The early history of tiki is remarkably straightforward. Simply put, all roads lead to Donn Beach.
That’s in part because tiki, even during the Golden Age of Polynesian pop, experienced a disproportionate number of innovators to imitators; many bars were quick to riff on Beachcomber originals—the Zombie, the Shark’s Tooth—leaving few that were truly creative in their own right.
In that light, it’s no wonder that the Mai-Kai, one of the world’s most iconic tiki bars, has such staying power. “[A lot of bars] were just stealing Donn’s riffs, so you don’t get a lot of innovation,” says tiki historian Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. “At the Mai-Kai,” he explains, “where you had Mariano [Licudine] and you had the Thorntons, they were reinventing things.”
Opened in 1956 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton, the Mai-Kai began as an elaborate East Coast expression of tiki. The brothers, being familiar with both Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s bars, modeled theirs on the preexisting template. They even hired a number of staffers straight from Don the Beachcomber’s Chicago location, and spent upwards of $350,000 on the construction of their restaurant and bar, making it the most expensive of its time.
Within the first year, they’d recouped the entire sum—and turned a profit. What’s more, they’d debuted a list of original drinks conceived with the help of Licudine (ironically, pronounced “Liquid-ini”), a bartender who had previously been Donn Beach’s “number-two man,” according to current Mai-Kai general manager, Kern Mattei.
“[Licudine] had his own ideas that he wasn’t able to put together while working with Donn that he was able to do with Bob and Jack [Thornton],” explains Mattei. “So he had some unique twists and some unique recipes that nobody had ever done before.”
Step Inside the Mai-Kai
Today, the bar’s list of drinks remains almost entirely unchanged, with standard tiki offerings (the Mai Tai, a Planter’s Punch, a Pearl Diver riff) alongside innovative—and often copyrighted—originals like the Black Magic, made with juices, black rum and coffee, and the Jet Pilot, which builds on a base of four rums, plus syrups and lime juice.
According to Mattei, those cocktails are still made in exactly the same way as Licudine dictated more than a half-century ago, using very tart key lime juice, plus fresh ingredients. “Some rum companies have gone out of business, and some syrup companies have gone out of business,” says Mattei, “but throughout the years, most of our drinks have stayed intact.”
When the cocktail revival breathed new life and interest into these sorts of well-made, classic tiki drinks, it helped cement the Mai-Kai’s legacy as one of the earliest, and most original, bastions of the genre. “We have a lot of people who like to come here and taste those drinks because it’s like traveling back in time,” says Mattei. “We’re one of the only places where you can do that.”