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Mai-Kai Restaurant: Lovingly restored treasure to open late summer

The roof at the Mai-Kai Restaurant, the iconic Polynesian outpost in Fort Lauderdale, had been a problem for quite some time. The staff was used to the black plastic bags put out to collect water during storms.

But an unexpectedly heavy rainfall in 2020 overwhelmed the Mai-Kai’s kitchen roof. It collapsed. As a result, on October 25, 2020, the restaurant closed and hasn’t been opened since.

mai-kai restaurant Mai Kai sign Mai-Kai Restaurant: Lovingly restored treasure to open late summer
The iconic Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. Photo courtesy Retro Renovation

But that doesn’t mean the Mai-Kai is gone. Quite the contrary.

Starting in 2022, teams of craftsmen, artists and construction workers began renovating the historic 26,000 square-foot building set on almost three acres of land.

Under new ownership, the restaurant’s renovation budget started at $5 million but has ballooned to $15 million.

With help from the tiki gods, the major renovations of this much-loved landmark, with its rum drinks and Pacific Island revue, will be finished late this summer or early fall.

And you will once again be able to experience firsthand the mystique of the Mai-Kai. In the meantime, we bring you a glimpse of what you will see when the Mai-Kai reopens its doors.

In the beginning: The Mai-Kai opens in 1956

Imagine it’s Dec. 28, 1956 and it’s opening night for the Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show. People flocked to this home of tiki culture set on a quiet road far from what was then downtown Fort Lauderdale.

A friend of mine who remembers these early years recalls going to the Mai-Kai with his family and passing it in a school bus every day. The restaurant’s closest neighbors were the pine trees, palm trees and grass that spread pretty much as far as the eye could see, he says.

When it was built, the Mai-Kai was in a rural area. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai.

When it was built, the Mai-Kai was in a rural area. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai.

That is until you came upon a real estate office way in the distance. The area was on the eve of expansion.

By the end of the restaurant’s first year, it had taken in $1 million (equivalent to over $5 million in today’s money). And so began its long reign of success.

The Mai-Kai in all its Polynesian glory sprang from the imaginations of brothers Bob and Jack Thornton. Having grown up in Chicago, they attended Stanford University and then served in the armed forces.

While on leave from the Army, they visited South Florida and were ready to settle down here after being discharged.

It was the perfect place for them to fulfill their dream based in part on memories of visiting Don the Beachcomber Polynesian bar and restaurant in Chicago as children and Trader Vic’s as university students in California.

Don the Beachcomber in Chicago where Bob and Jack Thornton were first introduced to tiki culture. Photo courtesy mytiki.life

Don the Beachcomber in Chicago where Bob and Jack Thornton were first introduced to tiki culture. Photo courtesy mytiki.life

 Preparing to run a restaurant, they traveled to Hawaii and visited all the Island-inspired restaurants on the mainland.

Then, using their own money plus money from their parents and what has been called a “reluctantly granted” bank loan, they spent $300,000 to create the Mai-Kai.

It was the most expensive restaurant built that year. Adding to its cost, the brothers bought authentic artifacts. One tiki statue was even thought to have a spirit residing in it.

During the early years, the restaurant seated 225 guests in five dining rooms and had a small bar made from surfboards where they featured, you got it, rum drinks.

Mireille Thornton dressed to dance in the Mai-Kai Polynesian revue in 1977. Photo courtesy SwankPad.org

Mireille Thornton dressed to dance in the Mai-Kai Polynesian revue in 1977. Photo courtesy SwankPad.org

By 1961, a Polynesian dance troupe was being organized to provide a dinner show.

A friend of Bob’s recruited a Tahitian woman to join the revue. Her name was Mireille and she ended up joining the Mai-Kai family by dancing and later marrying Bob.

She soon became the creative force behind the nightly shows that would prove to be the longest running Polynesian dance revue anywhere in the world, including Hawaii.

Change at the Mai-Kai

By 1970, the restaurant was bound to change when Jack suffered an aneurysm and then sold his interest to his brother Bob. It’s said that Bob, a dashing lady’s man, had been the driving force behind their endeavors all along.

Bob Thornton in front of one of the velvet paintings hung in the restaurant. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai

Bob Thornton in front of one of the velvet paintings hung in the restaurant. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai

And soon, Bob undertook a major expansion creating eight dining rooms, one with a stage for the islander revue; the Molokai Bar that takes you inside an island saloon; a gift shop filled with Hawaiian shirts and tiki mugs; restrooms with attendants; and gardens with waterfalls, tikis and orchids.

The redone restaurant could accommodate 600 guests and looked much as it does today.

Soon, insuring the original antiques used to create the ambiance became prohibitively expensive. At that time, many were donated to places such as the brothers’ alma mater Stanford and to the Fort Lauderdale art museum.

They were replaced with carvings and woodwork by contemporary artists as well as set pieces from the 1962 filming of Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando. The figurehead in the Molokai Bar was just one of those artifacts acquired from MGM.

Fun facts

In 2014, the Mai-Kai was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2015, it was named the “best tiki bar in the world” by Critiki, an organization of fans of Polynesian pop culture, according to Wikipedia. It even was nominated in a contest for America’s Best Rest Room where the golden beauty of the ladies’ room placed it on the top 10 list.

A fortuitous partnership

In 2020 when the kitchen roof collapsed, the Thornton family still owned the restaurant. But the repairs and necessary updates would be so expensive that they decided to sell it.

Concerned and still involved with the restaurant’s future, the family ended up in a fortuitous partnership that included the Barlington Group. A South Florida-based real estate investment and development company, it is known for its historic preservation work.

As a result, the Mai-Kai is undergoing a complete renovation that promises to respect and retain, even improve upon, every memorable bit of the restaurant’s iconic past.

Sources: Mai-Kai Website; Wikipedia; retrorenovation; Jim Hayward and his Atomic Grog blog

Hukilau sneak peek

Earlier this month, an international group of tiki pop culture fans gathered in Pompano Beach for the annual Hukilau. That’s a weekend of celebrating all things Polynesian in retro style.

As part of the program, participants were invited to tour the renovated Mai-Kai. As some of the first guests allowed inside, they got a sneak peek of the work completed up until now.

However, they were sworn to secrecy, excluding the work done in the Molokai Bar. As a result, images of the renovated bar area have appeared online (see below) and a photo of the renovated window water feature is posted below.

What you can see from these images is that the Molokai Bar looks like it did, only better. Nothing was lost and much was improved.

Welcome to the “new” Mai-Kai

Here we offer you our version of a sneak peek so you too get an idea of what you’ll see when the Mai-Kai reopens to the public.

The renovation was done with great care to retain the historic aspects of the restaurant while livening it up for a new era.

Those who have been to the Mai-Kai should still recognize it and those going for the first time will, most assuredly, love it.

Jim “Hurricane” Hayward. Photo courtesy Atomic Grog
Jim “Hurricane” Hayward. Photo courtesy Atomic Grog

Atomic Grog: Everything Mai-Kai

For everything tiki and much more information about the Mai-Kai renovations and future plans, including the reopening, visit Jim “Hurricane” Hayward’s Atomic Grog blog. His information is up-to-date and comprehensive. He offers details and access that aren’t available elsewhere. We can’t thank him enough for allowing us to use his blog as a source of information and photographs for this sneak peek of the Mai-Kai restoration.

The Molokai bar just after it opened in the 1970s. Help yourself to the oversized pupu platter. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai and swankpad

The Molokai bar just after it opened in the 1970s. Help yourself to the oversized pupu platter. Photo courtesy the Mai-Kai and swankpad

The Molokai Bar: Back but better

After being totally refurbished, much of the Molokai Bar is back as it was only better. You can still imagine yourself in a South Seas saloon in the 1800s.

The iconic figurehead was removed from the bar during construction. But now it has been returned to its place near a window.

A calling card for the bar always has been water cascading down the outer windows. When you sit inside, you can imagine a terrible storm raging outside.

That iconic water feature continues to flow after plumbing and pipes were replaced. A new privacy wall outside the window helps maintain the illusion.

The Molokai Bar is known for its windows covered with cascading water. Here is how they look now that their renovation is complete. Photo courtesy Jim “Hurricane” Hayward/Atomic Grog taken during a sneak peek tour
The Molokai Bar is known for its windows covered with cascading water. Here is how they look now that their renovation is complete. Photo courtesy Jim “Hurricane” Hayward/Atomic Grog taken during a sneak peek tour

Inside the bar, another water feature runs under a bridge that takes you from the main area to a raised space in the back of the room made to look like a dock.

This “poop” deck, as it is known, had been there since the 1970s but had since fallen into serious disrepair. Today after restoration, the original illusion is back.

The Molokai also was known for its authentic nautical rigging and belaying pins. These have been redone or replaced as needed with work you can’t distinguish from the original.

Even coins that were sealed onto the bar top with acrylic were saved and repositioned when the counter was redone. Detail work doesn’t get more detailed than this.

Mystery Drink

Television host and Thornton family friend Johnny Carson featured the Mystery Drink on his popular late-night talk show. Photo courtesy SwankPad.org

Television host and Thornton family friend Johnny Carson featured the Mystery Drink on his popular late-night talk show. Photo courtesy SwankPad.org

An institution at the Mai-Kai, the Mystery Drink is bound to be on the cocktail menu when the Molokai reopens.

At the sound of a gong, a sarong-garbed Mystery Girl would deliver the flaming drink to your table.  The drink came in a specially designed bowl that had four tikis around its perimeter.

Four long straws could be inserted through their mouths so that guests could sip the cocktail without lifting or tilting the bowl. It was no mystery that the drink contained at least nine ounces of alcohol.

Having delivered your drink and dancing seductively, the Mystery Girl would place a lei around your neck and kiss your cheek before leaving you to enjoy your libation and call a taxi to get home.

Service bar: No longer hidden for secrecy

For the first time, the service bar, the bar that serves the entire restaurant, will be themed and visible to guests.

Originally, the bar, which could serve 400 guests on a busy night, was kept out of sight. That was in part to prevent anyone from trying to steal or duplicate the secret recipes used in many of the over 40 cocktails on the Mai-Kai menu.

The original Mai-Kai cocktail menu features lots of rum. Photo courtesy Deborah Hartz-Seeley.
The original Mai-Kai cocktail menu features lots of rum. Photo courtesy Deborah Hartz-Seeley.

In fact, many of the recipes were coded so only the trusted bartenders could follow them.

But now seeing those bar tenders will be part of the Mai-Kai experience.

The new 25-foot-long bar with five mixing stations will be visible through a window in the gift shop. You can take a peek as you browse the outposts tiki-inspired merchandise.

Under the port cochere roof, a faux bamboo finish was applied to metal supports and Marquesas-style artwork was added to the beams. Photo courtesy Kern Mattei
Under the port cochere roof, a faux bamboo finish was applied to metal supports and Marquesas-style artwork was added to the beams. Photo courtesy Kern Mattei

Thatch roof and bamboo? It only looks that way

The port cochere was installed outside the Mai-Kai’s front door soon after its mid-century opening. A work of art, its recent renovation was a major undertaking during which no detail was overlooked.

The bamboo supports on the port cochere are actually metal covered with epoxy. Ten gallons in all. The epoxy was then hand-shaped to resemble bamboo.

On the roof, the thatch is not palm fronds but a synthetic product that is fire retardant and designed to last three times longer in Florida’s climate.

The outrigger that hung under the roof has undergone renovation. But enough holes and damage were left to the exterior of the boat so that it still looks like it washed up on the shore.

The one big change is that the port cochere will no longer protect those getting out of their cars and stepping through the front doors. Instead, the area under the roof will be used for outdoor seating serviced from the Molokai Bar.

Automobile traffic is being rerouted from under the port cochere. This was made possible by a new traffic pattern through the newly themed and extensively landscaped property.

Lighted art panels restored

Under the porte cochere, you can see the lighted art panels over the door. Photo courtesy Kern Mattei
Under the porte cochere, you can see the lighted art panels over the door. Photo courtesy Kern Mattei

Lighted fiberglass panels over the front door were damaged in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma struck. Over the years, others of the artwork’s panels had been lost or suffered manmade damage.

The existing panels were barely recognizable. And they had yellowed with age so new fiberglass could not be painted and used alongside them.

Luckily, other fiberglass panels were located inside the restaurant. They too had yellowed so artists could reproduce the design on them to match the original ones.

The existing panes also were renewed and patched. And updated lighting installed behind the artwork brightened the restaurant’s entry way that is still located under the roof of what was the port cochere.

Brighter light and careful restoration work

Four steps to a renewed lamp that you’ll see hanging in the renovated Mai-Kai. Photocourtesy Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and the Atomic Grog
Four steps to a renewed lamp that you’ll see hanging in the renovated Mai-Kai. Photo courtesy Scott “Flounder” Scheidly and the Atomic Grog

The Mai-Kai depended on a variety of vintage lighting custom made in the1950s and 60s for illumination throughout. But dusty, darkened and damaged with age, they gave off only a dingy glow.

And many of these were in great need of replacement.

But instead of just ordering new lamps, craftsmen and artists were found who could restore existing fixtures. To do this, they had to dismantle the lights and reconstruct them from their frames up while locating and creating materials, coverings and techniques as needed.

This being a historic building, anything from the original Mai-Kai that was available was used in the renovation. For example, tapas cloth salvaged from dining room walls was used to re-cover some of the lamps.

Even the rest rooms

The award-winning women’s restroom is retaining its rich interior. However, it needed some renovation. For this, the artisans located matching mirrored tiles from the1970s to replace original tiles that were missing. There also are new decorative panels, renewed stalls and new wallpaper.

Nearby, a new handicap restroom will have a nautical theme that resembles the one in the Molokai Bar. It’s similar to what you’ll find in the men’s room but more ornate including gold fixtures and special carvings.

The outdoor areas of the Mai-Kai are undergoing an extensive re-envisioning that is the last major project to be completed before the restaurant’s reopening. That is now slated for some time in late summer or early fall. Photo taken June 2024 courtesy Jim “Hurricane” Hayward/Atomic Grog
The outdoor areas of the Mai-Kai are undergoing an extensive re-envisioning that is the last major project to be completed before the restaurant’s reopening. That is now slated for some time in late summer or early fall. Photo taken June 2024 courtesy Jim “Hurricane” Hayward/Atomic Grog

Island-themed outdoors

Visitors to the reimagined Mai-Kai gardens will find them easy to navigate on new ADA approved walkways. Although made of cement, they will look like they were worn into the red dirt of the islands.

Ferns as well as real and artificial flowers among the rocks will add splendor and color so that these gardens will continue to be a favored place for evening strolls and, yes, even weddings.

Until now, permitting and the installation of infrastructure such as irrigation pipes and gas lines have prevented work on the entry and parking areas. But finally, they are being graded and landscaped.

As you enter the “new” Mai-Kai, you will drive over the iconic rumbling wooden bridge and past water features. But for the first time, you also will drive under the long-standing banyan trees and around what looks like a caldera.

New atmospheric lighting and gas-fueled tiki lamps will further set the mood.

Where to go in the meantime

If you are in Fort Lauderdale area and the Mai-Kai hasn’t reopened yet, here are some places you might visit to get a sample of mid-century Fort Lauderdale.

Ride by Mai-Kai

Don’t hesitate to drive by the Mai-Kai on Federal Highway to see the reimagining of its outdoor spaces in progress. Note that the Bora Bora (a separate building located north of the entrance driveway) was beyond repair and was removed. That made way for the new highly themed route from street to the restaurant’s entryway.

Where: 3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale

Although modernized since opening in the 1950s, today’s Wreck Bar retains the pool windows behind which “mermaids” perform. Photo courtesy B Ocean Resort, Fort Lauderdale
Although modernized since opening in the 1950s, today’s Wreck Bar retains the pool windows behind which “mermaids” perform. Photo courtesy B Ocean Resort, Fort Lauderdale

Wreck Bar

The Wreck Bar was originally located in the Yankee Clipper hotel that was built in the 1950s to resemble an ocean liner. Today, the building and bar still exist under the auspices of the modern B Ocean Resort.

Although the bar has been modernized, it still features a mermaid show seen through large windows into a pool. These windows make this one of the last “porthole” bars in existence.

Greet the Wreck Bar mermaids. Photo courtesy B Ocean Resort
Greet the Wreck Bar mermaids. Photo courtesy B Ocean Resort

The current mermaid show began in 2022. Stop in for a drink and a mermaid sighting or get tickets for special events.

  • Where: 1140 Sea Breeze Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale
  • Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • What: Everything from family friendly to adult-only mermaid shows are available as is brunch with the mermaids and dinner experiences. Check the website for information and tickets.
  • More Information: 954-564-1000; The Wreck Bar
A vintage photo of the iconic Elbo Room.

A vintage photo of the iconic Elbo Room.

Elbo Room

Opened in 1938, this landmark bar was featured in the 1960 film Where the Boys Are. It is well-known for having been spring-break central plus it hosted multiple surfing and boogie-boarding championships in the late 1980s and early 1990’s.

  • Where: 241 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
  • Hours: Sunday through Thursday plus Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.;
  • More Information: 954-463-4615; Elbo Room

Thank you for the “new” Mai-Kai

We want to honor the hard work of the renovation team at the Mai-Kai. It includes long-serving manager Kern Mattei who handles every-day operations of the renovation. There’s also Creative Director “Typhoon” Tommy” Allsmiller, an artist who spent 13 years working in theme parks at Universal and Disney. He is joined by craftsmen, artists and workers Scott “Flounder” Scheidly, Tom Fowner and Conrad Teheiura Itchener plus others too numerous to mention. The project is being led by architectural designers Kravit Architectural Associates of Boca Raton and the landscape architects at Perry Becker Design of Orlando.


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Ann D

Wednesday 12th of June 2024

I used to live in Ft. Laud in the early to mid 70s, and the Mai-Kai was our favorite place to go! Glad to see it's still kicking. Those rum drinks were the best!

Mike S

Wednesday 12th of June 2024

Great article! Can't wait!

steven kimmel

Tuesday 11th of June 2024

Wonderful details and intriguing history as well as restoration details We look forward to your reopening !!

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