We initially traveled to south Florida to take advantage of an empty condo, gorgeous, sunny weather and the casual atmosphere that is such a change from city living. But while returning from the beach on US1, we were startled to drive by an incongruous explosion of jungle-like gardens, flaming torches and thatched everything.
We had accidently stumbled upon the Mai Kai, a 53 year old Tiki bar and Floridian landmark; a place that elevated our beach-bumming vacation to an unprecedented level of awesome.
Back at the condo, a little internet research taught us that the Mai Kai was built during the height of the Tiki-themed restuarant craze that began in the 1930’s with the iconic Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s and lasted until the mid to late sixties. The Mai Kai was built in 1956 for 1 million dollars by Bob and Jack Thornton when that area of Ft. Lauderdale was much less developed than today.
Folowing Humuhumu’s excellent advice on Critiki, we promptly made reservations for dinner and the show…
Driving over the wooden plank bridge to the Mai Kai’s valet immediatley transports you from the strip malls and speeding cars of the federal highway to a romanticized vision of the South Pacific. Dinner is 1950s-style Cantonese fare in all it’s gluey, cornstarchy glory. Well crafted and delicious cocktails are available in four levels ranging from non-alchoholic to strong and are served in a variety of large vessels, including pineapple, coconut and barrel. The camp factor reaches a fever pitch during the show, which featured fire juggling, insane hip gyrations and a questionable level of authenticity. It is well-worth the 10 dollar price tag.
After diner and two more ginormous tropical quaffs, we took a stroll in the Mai Kai’s extensive gardens: a maze of man-made waterfalls, colorfully-lit idols and kitsch.
Although the popularity of Tiki bars has dwindled since the 1960s, The Mai Kai, which is still owned by the same family, has managed to maintain sucess while staying true to the original format. The Mai Kai is a temple of nostalgia for a bygone era where peoples’ world view was much narrower than today, but bathrooms always had attendants and women wore gloves to dinner….
more pictures from our trip to the Mai Kai: