In spite of having family in South Florida, I’ve yet to visit the fabled Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale. Established in 1959, the Mai-Kai is easily the last great tiki palace in existence. And it’s built up quite a history.
Mai-Kai: History & Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant recounts the Mai-Kai’s incredible story, focusing on the years 1955-1971. Author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, co-creator of the annual Hukilau, began seriously researching the Mai-Kai’s history in 2008. Spending years researching a book is no small feat, and Glazner’s hard work shows in the finished product. Sven Kirsten, godfather of the modern tiki revival, wrote the foreword. (Tikiphiles may know Sven as the author of The Book of Tiki, Tiki Modern, and Tiki Pop…so far.*)
The book is teeming with stories about the founders, the staff, and a colorful array of loyal customers.
Ever had a too-strong, sickeningly-sweet tropical drink? You won’t at the Mai-Kai. The restaurant’s founders, Bob and Jack Thornton, hired much of the staff away from Don the Beachcomber’s Chicago location. (Don’s ex-wife Sunny Sund had taken over by this point, forcing him to start over in Hawaii). Since 1955, generations of bartenders have been faithfully recreating Don’s cocktails in Fort Lauderdale.
Have you ever wondered about the origins of the huge communal bowl drinks at tiki bars? It all began at the Mai-Kai with the Mystery Drink.
You’ll read about a war-hero chef, a Mystery Girl who resurrected the ancient art of Hawaiian kapa cloth, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon…and Mireille. Tahitian dancer Mireille nearly lost her job over her poor dancing skills but soon became the Mai-Kai’s choreographer. As of this writing, she still choreographs the Polynesian revue.
Have I mentioned that this is a beautifully designed book? Between vintage photographs, illustrations, and some very midcentury-styled renderings, it’s a tiki fanatic’s dream. Even the end papers are printed to look like lauhala matting.
I will be going to the Mai-Kai the next time I’m in South Florida, whenever that may be. Until then, I have this book.
*All Amazon links are affiliate links. If you only read one of Sven’s books, read Tiki Pop; it has the most previously unpublished content and the best pictures.