Before Fort Lauderdale was the spring break destination we know it as today, it was a dusty rural town. As such, people were surprised when, in 1956, brothers Bob and Jack Thornton took out a hefty loan to bring South Seas flair to South Florida in the form of the Mai-Kai Restaurant.
The gamble paid off: The novelty spot was a hit, grossing $1 million in its first year. For those who couldn’t afford to fly to Tahiti or Hawaii, a tiki bar in Florida was plenty authentic. Customers were drawn into the towering A-frame structure by the warm glow of tiki torches out front. The decor and magnitude of the place really sold it. For example, a massive Tahitian canoe from the owner’s wedding was strung from the ceiling among fishing buoys and palm leaves. The bar was constructed of surfboards, lined nose to tail along the length of the numerous dining rooms.
But the floor show, which still goes strong today, was the Mai-Kai’s truly unique selling point. Dancers and flame-throwers, many of whom hailed from Polynesian islands, performed nightly shows. The perceived exoticism of these performances, not to mention the fact that waitresses and bartenders alike were scantily clad in bikinis and sarongs, made the Mai-Kai’s simple dinner-and-a-show format seem like a destination worth traveling for on its own.
The Mai-Kai has been placed on Florida’s National Register of Historic Places. Since its opening it has almost doubled in size. The eight dining rooms are each themed after different Polynesian Islands, though in all truth, no Polynesian Island ever looked like the Mai-Kai. It’s aesthetic is much like it was at the height of tiki culture in the late ’60s, so a visit to the Mai-Kai is like stepping into a fantasy of the past.