I don’t mean to alarm anybody, but you should probably know there’s some kind of rift in the space-time continuum in Fort Lauderdale. I’m not completely sure what’s going on, but right there on North Federal Highway, just a couple of doors down from the Ashley furniture store, there’s this…anomaly…of Tiki terrificness, for lack of a better name. A small pocket of 1956 has escaped and taken root.
I knew something was up when I passed this gentleman with a sign. Mai-kai, it said, and pointed, well, it pointed mauka – away from the sea. (I thought maybe it was a play on the Hawaiian makai, towards the sea.) I followed the sign anyway, feeling just a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Hazy in the swaying bamboo and bougainvillea, like an oasis in shimmering desert heat, I could make out thatched roofs and waterfalls, cool pools of emerald and aquamarine, and the flickering dance of flames. I’m not sure anybody else heard it, but I swear there was the distinctive thump of pahu pounding out a swinging jungle drum beat.
Cars pulled in one after another, greeted by a trio of stoic natives overseeing the arrivals. Passengers emerged and were ushered through portals, cleverly disguised as ship’s doors with porthole windows. To the left, an ominous shield hung silently speaking volumes about what lay ahead. Bravely, we followed the others, into the darkness.
“Cool!” Yes, that’s what I said – out loud – because I’m good with exclamatories that way. But seriously? It is so cool.
Full Immersion Tiki
The Mai-Kai is widely regarded as one of America’s great Tiki bars, but it is so much more. The sign above says Restaurant and Polynesian Show, which is accurate but still falls short. The restaurant – more Asian-influenced than strictly Polynesian – is fantastic but, with the atmosphere and entertainment, the Mai-Kai is nothing less than a full immersion experience. Tying it all together is a staff that’s been satisfying guests for sixty years, and still greets you with honest enthusiasm dressed in sports coats and aloha shirts.
Don’t miss Dinner at Florida’s Legendary Mai-Kai Restaurant, or videos from the Polynesian Revue below!
The Molokai Bar takes the theme to the extreme. Ducking beneath the rigging and woodwork, you find yourself in a different world. Water pours over the ship’s windows with Tiki peering in, while live entertainers set the mood with Polynesian-styled music. Make your way to the back of the bar for a cozy corner in the Captain’s quarters, or sit at the bar and admire the ship’s motif while the Mai Kai girls deliver more than 50 tropical drinks. (Seriously, it’s the biggest drink menu we’ve ever seen!)
If you’re a souvenir junkie, there are several drinks that come with the option of keeping the drinkware. For additional fun, order the Mystery Drink. It doesn’t come with a souvenir Tiki mug, but you certainly won’t forget the experience. And that’s all we’re going to say about that. No spoilers here!
Tiki, Tiki, and… more Tiki.
Beyond the bar lie several dining rooms, each named for a South Seas island nation, and most with a view of the stage. Farther still, double doors lead to the gardens, with a pathway winding between waterfalls and tropical flora. Along the way, you’ll be tempted to stop for the perfect selfie about every five feet. There are plenty of statues to pose with, from tiny menehune to the towering King Kai, a new addition to the Mai-Kai’s Tiki pantheon, literally standing 10 feet tall. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’re back indoors following a narrow path between huts and over a lagoon, with even more statues watching your every move. From floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the décor is stunningly perfect.
Anywhere else, you might say it’s over the top. I mean, the heaving breasted maiden from a pirate ship’s bow juts into the bar, with rigging and ladders that come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. Tiki statues are everywhere. Seriously. Everywhere. Bamboo and rattan, dimly lit corners, puffer fish lamps, thatched roofs, and the most awesome collection of lanterns ever seen. It looks like the prop room from a 1950s South Seas adventure movie, and it is absolutely done to perfection. Each element seems right at home, down to the smallest detail.
While in Fort Lauderdale, TravelLatte stayed at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach – See our review!
A family owned vision.
It’s amazing that this shrine to a post-World War Two pop culture craze still exists, let alone fills a niche with such an authentic, and completely enjoyable experience. The Mai-Kai is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Chicago natives Bob and Jack Thornton opened the restaurant in 1956 after spending nearly half-a-million dollars building the original Polynesian-style A-frame bungalow. In 1962, the Polynesian Revue was introduced, and it is one of the Mai-Kai’s main attractions even today. You’d be forgiven for doubting that a Polynesian dance show in a tourist-heavy town half a world away from the South Pacific could be anything more than contrived. Happily, you’d be wrong.
One of the original dancers, Mireille Thornton, choreographs the show today. (She also married Bob, and is now the owner of the Mai-Kai.) Each year, she builds a new show, making sure that each step is authentic to the dances and rituals of the island nations. From swaying hula to the fun Samoan Slap Dance and the exciting fire dance, the show is thoroughly entertaining. No wonder it’s become the longest continuously-running show of its kind in the country.
Defining an Icon
Over the years, the Mai-Kai has been a favorite of locals and tourists alike, and has welcomed a small galaxy of stars. Yet, you won’t find their photos plastered in cheap frames to convince you this is a swinging place to be. Aficionados from all over the world come to bask in the post-modern coolness of what they call the best Tiki bar in the world. Most importantly, friends and families gather here for a fun evening away from the cares and crises of the real world.
What makes the Mai-Kai such an icon is that it’s managed to remain true to its goal of making you feel like you’ve stepped across that rift in the space-time continuum, transporting you from 21st Century Florida to the timeless South Pacific, any day and every day, for sixty years.
Check out our new video from The Mai-Kai!
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Disclaimer: TravelLatte was the guest of the Mai-Kai Restaurant; all opinions and photographs are our own.