The dark, rummy Molokai bar is empty, the kitchen lacks equipment, and the tropical landscaping is far from complete, but the long-awaited facelift of South Florida’s favorite tiki time capsule – the Mai-Kai Restaurant and the Polynesian spectacle – is finally taking shape.
Eighteen months after the Mai-Kai put its iconic building and grounds up for sale, its new owners replaced the flood-damaged roof that caused a collapse and unexpectedly closed the restaurant in October 2020.
New art renderings sent to the South Florida Sun Sentinel reveal a preview of the $8.5 million revival of the 65-year-old Oakland Park landmark, which would include the following sweeping upgrades:
- Thick canopies of swaying coconut palms and tropical clusia plants and gushing waterfalls line the entrance to the northern Federal Highway, along with an enlarged, winding wooden bridge to handle the extra car traffic. (To do this, the Mai-Kai demolished its Bora Bora building on the north side of the property, which has stood derelict since it was damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.)
- New outdoor patio seating for the refreshed Molokai bar at Mai-Kai, near the porte-cochere.
- A new 3,500 square foot banquet hall for private gatherings and a rum wall displaying rare bottles. (The plan is to dismantle the original Chinese brick ovens, used to smoke the meats for Mai-Kai entrees in the old kitchen, brick by brick and reassemble them behind glass as the centerpiece in the new foyer from the banquet hall.)
- A foliage-covered roundabout in the back parking lot, designed to erase, arguably, what was one of the Mai-Kai’s greatest horrors: rows of vehicular traffic bottlenecks on the Federal Highway .
- A privacy wall to block the visibility of neighbors living behind the Mai-Kai on 20th Avenue NE.
The developers have already replaced the 18,000 square foot roof and the air conditioning system – and a new state-of-the-art kitchen will soon be available. Inside the dining room, the Mai-Kai’s old lamps were fitted with LED lights, and the seating booths and Polynesian columns were repainted, reupholstered and restored to bring back the restaurant’s traditional look.
Bill Fuller, a commercial developer whose Mad Room Hospitality (Ball & Chain, Blackbird Ordinary) bought the building and land with investors, says the Mai-Kai is now on track to reopen by the end of the year. fall 2022.
“If you look at old Mai-Kai postcards, it’s like stepping off a boat in Bora Bora or Tahiti and strolling through that beachside paradise,” Fuller told the Sun Sentinel. “That’s what we’re creating here again. This is how [original owners] Bob and Jack Thornton wanted it.
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So far, the Mai-Kai’s makeover is halfway done, Fuller says. Although the city of Oakland Park has already given the green light to the project, some construction must “begin in 60 to 90 days” because two design elements must be approved by the city’s historic preservation board. These include a new roundabout in the back parking lot of Mai-Kai and a rebuilt A-frame roof over the future banquet hall, he says.
“Because both designs impact the exterior of the property and it’s a historic building, we need special approval for this,” says Fuller. (The Mai-Kai was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.)
Fuller’s Barlington Group, a Miami-based business developer, leads the team behind the big transformation, which came together through a partnership with the Mai-Kai’s Thornton family. The restaurant has also partnered with the American National Bank of Oakland Park and investors Richard Oneslager, Jeff Roschman and Mark Macek.
Property records show that the Mai-Kai building and land are worth at least $3.5 million. When completed, Fuller says the property, its antique decor, furnishings and intellectual property would be valued at $16 million.
For these upgrades, it is essential to keep the design of the Mai-Kai as close as possible to the original 1956 plan, adds Kern Mattei, managing director and cousin of the Thornton family. After the kitchen roof collapsed, the restaurant faced millions in expensive repairs the family couldn’t afford, and they put the restaurant up for sale in January 2021. Wealthy developers immediately came knocking at the gate, some eager to demolish it, but only one – Fuller’s group – suggested keeping the Mai-Kai exactly as it was.
“We want everyone to feel like this is what old Mai-Kai remember and love,” Mattei says. “The new banquet hall and roundabout are my favorite new features. I can not wait. It’s total immersion once you turn off Federal, a perfect oasis for guests.”
Next, Fuller and company will show off the new renderings of the Mai-Kai during a presentation at Hukilau, the restaurant’s annual rum-soaked Polynesian party. The festival returns June 9-12 at the Beachcomber Resort & Club, 1200 S. Ocean Blvd., Pompano Beach. Tickets cost between $129 and $569 via TheHukilau.com.