Outside of Las Vegas, you don’t hear the words “dinner” and “show” together very often. Rarer still is a dinner show that’s become a legend, such as the Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. When you’ve been serving and entertaining guests for 60 years, and outlived a pop culture craze, you get a place in your community, in your fans’ hearts, and on the National Register of Historic Places. You become a legend.
Opened in 1956 and still run by the same family, the Mai-Kai is widely considered one of the world’s best Tiki establishments (scoring 9.8 on Critiki’s 10 point scale). Naturally, as Tiki devotees, we felt obliged to make the pilgrimage. We took a look at the Mai-Kai experience, the décor and gardens, and the Polynesian show in our post Full Immersion Tiki. Here, we want to talk about the other half of the experience: Going to Mai-Kai for dinner.
Not Just a Tiki Bar
When most people hear Tiki, they think of a bar, and the Mai-Kai has one of those. The fabulous Molokai Bar could stand alone as one of the best ever. The décor is great and the drink menu is one of the biggest we’ve seen. Beyond that, there’s plenty of Tiki history here. The brothers who opened Mai-Kai came from Chicago, and brought with them famed Don the Beachcomber barman Mariano Licudine. We’ve heard the tale of a bottle of Havana rum also brought to the Mai-Kai when it opened, and still stashed away somewhere on the premises. Then there’s the matter of the Mystery Drink, served by the sultry Mai-Kai Mystery Girl. Frequent guest Johnny Carson was so enamored that she was invited to appear on the Tonight Show. Repeatedly.
The Mai-Kai is so much more than a Tiki bar, though. In fact, the sign above does not even mention a bar; it says Restaurant and Polynesian Show. Indeed, not far beyond the Molokai Bar are several dining rooms, each named for a South Pacific Island, and decorated to perfection. You quickly find yourself in a very “genuine imitation” Polynesia. You know perfectly well your feet are in Florida, but your senses are about 5,000 miles away, surrounded by Tiki statues, ship models, and Aloha-clad staff. Anywhere else, it might seem contrived but, at the Mai-Kai, every detail is right at home.
Also right at home was the excellent staff. Service was fantastic without being intrusive, and the staff was very patient with guests like us, more intent on exploring their surroundings than the menu. In fact, they pointed the way to areas we might have missed, and made sure we weren’t late for the show. The staff and servers moved with a choreography as polished as the dancers. It was obvious that everyone has been a part of the Mai-Kai family for years – in some cases, generations.
The Hardest Decisions are on the Menu
Given the Polynesian theme, you might expect to sit down to a Hawaiian Luau. While you will find poke and Macadamia Encrusted Mahi on the menu, the Mai-Kai has a decidedly Asian-influenced kitchen. And it’s quite a menu – or, actually, three (plus a kids’ menu). If you’re coming for the show – and who isn’t? – you will want the Bali Hai menu. It’s $47 per person, which includes appetizer, entrée, desert and, of course, the show! We found the selections in the Bali Hai menu were perfect, with a variety of beef, chicken and seafood entrees. Trouble is, they all sound delicious! Decisions, decisions.
Naturally, the appetizer of choice has to be the Pupu Platter, not only because it’s fun to say but because it’s a sampler of almost the entire appetizer menu. Watch out for the Tahitian Cheese Tangs, though; seriously addictive little morsels. We were also seriously tempted by the sushi rolls, which you can add a la carte. Moving on, our dinner choices were the Teriyaki Combo and the Cantonese Shrimp. While both were very good, our neighbors had Prime Rib from the Chinese ovens (of which, there are reportedly only two in the U.S.). It looked and smelled so good that I instantly doubted my decision.
The great thing about a Prix Fixe menu is that you’re forced into desert. Thankfully, there are some light options, such as the non-dairy Mango sorbet or coconut frozen yogurt. A nice, sweet ending to a delicious meal that actually didn’t leave us feeling like we needed to be wheeled out. Portion sizes were good, but we still took the opportunity to walk a bit through the gardens (for the obligatory selfie with King Kai) before departing.
If you choose to order a la carte, there is a $13.95 cover charge for the show (for those 13+). For the most part, entrees range from $20 to $40 unless you go big with Peking Duck or the Delmonico Rib Eye from the Chinese ovens. It honestly sounds delicious. The Mai-Kai Surf & Turf will set you back a bit, also, but then you’re getting a pound of beef and lobster. (For the record, here are the a la carte entrees and the Bali Hai menu.)
If you prefer to sit all by yourself, there is a separate dining room with no show where we saw zero people. None. Nobody, except a very bored wait staff. Still, one could sit here and order a la carte or enjoy the South Seas Special, a $17.95 Prix Fixe menu available only in the non-show dining room. During our visit, nobody was dining in the beautiful garden either, because… Florida in the summer. ‘Nuff said.
Reservations & Hours
When you decide to make this pilgrimage, note that reservations are required. (If you use the Open Table app, you can earn points when you book.) It’s a popular place for tourists and locals alike. We thought picking a Thursday might be a bit less crazy, but it was packed. A large family (kids to grands) in front of us. A birthday party to the left. Seated next to us was a couple celebrating their anniversary by recreating their Honeymoon visit in 1973! Mai-Kai is not a Tiki bar, it’s an experience for all ages.
When you go, don’t forget that Mai-Kai is closed on Mondays. Generally, the restaurant opens for dinner at four or five (depending on the day), with varying show times. Because hours and show times can change, it’s best to consult the Mai-Kai online.
The dress code at the Mai-Kai is pretty simple: Grass skirts and handmade headdresses, flaming batons optional. Okay, those are the performers’ costumes, and they are very authentic. For the rest of us, the rules are: No hats, t-shirts, tank tops, beach shorts, or flip flops. In the past, guests would come dressed “to the nines” for a night among the who’s who. We did notice sport coats and dresses, but also lots of Aloha shirts. If you feel a little out of fashion without your best Aloha shirt, there are a few for sale in the gift shop, the Mai Kai Trading Company. Think of it as Polynesian Casual.
The Magic of the Mai-Kai Restaurant
So many themed restaurants are past their prime within years, but the Mai-Kai turned sixty recently, and is still authentic, entertaining, and relevant. There’s a reason it is one of the last bastions of a bygone era, keeping that time alive for future generations. This venerable institution is a celebration of everything done right, from décor to service, dining to entertainment. There is also a healthy dose of magic involved. En route to your table, the eyes of myriad Tiki will be watching as you wander in the soft glow of lamps beneath thatched roofs, and their spell will take hold.
Have you visited the Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Shows? We’d love to hear about your experience, and any other Tiki bars and restaurants you like! See more from the Mai-Kai in our post, Full Immersion Tiki.
Disclaimer: TravelLatte was the guest of the Mai-Kai Restaurant, but all experiences and opinions are our own. TravelLatte uses Open Table, but we have no affiliation with them.