December 4, 2014

The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale

Front of the Mai Kai Restaurant

photo by: Sam Howzit/Flickr/CC BY-2.0

The iconic Mai Kai has attracted countless tiki enthusiasts, including Johnny Carson.

It all makes too much sense: A Texas kid leaves home, becomes a bootlegger, and then falls even further from mainstream society. He floats around the Caribbean for a spell before he washes up on a Pacific island no one from Texas has probably ever heard of. When he moves back stateside, he turns his booze-sodden adventures into a business empire and nationwide sensation.

It’s the story of Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber, who opened his eponymous Pacific-island themed café in Hollywood in 1934 and eventually set off a national obsession with hula skirts, heavy rum pours, and all things Polynesian.

In honor of this obsession, our next round of historic bars serves up a mixture of the best historic tiki spots America has to offer–native girls not included.

Twenty-two years after Don the Beachcomber laid the groundwork for Polynesian paradise in the U.S., two brothers from the northern suburbs of Chicago flew south and opened what may be the longest continually operating tiki haven in the country.

The Mai Kai (I was told the name means “the finest” in Tahitian, but Google has yet to unveil their long-anticipated Tahitian-to-English translator, so we’ll have to take their word for it) opened near the edge of Fort Lauderdale when North Federal Highway was lined with cow pastures instead of strip malls and East Coast retirees.

Tiki in the Mai Kai Restaurant

photo by: Sam Howzit/Flickr/CC BY-2.0

Mai Kai showcases many tiki statues, such as this one in the garden.

The brothers, Jack and Bob Thornton, packed the restaurant’s four dining rooms (each named after a different island) and gardens with authentic Polynesian knickknacks. In 1963, the Thorntons began their Polynesian Revue. Today, the 50-minute traditional Polynesian show is said to be the longest tenured of its kind in the states (including Hawaii).

Since it opened in 1956, the restaurant has expanded to eight dining rooms and more than 600 seats. At one point, it consumed more rum than any other eatery in the U.S. Celebrities such as Joe Namath, Omar Sharif, and Yul Brynner were big fans of the tiki. Johnny Carson even had drinks from the Mai Kai delivered to the set of the Tonight Show.

In short, while much of the rest of the country mostly moved on from the tiki craze of the 1950s and ‘60s, the Mai Kai became something of a mecca for tiki freaks, including the National Trust’s own Alison Hinchman.

And it’s not just the building that’s old. I’m told recipes for the Mai Kai’s specialty cocktails (there are 50) have been kept secret by the bar’s resident mixologist for the last 24 years. Other staff members have stayed for generations.

“I first visited Mai Kai in the late '90s,” reports Hinchman from her desk on the other side of the 10th floor. “All the waiters wore white pants and white patent leather shoes; it wouldn’t surprise me if some of them had worked there since 1956.”

Dancers at the Mai-Kai Restaurant

photo by: Sam Howzit/Flickr/CC BY-2.0

The Mai Kai’s Polynesian Revue is the longest-running Polynesian-themed show in the United States.

Not everything is ancient, though. If you sit in south Florida for 58 years, you’re bound to take a hurricane or two. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma blew through, taking some of the Mai Kai with her as she moved over the Atlantic. In the months that followed, the building’s thatch roof was replaced, its entrance reconstructed, and rotted wood from the facade was exchanged for new planks.

Today, with regular maintenance on the structure, the gardens, and the surrounding lagoons, the Mai Kai looks just as it did in 1956–perfect for history lovers who also love hula.

Location: 3599 N Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday from 5:00 p.m.; closed Monday

You’re having: A Mai Tai and either the Lobster Bora Bora or the Pu Pu Platter (just because).

Explore: The gardens, lagoons, the show, and the Buddhist temple-themed bathrooms.

Best Yelp Review: "The restaurant itself is spectacular, cozy, and exotic. I felt like I left for vacation for one night."

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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