The Tiki culture (the theme used in Polynesian-style restaurants, clubs and bars) in the United States started in the 1930s, increased after World War II (when solders would return from the South Pacific) and hit its peak in the late 1950s, around the time that Hawaii became the 50th state. Riding on that wave (do you see what I did there? ☺), the Mai-Kai, a Polynesian-themed restaurant, bar and, a few years later, live Polynesian Islander Revue, opened in Fort Lauderdale in late 1956 and has been feeding and entertaining guests ever since. An OpenTable winner in 2014 and voted Best Tiki Bar in the World by Critiki in 2015 and 2016 (because, let’s face it…they would know, right?), it is, as per Wikipedia, the last restaurant/bar in existence carrying on the traditions of service and serving the original drink recipes of Don the Beachcomber (the very first tiki bar, which opened in Hollywood in 1937), and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And yet I, a lover of all things kitschy, Polynesian/Hawaiian and off-the-beaten-path, somehow had never heard of it, never mind never been to it???
Joe and I had gone to the Broward Center For The Performing Arts in late January to see a local performance of “Titanic” (a great show that was originally on Broadway in the late 1990s) and we passed the Mai-Kai in our travels. It looked interesting and right up our alley, but we were pressed for time so we agreed we would go back another time. Fast forward to late March and my friend Jessica and I were going to the Broward Center to see “Carol Burnett: An Afternoon of Laughter and Reflection” (which, by the way, was WONDERFUL. I’ve always loved Carol Burnett!). We were in the middle of driving there from Orlando and trying to plan where to eat after the show, so I offered Mai-Kai as a suggestion. Jess was willing to give it a try, so I got on Open Table to see if there was any availability for that evening. There wasn’t.
Well, crap ☹.
So I decided to call, just in case they could do something on the phone that couldn’t be done online. And lo and behold, they could! So after Carol Burnett’s show, off we went!
Upon arriving, you have a choice of self parking (which cost $3) or valet parking (which also cost $3). All things truly being equal (except the tip), we went with the valet, figuring we would need time to take pictures after dinner and the show were over, so the valet crowd would have thinned out by the time we wanted the car back.
We got inside and needed a minute or two for our eyes to adjust from what had been near-dusk outside to what was multiple low-watt lanterns inside. After checking in, we had to wait a few minutes for our table to be ready, so we wandered around, took a quick peek at the bar, and looked at the model ship and an ancient bottle of Havana Club that were in a nearby display window (it’s rare but no longer nearly impossible to see a bottle of Havana Club in the U.S. nowadays, but this bottle was OLD. But remember, when Mai-Kai first opened, the U.S. and Cuba had a good relationship. I’m sure this bottle had been there since the place opened in ’56). We were escorted to our table, which was about as far away from the Polynesian Islander Revue as you could get and still be in the room where it happened, and was waaaaaay off to the side, but hey, they were able to squeeze us in on the same day we called, and we were there; the room was packed to the gills and beggars can’t be choosers, so we were happy with what we got.
The menu was the epitome of every 1950s/60s/70s/80s/90s era American style Chinese restaurant you’ve ever seen (PuPu Platter, Cantonese Shrimp, Peking Duck, etc.), with some modern-day additions for those who are looking for vegan, gluten free or just “more American style” food.
Jessica and I decided to share an order of the Shrimp Rangoon as an appetizer, Honey Chicken as a main course and we coincidentally ordered the same fruity froufrou drink. The drink was more froufrou than boozy, but the shrimp appetizer and main course were both yummy and plentiful. We didn’t get dessert.
The show started at 8:30pm and WHOA, what an experience it was! With a live band and a half dozen or so dancers (with lots and lots of costume changes), they performed what are said to be authentic dances from a variety of South Pacific islands such as Tahiti, Samoa, New Zealand, etc. As per their Wikipedia entry the Mai-Kai Islanders Revue is the longest running Polynesian show in the United States. I’m not sure how to explain it, so here’s some video. Enjoy!
The show was done in about 75 minutes and we had time to wander around the complex. You see, the Mai-Kai is more than just a dinner show – they have, as I mentioned earlier, 8 dining rooms (seeing the show is $15 extra and they have several separate rooms, some indoor and some outdoor, where you don’t/can’t hear/see the show), an entire Polynesian style garden area, complete with tikis, exotic plants and waterfalls, and, of course, a gift shop. Here are some of the sights we saw in our exploration…
So did I like my visit to the Mai-Kai? Welllllll, let’s just say that as everything was happening, I was texting Joe to tell him what was going on, and asking him if he and I could come here so I could go back, LOL! His response was that it sounded awesome (he likes kitsch almost as much as I do) and I didn’t have to twist his arm.
As it turned out, he and I wound up going to the Mai-Kai just a few weeks later, when we were driving on our way home from a weekend trip to Key West. I had made the reservations 2 weeks in advance and this time we had MUCH better seats. The show was, not surprisingly, essentially the same (the role of announcer was being played by someone else, and there was an opportunity for kids to come up on stage at one point to dance along, which wasn’t part of the entertainment when Jessica and I had gone to the later show, but that’s about it).
Joe and I probably shouldn’t have shared a appetizer, main course and side of rice because this time our portions were significantly smaller than when Jessica and I went. I never did figure out what was up with that. Perhaps the server when she and I were there (we’re not sure what was up with him but he appeared to have some social/attention/memory issues) actually gave us 1 serving each, not split as we requested? I dunno. I also got a rum drink that was MUCH stronger than the frou-frou drink I got when I was there with her. And I bought the tiki mug, too!
So would I recommend the Mai-Kai to friends, and go back again? HELL, yeah! It was kitschy and Polynesian/tropical and old and historic and certainly not something you’re going to see anywhere else. I had a BLAST. If you like that kind of stuff, GO! It’s awesome!
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