Mai-Kai Announces Plans to Reopen

Raise your tiki mugs, South Florida: The Mai-Kai will return!
Raise your tiki mugs, South Florida: The Mai-Kai will return! Photo courtesy of Mai-Kai
Last evening, the Mai-Kai made an announcement that made the hearts of all lovers of tiki culture rejoice:

A statement posted on Facebook by the Thornton family, which has owned the Mai-Kai since 1956, announced a new partnership that will rejuvenate the beloved restaurant and bar.

"To our loyal customers and supporters," it began. "We’re grateful and excited to share some big news about the future of the Mai-Kai. Yes...the Mai-Kai will reopen!"
The Thornton family has teamed up with two corporate partners, the Barlington Group and Mad Room Hospitality, to renovate and reopen the Fort Lauderdale landmark.

The Barlington Group is a Miami-based real estate and development company that owns several buildings and multiuse complexes throughout South Florida. Its tenants range from Advanced Auto Parts and 7Eleven to Ball & Chain and Blackbird Ordinary. Mad Room Hospitality is the name behind some of Miami's favorite bars and restaurants, including Ball & Chain, Los Altos, and Taquerias el Mexicano.

The Mai-Kai abruptly closed last October after a burst pipe caused significant damage to its kitchen. At the time, Steve Klesin, attorney for the facility, told New Times the owners were working on repairs and would "resume normal operations as soon as possible, though no reopening date is set."

In January, however, the property was listed for sale by Transworld Business Advisors.

There was speculation at the time that a sale marked the end of the restaurant, which stands as one of the last remaining great Polynesian supper clubs of the 1950s, Transworld CEO Andrew Cagnetta assured New Times the goal remained the same: to find a suitable partner who would restore and reopen the restaurant.

"Frankly, we realize that anyone could have come along and put a sign up by the property. The family doesn't want that. Our job is to find the people that are also interested in the intellectual property," Cagnetta said.

The Mai-Kai has a long and rich history. In 1956, brothers Bob and Jack Thornton built the massive complex. It was the era of Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, with patrons clamoring to sip rum runners and mai tais.

The Mai-Kai was constructed at a cost of $300,000, making it the most expensive establishment built that year. It reportedly raked in more than $1 million during its first year in business. Incorporating nearly three acres of land, it boasted several dining rooms, along with walking paths lined with tiki gods, a gift shop, and the Molokai Bar. For decades, it was a staple for tourists and locals alike, who flocked to the restaurant to sip tropical drinks and watch the elaborate Polynesian show.

The Mai-Kai continues to be family-owned and -operated, with Bob Thornton's widow, Mireille P. Thornton, and her daughter Kulani Thornton Gelardi at the helm. In 2014, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. That same year, Cintas Corporation listed the Mai-Kai's bathrooms as some of the most beautiful in the nation.

Even after its closure, the Mai-Kai hosted several events in its parking lot, including tiki flea markets, movie nights, and parties.

No date has been set for the reopening. New Times has reached out to Mai-Kai and Mad Room Hospitality and will update this story with additional details.
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss