On December 28, 1956, the doors of the Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida swung open. Brother Bob and Jack Thornton had realized their vision to open tropical oasis filled with waterfalls, thatched roofs, dancers, and lots of tiki drinks. Millions of Rum Barrels later, the Mai-Kai is celebrating it’s 61st birthday—and still remarkably unchanged.
Any given night at the Mai-Kai, you’ll find mix of locals, tourists, and cocktail buffs. However, to tiki enthusiasts, the establishment is sacred, a Mecca.“It’s really the last remaining relic of its time. There’s not another structure as immersed in tiki as the Mai-Kai,” Tiki expert and The Hukilau founder Christie White explained to Neat Pour. “It’s like entering King Tut’s Tomb, a perfect time capsule of a different world.”
It’s not just the iconic A-framed structure that maintained traditions; it’s the people inside as well. On a recent night, one family dining in the restaurant spanned three generations of regulars. Bob Thornton’s wife Mireille and his stepchildren Kulani Thornton Gelardi and David Levy still own and operate the destination. Current GM Kern Mattei started working for the Mai-Kai in 1984 as a barback and continued working there throughout high school and college. After a few years building experience he returned to the restaurant where he has choreographed the delicate ballet of the 600 seat venue ever since.
“A perfect time capsule of a different world.”
Kern described the Mai-Kai experience as a “mini-vacation to a tropical resort.” Perhaps, the most escapist element of it all (with the giant tikis and waterfalls in the gardens a close second) is the famed Polynesian Islander Revue. Shortly after Don Ho retired his Hawaiian show, the Revue took the crown as the longest running Polynesian show in the U.S.
Bob’s wife Mireille Thornton was one of the early dancers in the in-house show and today she still choreographs it. Dancers from Tahiti, Aotearoa, New Zealand, Samoa, and Hawaii perform in elaborate costumes made from hand-painted tapa cloth (from the bark of breadfruit trees), flowers, mother-of-pearl, feathers, abalone, and other seashells. Highlights include spinning Samoan fire knives and the iconic Hawaiian Wedding Song, but for six decades the showstopper has always been the “Heiva I Tahiti.” Kern elaborated about this drum dance. “It’s an annual competition in Tahiti. The drummers will play different beats as the dancers come out one-by-one and then change tempo challenging them to keep up as the dancer and drummer compete against each other.”
Many of the dancers are recruited in Hawaii and Mireille regularly visits Polynesia to keep the show fresh. “Just like hip-hop or any other genre, there are always new dances and new songs. She researches what’s up to date or what’s modern and then changes our performance,” said Kern. “You can now see the same things here that they’re doing over there. The dancers are also excited that we have a new shows and the locals love it.”
White also gushed that show is a must-see, but she loves the history just as much. Johnny Weissmuller was a regular (yes, he did the Tarzan call for the customers) as was Johnny Carson (he featured one cocktail in a recurring on-air segment.) The tiki guru also told us stories about Evel Knievel’s days as regular including one night when he had to seek refuge in the Mai-Kai after getting into a fight at Maison, a neighboring bar. (Of course, the loyal staff denied any knowledge of the daredevil’s whereabouts when his foes came looking for him.) White also shared a tale about a visit from the Chairman of the Board. “One night, they got a call that Sinatra was flying in from Vegas,” she began. “A few hours later, Frank and the Rat Pack and a bunch of showgirls walked in. They stayed there drinking Rum Barrels until 5am and then all piled back into the limos, went straight to the plane, and back to Vegas.”
However, the drinks form the backbone of the Mai-Kai. Mattei recalled that the Thornton Brothers personally recruited the original head bartender, Mariano Licudine. “Licudine previously worked for Don the Beachcomber which he loved, but he also had some ideas of his own,” Mattei said. “The Thorntons bought him to Florida and he bought his own ideas and creativity. He used a lot of the Beachcomber’s drinks, but created his own, unique takes on them–like our own version of the Zombie or an entire menu section devoted to Mai-Tai variations.”
Those recipes have not changed over years. A staff that includes as many as ten bartenders and five barbacks a shift still makes their own syrups and employs fresh squeezed juices daily. “Where else can you drink a Zombie exactly as it was served in 1956?” asks Mattei.
“My ultimate favorite is the black magic which uses coffee and grapefruit and of course, lots of rum,” noted White. “And, the Shark Bite; it’s still served with ice half shell… Of course, everyone also loves the Rum Barrel.”
If you need something to soak up all that rum, the kitchen has plenty to offer. Rare wood burning Chinese ovens along with a modern kitchen turn out Polynesian fare, prime steaks, and fresh seafood.
If that all sounds like a lot, that’s point. “There’s a little something for everyone here,” raved Mattei.
White. is even more direct. “The only thing that they’re missing is a museum. They even have two, real shrunken heads! Where else can you see that?