Chain restaurants abound throughout the state of Florida. From Jacksonville to Key West, from Clearwater to Miami and everywhere in between, they are established in every town and on every exit. Everything from American bar and grill, to Italian, Mexican, and Australian is represented. They all have an individual theme as well as a particular food or specialty for which they are known. But none jump off the map as being truly unique or holding the kind of cachet and sense of tradition like that of the Mai Kai.
Located at 3599 North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this Polynesian themed restaurant opened in 1956 on the heels of the post war tiki culture that inspired similar establishments, such as Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood, Bali Ha’i in New Orleans, and Trader Vics, which grew into a small worldwide chain. Today, most of forerunners have disappeared, while the Mai Kai now holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and manages to retain its flair for tradition, with valets and a maître d greeting guests, and an attendant present in the rest rooms.
Given such an upscale and old school presentation, reminiscent of old Hollywood, one almost expects to see women in pencil skirts and men in white dinner jackets, both with cigarette holders, and with their Buick Invicta Convertibles and Chevrolet Belairs in the parking lot.
But fashion has come a long way since then, and so has the restaurant. Since its inception, the Mai Kai has grown to include eight dining areas, the Molokai Bar, a stage in the showroom area which houses the nightly Polynesian revue floor show, and a walking path through lush tropical gardens, waterfalls, Polynesian artifacts and secluded outdoor dining areas. And, last but not least, the establishment houses a quaint gift shop.
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The menu offers a diverse selection of sumptuous entrees, including several oriental dishes, a variety of seafood, and the most select cuts of beef, pork and lamb roasted over oak wood in Chinese ovens. The meat is so tender that cutting into the Angus Prime Rib or a New York Strip steak is like cutting into butter. The cocktail menu is every bit as impressive, with 51 kinds of tropical concoctions that will not only titillate your tongue, they will tickle your funny bone with their imaginative names and specialty tiki glasses.
But if all of this isn’t enough to satisfy your dining experience, the Mai Kai goes a step further with a live floor show that pays tribute to each and every Polynesian island. A gentle Hawaiian wedding song is followed in quick succession by the New Zealand Maori dance and then the Tahitian ʻōteʻa, which offers up such intense rapid hip shaking that its the equivalent of modern day twerking. Capping it off is Samoan fire dancers and fire eaters, whose intense heat will be felt all the way to your table.
No matter which way you look there is something to admire. From the aquarium to the waterfalls, from the dancers to the authentic decor of the dining room, and from the artifacts to the visible Chinese Ovens; the Mai Kai is a Fort Lauderdale attraction that will stimulate every one of your senses.
2016 will mark the restaurant’s 60th anniversary. If you haven’t been yet, what are you waiting for? Tamaa maitai.