What will happen to Mai-Kai, a piece of South Florida history?

Broward County records value the property at $3.97 million and it’s on the market

The historic Mai Kai (WPLG)

OAKLAND PARK, Fla. – “It’s a rare opportunity to own a storied piece of South Florida,” says franchise brokerage firm owner Andrew Cagnetta of Transworld Business Advisors in Fort Lauderdale about the restaurant/dinner revue establishment Mai-Kai that’s up for sale.

Who knows what the future will bring? It would be a special treat if the buyer chooses to keep the Mai Kai intact or, with it being a prime piece of 2.69 acres of prime real estate valued on Broward County property records at $3.97 million, an investor may decide that is better suited for a modern business development.

If you’ve never taken in Mai Kai in its heyday, Visit Florida described the tourist trap best as “over-the-top, so-tacky-that-it’s-fantastic.” How to explain it to someone who has never visited? Too much kitsch to take in and sensory overload in a place that time forgot.

In October of 2020, the 65-year-old icon began its descent into hard times with a messy flood after a pipe burst and destroyed much of its kitchen, its roof and more.

(See a gallery of photos below)

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Samoan Fire twirlers

The historic Mai Kai’s thatched roof remains an odd sight to see in the middle of Federal Highway on a block that’s been through so many incarnations and now filled with contemporary furniture stores.

Inside, the local landmark, its overpriced menu was Cantonese fare and tropical drinks like the Tahitian Breeze and Floridita Daiquiri, and the mega Mystery Drink at $39 filled with plenty of alcohol and served with four straws for sharing. It was the floor show though, not the food, that had it tops on the tourism roster as part of the “don’t-miss-while-in Fort Lauderdale” bucket list right up there with visiting the famous beach. Mai-Kai was off-the-beaten beach track, about 2 miles west of the sand.

The grand finale at Mai-Kai was the draw, which elicited plenty of oohs and aahhs — the Samoan Fire and Knife Dance where men in loin cloths twirled batons of real fire. There were a few times the oohs were more like the audience was holding its collective breath. After all, the fire dance was indoors amid artifacts and wooden beams and other straw type furnishings, which didn’t appear to be flame retardant. (If there ever was a fire, it didn’t pop up in archives, but someone in town with institutional knowledge will know.)

Transworld, who has the property listed for sale, says the spread can “remain as is, or can be redeveloped into apartments or a mixed-use development, which could include a renovated restaurant.”

No one knows what will become of the site that’s listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, with its vintage ambiance, eight dining rooms with seating for 600, a bar, a gift shop and its central stage for its Polynesian Island Revue floor show.

While you might think the historic-place designation would ensure the traditional landmark remains standing, it isn’t the case. Listing in the National Register places neither restrictions nor requirements on a private property owner. They don’t have to maintain a property in any specific way and can demolish the property without federal permission, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the registry.

The Mai-Kai’s ownership is open to working with the buyer on reopening the restaurant or opening an offshoot in a new location. The restaurant has registered trademarks for its famous cocktails.

Bob and Jack Thornton opened Mai-Kai in 1956, a very different Fort Lauderdale back then. It is still operated by the same family.

“The Mai-Kai has been a family-run business since its inception,” said Tiare Thornton Bugarin, the granddaughter of one of the founders. “From choreographing the Polynesian show to overseeing, a descendant of the Mai-Kai’s founders has always been involved. As the page turns to a new chapter in its unique story, we welcome the opportunity to lend our expertise and play a role in the Mai-Kai’s future.”

About the Author:

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.