60 Years of Tiki Culture at Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai
As a new generation embraces craft cocktails, they can find authenticity right in our backyard, lovingly documented in a new book.
Tim “Swanky” Glazner’s new book, Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, is a warm tribute to the Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar on Federal Highway. While Polynesian pop culture started in the 1930s – at one point, “every major city in the US had a Trader Vic’s, Kon Tiki, Don the Beachcomber or some copycat” – notes Glazner in his book – it wasn’t until 1956 that the Thornton brothers opened the iconic A-frame building, surrounded by blazing torches and lush foliage.
Glazner spent more than a decade researching what he calls his favorite place on earth, gathering images and talking to old-timers about the movers and shakers. One of those was mixologist Mariano Licudine, one of the staff members recruited from Don the Beachcomber in Chicago. “Mariano reworked most, if not all of Don the Beachcomber’s recipes when he served them at the Mai-Kai, as well as creating many of his own original recipes,” Glazner says. “He made a super strong drink like the Zombie into something you can enjoy without fear, while keeping the flavor profile correct to the original.”
What can the current crop of mixologists learn from the Mai-Kai bartenders? Consistency. “Sixty years of keeping their cocktails tasting the same. They want you to order the Samoan Grog tonight and have it taste just like it did 20 years ago when you tried it last,” says Glazner. “And they have customers who have been coming for decades and will send a drink back if it isn’t right. That is much harder than it sounds.” The decor stays authentic, too, says Pia Dahlquist of the Mai-Kai, who calls Glazner’s book “absolutely amazing.” The restaurant “looks like it did after the renovations of early 70s.” To Glazner, it’s all part of the enduring charm of the Mai-Kai. “A restaurant that’s still open after 60 years, family owned, supper club. I’ve been sending people there for years and no matter how much I tell people about the place, it still exceeds their expectations every time.”
Immerse Yourself in Tiki Culture
WHAT TO ORDER? “There are a few originals that are served nowhere else, like the Black Magic and Mutiny, which have coffee in them,” says Glazner. “The Special Planter’s is amazing. The real classic that takes me back to Don the Beachcomber’s in the 1930s is the Kona Coffee Grog. The Mai-Kai is the only place on earth still performing this flaming spectacle tableside just as Donn Beach himself served it. It’s a show and it is an excellent cocktail.”
ONLINE The Swank Pad, Glazner’s all-things-Tiki site, is an extravagaza of mid-century memorabilia, from puffer fish tiki bar lamps to vintage vinyl and much more.
The Grogalizer s packed with tiki bar recipes, including drinks you can make with what’s in your bar.
The Atomic Grog is a blog founded by Jim “Hurricane” Hayward featuring cocktail recipes and reviews, retro culture, events.
THE RESTAURANT The Mai-Kai Restaurant celebrates its 60th Anniversary Dec. 28 with a book signing, special presentation, drink specials and memorabilia. For information, visit maikai.com
THE HUKILAU Billed as the world’s most authentic tiki event, this celebration of tiki treasures, symposia, swimshows, live music and – of course – cocktails takes place June 7-11, 2017, in Fort Lauderdale.