The news flashed through the tiki community at breakneck speed—South Florida’s beloved Mai-Kai restaurant was for sale.
For tikiphiles, the Mai-Kai is holy ground, one of the last remaining threads connecting the genre’s current renaissance with its 1950s glory days. For 64 years, it has hosted generations of family meals and date nights in its eight sprawling dining rooms, collectively seating 600 patrons. Among the many proprietary cocktail offerings is the coffee-spiked Black Magic and the famous Mystery Bowl, delivered tableside by a dancing “mystery girl” to the sound of an accompanying gong, while guests seated in the four main dining rooms can watch the nightly Polynesian revue, which culminates in a finale of whirling fire.
“The Mai-Kai will always exceed whatever expectation newbies have when they walk in the doors,” says Tim Glazner, tiki historian and author of Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant. “It’s the last remaining example of that decadent era.” As such, the Mai-Kai can seem out of step with modern tiki’s movement away from Polynesian pop iconography, but the bar remains a destination for legions of tiki aficionados across the globe.
The Mai-Kai’s announcement wasn’t a complete surprise to tiki fans. A 2017 foreclosure was narrowly avoided, and a burst water pipe in late 2020 inflicted significant damage to the kitchen. But what seemed at first to be a moderate setback was later deemed catastrophic. Repairing the water damage would require bringing much of the 27,000-square-foot restaurant up to current building safety codes, an expensive proposition for a restaurant already struggling to stay afloat.
The financial setback led the current owners—descendants of Bob and Jack Thornton, who built the Mai-Kai in 1956—to enlist the help of a business brokerage, Transworld Business Advisors, to assist in finding a suitable partner or buyer. In a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Transworld CEO Andrew Cagnetta said in part, “The 2.69-acre property can remain as is, or can be redeveloped into apartments or a mixed-use development, which could include a renovated restaurant.”
The statement prompted Mai-Kai aficionados to speculate about the bar’s future prospects. An online petition to preserve the iconic establishment has drawn more than 10,000 signatures so far. Seeking to dispel the worst of the rumors, the Mai-Kai’s owners recently released a statement, saying in part:
“[W]e engaged the services of a business broker to assist in finding a partner, or worst case scenario a buyer, to work with our family to ensure the long term success of the Mai-Kai. … [W]e are doing whatever we can to preserve our family’s legacy and this beloved South Florida institution.”
Of course, a restaurant changing hands is not always a death knell. But when it comes to the historic tiki palaces that once dotted America’s landscape, the bulldozers have rarely been kind. New Orleans’ Bali Ha’i at the Beach was torn down in the 1980s and Columbus, Ohio’s beloved Kahiki Supper Club was demolished in 2000 to build a Walgreens. Despite its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, one can easily imagine the Mai-Kai meeting a similar end.
While fans await a verdict on the Mai-Kai’s fate, its owners are maintaining a steady stream of income by selling classic Mai-Kai drinks to go as well as merchandise at MaiKaiTradingPost.com, and hosting events in the spacious parking lot behind the restaurant. However, as with most bars that have managed to keep the lights on during the pandemic, the income from these stop-gap measures is just enough to stay afloat.
One possible path forward is to simply scale down. As Glazner explains, “[The Mai-Kai] over-expanded in 1971. I would hate to lose it, but I can also imagine rebuilding it to be far more efficient and profitable.” While such a move might seem perilous, sometimes evolution is the only path to survival. As Glazer explains: “It can be rebuilt even better than today and carry forward the intangible elements that have made it an inspiration for generations.”