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Mai Kai Restaurant: History of a South Florida Institution

Fort Lauderdale doesn't have the long history of cities like New York or Boston. With just over 100 years under the city's belt, you're not going to find landmarks like the Plaza Hotel. However, you will find mid-century gems like the Mai Kai.

To many residents, the spot may be thought of as a quirky happy hour destination or even a tourist trap, but the Polynesian themed restaurant is actually steeped in tradition and history -- as well as a bit of mid-century kitsch.

With this weekend's of the Hukilau, a massive tiki-themed event, we decided to revisit the home of the longest running Polynesian review in the entire country -- mainland, anyway.

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Brothers Bob and Jack Thornton opened the restaurant on December 28, 1956 in the middle of nowhere on US1. The construction cost about $400,000, making it the most expensive restaurant construction project to take place anywhere that year. Within the first year of opening, the Mai Kai recouped the entire 400 grand in construction cost and actually turned a profit.

At the time of opening the restaurant featured four rooms that could accommodate 150 guests and a small gift stand by the front door. It now seats more than 700.

In January, 1962 the restaurant introduced the Polynesian Revue, which remains the spot's main attraction. Bob's wife and current owner Mireille Thornton, auditioned to dance not long after the show started.

"Rumor has it when Mireille came to audition they didn't want her," says Pia Dahlquist, Director of Sales and Marketing for Mai Kai. "They said she needed to lose weight and couldn't dance, but the other dancers begged to keep her. So they wrapped her in plastic, made her run on the beach, and worked with her. Now she's the choreographer."

While the food focuses on cuisine from throughout the South Pacific, much of the region and restaurant's dishes are heavily influenced with Cantonese techniques. In 1971 the restaurant underwent a massive expansion, which included the addition of two Chinese wood burning ovens. The ovens use smoke from the wood fire to slow cook the meats, which can take up to 45 minutes.

"I have read that there are four in the United States and we have two," says Dahlquist, "But I'm not 100% sure on that. Regardless, there aren't many."

Much of the original menu remains the same, but some dishes have been added over the years. During the recession the Mai Kai shrunk its menu down to two pages with additional daily specials, but the goal is to bring it back to six pages as the economy picks up. Entrees range in price from the $16.25 Hawaiian Chicken crusted in panko topped with a tropical fruit sweet and sour sauce to the $90 Filet Mignon Madagascar for

two, cooked in the Chinese oven.

Although the restaurant offers a wide ranging menu, its best known for its tiki-cocktails. Since opening, the restaurant's cocktail recipes have been kept a secret. Only the Head Mixologist knows the recipes and he or she is obligated to sign a paper stating that the recipes will not be given away. Many of the recipes have remained the same since 1956.

At one point someone counted a collection of 118 rums on the premises. In fact, the restaurant still has bottles of Bacardi rum made in Cuba before Castro took over. Unfortunately, they're not on the menu.

The drink menu is now divided up into non-alcoholic tropical drinks, such as the Maui Sunrise ($6.25) made with fresh peach, banana, other fruit juices, and passion fruit syrup; mild tropical drinks like the Floridita Daiquiri ($7.75) described as "Ernest Hemingway's favorite from the Floridita Bar in Old Havana, the famous grapefruit daiquiri;" medium tropical drinks, including the Tahitian Breeze ($9.25), "A delightfully refreshing blend of light rum, passion fruit, and fresh juices;" and strong tropical drinks like the Mai Tai ($13), "Made smoother here by the subtle introduction of Appleton 12 year old Jamaican rum."

Even though the bar features a cocktail program that could make any modern mixologist green with envy, the most interesting cocktail on the list is the $39 Mystery Drink -- it's intended to serve at least four people.

At one point, there was such a ceremony surrounded the drink that one girl was employed solely to perform the ritual.

"The Mystery Girl would put the drink down in front of the man and perform a sensual dance while looking deep into the eyes of the man," said Dahlquist. "She would kiss both of his cheeks, put a lei around his neck, and walk away. The whole time a busboy would hit a gong."

A regular of the Mai Kai, Johnny Carson featured the Mystery Girl on "the Tonight Show" three times.

Today, one of the girls from the show is assigned Mystery Girl duties, but they still try to always serve it to a man.

"It's a tradition," said Dahlquist.

Back in 1969 Jack Thornton sold his share of the business and Bob passed away in 1989, but the Mai Kai is still run by Mireille Thornton and her son and daughter, Dave Levy and Kulani Thornton Gelardi. Dave is the General Manager and CEO and Kulani is the CFO.

While the restaurant has expanded immensely and the surrounding area has drastically changed, the Mai Kai has remained true to its original concept -- and that's probably why it's still successful.

"People know what to expect when they come here," said Dahlquist. "It's an escape from everyday life. You walk through those doors and you're in the South Pacific without traveling."

Currently, Mai Kai is getting ready to host some of this weekend's Hukilau events. As part of the festivities the restaurant will be bringing back three of its classic cocktails that are no longer on the menu. Also, the restaurant will be selling off its old chairs -- they upgraded to new ones a few years back -- for just $10 a pop. Hukilau guests will be offered first dibs.

Mai Kai is located at 3599 N. Federal Hwy. in Oakland Park. Call 954-563-3272, or visit

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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Sara Ventiera