Pass by Mai-Kai on Federal Highway and you'll get a sense of another time, even before you walk through the doors.
This homage to 1950s kitsch has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, securing the tiki palace's place in Florida history.
Although just announced, Mai-Kai was officially entered into the National Register on November 18, 2014, as a property "associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history," stating:
"The Mai-Kai Restaurant is locally significant under Criteria A in the areas of Commerce and Entertainment/Recreation. It is significant as an intact, still operating, Polynesian-themed restaurant. The period of significance is from 1956 to 1964 when it largely achieved it present appearance. 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. The building, landscaped garden, interior decor, and the operational elements make the Mai-Kai an exemplary of an exotic themed restaurant and tourist destination. In addition to its decor, the Mai-Kai maintains a Polynesian-Asian influenced menu, as well as the mandatory cocktail menu. While the Mai-Kai's food menu has adapted to changing culinary tastes, its drink menu, including the quality ingredients, has not changed since 1956. As a result, the restaurant is renowned for its expert tropical drinks. A review ofthe Mai-Kai's drink menu indicates over a dozen registered trademark cocktails. The Mai-Kai has a permanent place in a holy trio of old-school holdouts dedicated to the careful construction of their libations."
The Polynesian bar and restaurant opened on December 28, 1956, in what the National Register describes as an "undeveloped area" with "no other buildings in the area" at a cost of about $400,000 -- an astronomical sum at the time. But the original complex, which featured multiple rooms and a gift shop, went on to make a profit in its first year, proving brothers Bob and Jack Thornton savvy investors indeed.
Through the years, Mai-Kai has been expanded, with the famous tropical review introduced in the early 1960s. The structure has endured hurricane damage and was menaced by flailing economies but managed to survive and thrive. Most recently, the restaurant and entertainment complex's bathrooms made the finals of Cintas' America's Best Restrooms contest.
Now, with tiki culture making a resurgence and this recent designation, Mai-Kai's future (and history) is permanently sealed as a national treasure and a piece of old Florida.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.