The Mai-Kai is a family-owned Polynesian restaurant and cultural treasure in Oakland Park, Florida. This establishment has been in business for over sixty years and feels like a living and breathing time capsule. Its walls vibrate with the memories of its customers and its tiki traditions.
Dreams of a Tropical Oasis
It all began with a dream by brothers Bob and Jack Thornton. When Bob and Jack were children they visited a Chicago restaurant called Don The Beachcombers. They felt transported to a peaceful sunny paradise at The Beachcomber as snowy Chicago streets were bustling outside its door.
Inspiration from The Beachcomber led the Thornton brothers to dream of creating an indoor paradise of their own. Their childhood dreams manifested into reality when they built the Mai-Kai in 1956. Since then, the Mai-Kai retained itself as a Polynesian paradise and local landmark.
In 2020, a flood forced this long-running restaurant to close its doors. At the time nobody was sure if the closure was temporary or forever. But the persistence of the owners of Mai-Kai along with The Barlington Group, and the outpouring of love from its long time and loyal customers has made it so that we will see the Mai Kai back in full force in 2022.
Beauty and Wonder of the Mai-Kai
Each dining room at the Mai-Kai symbolizes a different Polynesian region. Eight unique rooms adorn themselves with beautiful and authentic artifacts from the Islands. Guests can enjoy a one-of-a-kind show experience as they dine. The Mai-Kai has the longest-lasting Polynesian show in the entire nation. Roaring drums, spectacular dancing, and beautiful costume is what has made the Mai-Kai show memorable for thousands of guests from all over the world.
A visit to The Molokai Bar makes for a unique experience. The Mai-Kai bar takes you inside a maritime sanctuary. Water cascades outside its circular windows, making this place feel like the inside of a nautical vessel.
Beautiful and original items are available at their gift shop. Polynesian artisans contributed clothing, jewelry, tiki mugs, and other treasures available at The Mai-Kai. People have kept trouvailles obtained in the Mai-Kai from the 1950s through modern times. Many vintage gift shop finds are collectible and valuable today.
The Mai-Kai outdoor gardens pulsate with the energy of its long-standing legacy. Guests have strolled its pathways for decades while admiring giant Tiki sculptures surrounded by cascading waterfalls. Tiki has deep symbolism in Polynesian culture as Maori mythology refers to Tiki as the first created man. The different Tiki sculptures tell a story, making a walk through the gardens feel alive as you lose yourself within the floral foliage.
A Place Filled With Memories: Kulani Thornton
Treasured memories and happy moments at the Mai-Kai ensued for both its guests and the Thornton family and this is in part what propels the movement to keep the tradition of the Mai Kai alive. It is not just simple restaurant. It is a place where unforgettable memories are made. Kulani Thornton Gelardi, a member of the Mai-Kai family and an integral part of its legacy, shared with LivingInOaklandPark.com how growing up in the Mai-Kai made her who she is.
She runs the family business alongside her brother Dave Levy and is the head of bookkeeping. Kulani told me about her many fond memories while growing up at the Mai-Kai with her family. When she was a young girl, the gardens were her playground and filled her heart with joy and wonder. She loved everyone at the restaurant, from her family to the cleaning crew.
She remembers how her parents would spend many months traveling around the South Pacific. Along their travels, they handpicked artifacts for their restaurant. In addition, Kulani’s mother, Mireille Thornton, who was born in Tahiti and was one of the original dancers from the 1960s choreographed all the shows. Kulani witnessed her limitless talent and ingenuity in keeping the timeless beauty of the Polynesian show alive and faithful to its roots.
As a teenager, she learned meaningful lessons in business. The Thornton family instilled in her the importance of professional dress, kindness, manners, and Kulani worked hard to fulfill these principles throughout her life and still today.
Kulani spent her entire life in the Mai-Kai, working side by side with her family and friends. When in 2020 the restaurant was shut down as the result of a flood in the kitchen, Kulani was devastated. She relates, however, that after getting over the initial shock, the Mai-Kai family first prioritized the safety of their guests and staff. Then they focused on doing demolition work to make sure further damage would not happen.
Kulani is hopeful for the future of The Mai-Kai. The restaurant remains in good condition, even though the kitchen needs to be replaced. Although there will be exciting new expansions, the Mai-Kai is committed to keeping the tradition and nostalgia that has kept this restaurant in business since 1956!
Merging the Past with the Future
The Mai-Kai decided to team up with the Barlington Group who specializes in restoring historical buildings and cultural treasures. I spoke with Bill Fuller of the Barlington Group to get insight into this exciting venture to bring back the Mai-Kai.
This Miami-based real-estate and investment company has a deep appreciation for legacy business. They have a combined love of historic preservation and urban revitalization. They hope to use this vision to revive the Mai-Kai so that people can continue to create everlasting memories there. After all Fuller has some of great memories of the Mai-Kai too!
Fuller remembers visiting The Mai-Kai when he was very young in the 1980s. Since then, he has been there many times. Most recently he spent the New Year with his family at The Mai-Kai three years ago. He always had a place for The Mai-Kai in his heart.
About a year ago it came to the public that the Mai-Kai was seeking a buyer. Fuller knew that he and his team were aligned in the best interests of The Mai-Kai and move forward with the idea of working to keep the Mai-Kai alive.
What resulted was a wonderful partnership between the Barlington group and the Mai-Kai. Together they are confident they will restore the Mai-Kai to its original glory.
The Mai-Kai will reopen sometime in 2022. Demolition and restructuring are being done as quickly but as safely as possible. Here are some websites for you follow for the most up-to-date information.
Special and Heartfelt Thanks
The Mai-Kai’s reopening wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s overwhelming love and support. There are, seven people that need a special mention because of their incredible dedication.
Kern Mattei is the manager at The Mai-Kai. John Gelardi is the catering manager and Kulani Thornton Gelardi’s husband. Jill Bicoy is Kulani’s close assistant. Kulani wanted to thank her sister Prietta Levy who is a big part of running the gift shop and managing the gardens. Pia Dahlquist is a leader of Public Relations for The Mai-Kai. Gustavo Saenz is the head of maintenance for the Mai-Kai.
This hard-working crew has helped behind the scenes in every way needed and holds a deep appreciation in Kulani Gelardi Thornton’s Heart. The Thornton Family and the Barlington group are thankful for all of The Mai-Kai’s customers, employees, and continued family support. Thanks to them we have a small and precious part of Polynesia right here in Oakland Park.