The Mai-Kai, one of the last classic American tiki restaurants, shut its doors today with no advance warning. An email sent to media and past guests stated the following:
The Mai-Kai Restaurant & Polynesian Show will be closed effective today and for the upcoming months. While we don’t have a reopen date finalized, we will keep our loyal patrons up to date as soon as we have more information to share.
We are proud to be one of the most unique dining and entertainment venues in all of South Florida. Since we opened our doors in 1956, it has been our pleasure to transport our guests to the warmth and magical aura of Polynesia.
The abrupt closure comes as a shock. In recent weeks, the restaurant touted a special fall tasting series, and a Hulaween Drive-in party was scheduled for this Friday. The Hulaween event, to be held in the parking lot, is still scheduled.
Brothers Bob and Jack Thornton built the Mai-Kai in 1956 to capitalize on the country’s tiki craze. Drinks like the Jet Pilot and the Rum Runner were the rage, with Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s leading the charge.
The Mai-Kai was an ambitious project for its time. With a price tag of $300,000, it was said to be the most expensive restaurant built that year. The gamble paid off with more than $1 million in revenue during its first year of operation.
Though the owners made improvements over the years, the restaurant boasts on its website that it never closed while work was in progress, “so that customers could not see or hear it.”
In recent years, tiki culture has seen a resurgence, with people flocking to conventions like the annual Hukilau, held partially at Mai-Kai. The iconic Fort Lauderdale restaurant was revered by tiki enthusiasts, who made pilgrimages to drink scorpion bowls and chow down on pu pu platters served by women in sarongs.
The bar was only one element of the Mai-Kai’s charm. The restaurant offered nightly Polynesian shows complete with fire dancers, and an outside garden walk was filled with tiki gods.
In 2014, the restaurant was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which noted, “The Mai-Kai reflects national broad patterns of entertainment that began in the 1920s and thrived in the mid-20th century. The Mai-Kai is one of the few remaining Polynesian themed restaurants in Florida.”
That same year, Cintas Corporation cited the Mai-Kai as a finalist in its search for the “top toilet”; the restrooms, designed to replicate a Buddhist temple in Thailand, feature shell-shaped sinks, gilded columns, and wooden gods.
New Times has a call in to Mai-Kai and will update this story with any further information.