11 Feb A Polynesian Evening at the Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL
The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale opened in 1956, by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton, and it is said to be one of the last preserved mid-century Polynesian restaurants still operating on the mainland today. The Mai Kai was modeled after Don the Beachcomber’s famous tiki bars which were opened one day after Prohibition ended. Donn Beach is the mastermind behind the creation of many tiki drinks as we know them today, and the Mai Kai created its menu and drink recipes with the help of the Donn Beach restaurant manager in Chicago. They now have quite the tropical drink menu; there are around 50 different specialty tiki drinks ranging from non-alcoholic to strong and only for the sturdy; some of the drinks are even served in tiki mugs, barrels, pineapples or coconuts.
When the Mai Kai opened in what used to be rural Ft. Lauderdale, it surpassed everyone’s expectations and there were even a couple of celebrities that frequented the restaurant–one of these regulars was Johnny Carson.
The first time we visited the Mai Kai, I wasn’t sure what to expect as we drove along the not-so-scenic Federal Highway in Ft. Lauderdale. Then all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you happen across a tiki oasis complete with a thatch roof and wooden plank bridge. Upon entering the Mai Kai, you are transported back in time and engulfed in a dimly lit atmosphere filled with artifacts, tiki torches and tropical music persuading you to sway with the beat. Each of the dining rooms are decorated and named after a different Polynesian Island. Every time we visit, we feel as though we are swept away to old-time Hawaii and instantly enter relaxation mode–it’s like a mini vacation.
The main draw of the Mai Kai is the Polynesian Revue. Gaining inspiration from regularly visiting the Polynesian Islands, the owner and choreographer created a show that stems from the heritage and interpretations of village life and it consists of dancers and drummers sharing the stage. You will hear stories of island life and see dances such as the Hawaiian Wedding Song, the Tahitian solo drum dance competition, hula dancing with beautiful hand-sewn costumes and eye-catching fire dancing to name a few. Also, make sure to put on your dancing shoes as they pull two people on stage during the show to learn a little dance–you might get lucky and be able to strut your stuff for all to see! Try to get a table in the main dining room because you will have a much better view for the show–you can see the stage from the side rooms, but just not as well. The Mai Kai is closed on Mondays, but throughout the rest of the week, there are 1-3 shows that run each evening.
Dinner is served prior to the start of the show; while we have always enjoyed the food, I can’t say it’s anything particularly special to write home about. It’s more about the fun atmosphere and show creating a memorable experience. The dinner menu consists of Pan-Asian/Oriental dishes that are priced from $16.25 and up with the average price hovering around $20-$40 per meal. My favorites are the Shanghai Chicken as an appetizer and the Penang Chicken Curry for dinner. The specialty drinks run around $10-$16 on average, and the show charge is a mandatory $11.95 per person. That being said, you can see how an evening here can add up quickly, so you will definitely want to expect that prior to your arrival. But, if you are looking for a tiki filled night on a smaller budget, don’t worry, there are ways to get a taste of the Mai Kai experience for a little less money as well.
Before the show, from open until 7pm, there is a great happy hour in the Molokai bar where you can get half price drinks and appetizers, as well as a free buffet on Wednesdays (with a $10 purchase). The bar resembles the inside of an old ship with lanterns for lights and water cascading outside the windows.
If you aren’t into the idea of paying for the show, you can skip it and just visit for happy hour or dinner only. If you opt for dinner only, make sure to ask for the 2 for 1 special when making your reservation. When you skip the show, you are seated in a separate room near the garden or outside right next to the garden. We love sitting outside near the waterfalls–it makes for a nice and relaxing dinner.
Wherever you decide to sit, make sure you don’t miss a quick walk through the gardens. The garden is lush and filled with tiki statues, tiki torches and a couple of waterfalls. When the lights are shining in the evening, it’s a relaxing atmosphere for a walk and possibly even a few goofy photos with the statues.
The gift shop is small and nothing spectacular in my opinion, but it’s still fun to browse if you have never been before. You will find tiki glasses and decorations along with Hawaiian style shirts and souvenirs.
While some locals may find the Mai Kai touristy, we love its quirky, fun and unique atmosphere for an escape into an island oasis of the golden ages and it keeps us going back time and time again. We always have fun bringing our visitors to the Mai Kai, and if you go with the mind frame that it’s a cheeky (abeit expensive) experience, you will have a great time!