The mighty Mai-Kai is so synonymous with Polynesian pop culture that it is impossible to do a proper review that doesn’t paint it as a mecca for all things Tiki. But that’s the long and short of it. For Tiki connoisseurs and lovers of all things kitsch and fun, the Mai-Kai is the ultimate destination, much like the Sacred Mosque or the Wailing Wall. But why does the Mai-Kai command so much more love and attention than any other Tiki bar or restaurant in the world? That’s tough to answer unless you’ve made the pilgrimage to Fort Lauderdale.
It’s hard to imagine that sixty-years ago the Mai-Kai stood alone on an underdeveloped roadway of North Federal Highway, a piece of Polynesia as far away from its namesake islands as you can get. The massive thatched A-frame structure invites cars through a center carport. You park and walk through the heavy wood doors into a world that is a true antidote to the “real world.” Tiki bars are, by design, a reprieve from the chaos of daily life and the Mai-Kai serves as the perfect escape from the noise and chaos that surrounds it.
On my most recent visit (my sixth overall), I was instantly greeted by a friendly host at the front desk who took our reservations and told us it would be a short wait before we were seated. Reservations are highly encouraged if you want a good seat for the Polynesian show. We once tried to get in without a reservation and were seated in the gardens until the show started. Not the most ideal situation, but they will find a place for you if there is room.
To the left of the entrance is the Molokai Lounge, a full-service bar built to look like sunken pirate ship. The bar was packed this Friday evening, as was happy hour underway and cocktails were flowing. After a few minutes at the bar and a quick visit to the gift shop (Mai-Kai Aloha shirts were in stock), we were escorted to our seats, located towards the front of the first raised section, center-stage — possibly the best seats I’ve ever had for the Polynesian show. The main seating area is as legit as Tiki gets — dark wood is adorned with darker bamboo and carved Tiki gods punctuate every section. Lighting is simple and you need to squint or use your phone’s flashlight to read the menu, but the atmosphere is second to none.
We started off with cocktails, ordering a Hidden Pearl and Deep-Sea Diver from the medium-strength drink menu. Both libations were flawless, served with a perfect balance of rum and fresh ingredients that left us buzzed enough to forget the outside world, yet sober enough to enjoy dinner and the show. Speaking of the Polynesian show, I’ve been to numerous fire/Aloha/pig roast/Polynesian revues around the world (including Hawaii) and the Mai-Kai’s show is the best. For 45-minutes, the show narrator walked us through dances and cultural traditions particular to the different islands of Polynesia. Every time I see this show it gets bigger, longer and more elaborate, and this year was no exception. The show ended with a ferocious fire dance that’s so intense, you can’t help but wonder what the fire code is like for the place.
Dinner was served during the show and it did not disappoint. I ordered the macadamia nut-encrusted mahi mahi and my wife got the crispy tofu with soba noodles. Both dishes were cooked to perfection, served in decent portions and flavorful. To be clear, the Mai-Kai is not a cheap restaurant. Prices are in line with higher end Tiki establishments like Trader Vic’s and the quality and freshness of the food reflects the prices. The seafood and fresh fish options are my favorite, but I’ve heard high praise for the beef and chicken options, too.
We finished the meal with chocolate mousse pie, which in most restaurants could be a gamble, but we were treated to a decadent dark chocolate delight that was rich without being overly chocolaty. Afterwards, we toured the gardens that engulf the back of the establishment and were transported to a tropical paradise. Winding paths are filled with original Mai-Kai Tiki, as well as some new additions from legendary tribal carvers. A flash monsoon pushed us back inside, where we toured the quieter party rooms and made our way behind the stage to view some of the venue’s hidden Tiki poles and waterfalls.
We left before the next show started, taking another quick pass through the gift shop to look at the latest Tiki mugs by Tiki Diablo. It’s next to impossible to describe just how Tiki the Mai-Kai is and that’s not really the goal here. What matters is that the Mai Kai means as much to Tiki culture as Tiki culture means to the Mai Kai — they go hand in hand. Everyone that truly loves Tiki culture must make a trip to Fort Lauderdale and spend an evening at the greatest Tiki bar in the world.