, when White snapped the photo above, the first Tiki was already taking shape. She later announced the project on Facebook, calling it a dream come true. “I have to say, when you see a man of 119 pounds carving a 4,000-pound tree into such an amazing work of art, it humbles you,” she wrote.
Using tools including chainsaw and chisel, Anders said he “bangs away for about four hours every morning” on the Florida Black Olive tree trunk that started out 10 feet tall and 3 feet across at the small end. It sits in a special rigging system, a “come along,” to enable him to move and turn the massive log. Once it’s complete, he’ll begin work on the Florida Live Oak and its much harder wood, a task he said he’s not looking forward to. But he’s gladly accepted the challenge.
But the story begins long before chisel hit wood. Saddened by the loss of The Mai-Kai’s massive Tikis, created by legendary carver Barney West in the early 1960s, White made it a mission to replace them. She enlisted the help of Tiki and Mai-Kai loyalists, and remarkably everything fell into place. “It’s a true labor of love for all involved,” she wrote on Facebook.
“It didn’t take long to get others inspired, and to date we have been successful in getting everything donated – from the giant Tikis, to the trucks to get them to us to the man who has set out to carve them,” White wrote. “All of them have donated their efforts, time and money.” She said the goal is to “keep the spirit of The Mai-Kai alive by replacing the large idols in the gardens” and unveil them at The Hukilau in June.
First, White recruited Anders, who has a longtime relationship with The Mai-Kai that includes a unique artistic role casting dozens of smaller Tikis in cement from their original molds. A mutual friend and former Mai-Kai employee, Lonnie Dryden, donated the heavy equipment needed to transport the logs. And a frustrating search for wood in Florida that was large enough and suitable for carving finally ended when Dryden’s friend, Lee Cicchella of Paradise Found Landscaping, donated the two trees. Pete Ginn donated all the heavy equipment, and the plan was in place.
After 15 years of planning the East Coast’s premiere Tiki weekender, Christie “Tiki Kiliki” White knows a thing or two about giving her guests, affectionately known as “villagers,” what they want. For the 15th anniversary of The Hukilau, scheduled for June 8-12 in Fort Lauderdale, that means assembling the biggest names in the Polynesian Pop revival for an unforgettable experience unlike any other.
“Tiki culture is only growing stronger, and we are trying to provide the best show possible for anyone who wants to join us,” Tiki Kiliki said in an interview this week. She said she wants her guests to feel like “they’ve just stepped back in time into an era where Tiki was ever-present.”
Tickets went on sale Tuesday for an impressive array of symposiums and experiences that will make the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 and The Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale the epicenter of the 21st century Tiki revival. Special guests and entertainers include some of the scene’s top artists (Shag, Tom Fowner, Will Anders, Jeff Chouinard), cocktail creators (Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, Martin Cate, Paul McGee, Brian Miller, St. John Frizell), bands and musicians (The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Jason Lee and the R.I.P. Tides, The Intoxicators, Skinny Jimmy Stingray, The Quiet Villagers, The Disasternauts), entertainers (Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, Angie Pontani, Kitten de Ville, Lila Starlet), and pop culture historians (Otto von Stroheim, Tim “Swanky” Glazner, Humuhumu, Paul Roe).
“The appearance of Shag has really stirred tons of excitement here on the East Coast,” Tiki Kiliki said. “We don’t see him often enough, so that will be a true treat for everyone.”
This year’s event celebrates not only The Hukilau’s 15th year, but also the 60th anniversary of The Mai-Kai, the legendary Tiki temple that was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. The Hukilau moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2003 after launching in 2002 in Atlanta, drawn by the restaurant’s legendary reputation that only continues to grow. Last year, it was named best Tiki bar in the world after a tally of ratings by Critiki.com users.
The Hukilau is returning for a second year to Pier 66, another historic property that dates back to 1956 and is beloved for its mid-century architecture and iconic rotating rooftop penthouse lounge. It’s a miraculous turnaround for The Hukilau, which nearly called it adieu in 2014. At the 11th hour, Tiki Kiliki was approached by new partners who have injected new life (and financing) into the event, enabling the move to Pier 66. She has also been able to concentrate on the creative end of things, putting together a perfect Polynesian Pop getaway for guests.
The Hukilau’s villagers last year voted Pier 66 “Best Hotel in The Hukilau’s History,” enamored by its modern amenities and hospitality provided by Hyatt, combined with its history and mid-century design. With only a few available rooms remaining during The Hukilau weekend, Tiki Kiliki urges potential guests to book sooner rather than later.
“The 66 provides a perfect backdrop to the classic era of Tiki with its roots perfectly planted the same year that The Mai-Kai first opened,” Tiki Kiliki said. Pier 66 guests are also the only villagers who will receive special welcome bags full of swag provided by sponsors. When Pier 66 sells out, she hopes to have another nearby hotel lined up for villagers to enjoy.
Sales of 2016 event passes and tickets for special events have been selling at an unprecedented rate after going online in late October, much earlier than in past years. Demand is no doubt driven by the anniversaries and the unique experiences the 2016 event offers.
Tiki Kiliki said many things are driving interest this year. Villagers are “excited about celebrating the past and the future with the anniversaries, and Tiki culture is only growing stronger. … Also, Pier 66 has a lot to do with it too. The event grows ever stronger in the right venue.”
It was a year of both sadness and elation, when some legends were lost but the world of Tiki made great strides. As we mourned the deaths in 2015 of musicians Robert Drasnin and Ernie Menehune, plus artist The Pizz, we were bolstered by the fact that a new generation of artists and musicians are taking inspiration from the past and creating an incredible new body of work. And Tiki culture was embraced and celebrated across the country at sold-out events and a whole new wave of bars. After our first year of The Week in Tiki updates, The Atomic Grog takes a look back at the memorable news of 2015.
* Keep up with The Week in Tiki: Facebook | RSS feed | See all the past weeks | Archive See below:Month-by-month recap | The Year in Tiki 2015 Awards
The year 2015 marked a turning point in the 21st century Tiki scene. If there was ever a time to declare that the “revival” had become a full-blown renaissance, it’s now. It’s been building for some years now, but last year seemed to be the tipping point. Just look at the evidence in our favorite topics: Events, music, art, cocktails, and culture. Then, take a chronological look back at the biggest news of the year, month by month. Finally, find out our selections for the top artist, band, bar, website, rum, and cocktail of 2015 in our first Year in Tiki Awards.
The top dogs continue to raise their game: The Hukilau moved to the iconic Pier 66 Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach and attracted some of Tiki’s biggest names, most notably the gathering of four of the world’s top bartenders for the Tiki Tower Takeover. Tiki Oasis keeps getting bigger, breaking its own attendance records, while newer events such as Mod-Palm Springs and Ohana: Luau by the Sea have carved out their own niche. Rum and cocktail events – such as Miami Rum Renaissance Festival and Tales of the Cocktail – have refined their successful formulas, spreading their message to an even wider audience.
Like the imposing Tikis that he carved for more than 40 years, Cocoa Beach’s Wayne Coombs was a larger-than-life figure with a mischievous bent and a style all his own. Coombs, whose distinctive “Florida style” of carving became his trademark and made him one of the modern Tiki revival’s most well-known and beloved figures, passed away on Sept. 4 at age 62.
Wayne is believed to have suffered a heart attack at his studio. He is survived by his wife of 35 years, Beki. A celebration will be held in his honor on Sunday, Sept. 23, from 1 to 5 p.m. at his Mai Tiki Gallery in Cocoa Beach.
Originally from Miami, Wayne moved with his family to the Space Coast at age 14. He was a rambunctious artist and free spirit from an early age. His first gallery, Free and Creative, opened in the mid-’60s and he began carving Tikis in 1967. He and Beki founded Mai Tiki Studio and Gallery in 1973.
Over the years, Wayne became a fixture not only in Brevard County and throughout Florida, where his Tikis are ubiquitous, but also in the worldwide surfing and Tiki scenes. The studio and gallery became a local attraction, and his fame grew large enough to match his imposing figure and robust personalty.