Look Inside the World’s Most Iconic Tiki Bar

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What was it like inside the midcentury Tiki splendor of the famed Mai-Kai restaurant in Fort Lauderdale? A new book, Mai-Kai: History & Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant (Schiffer, $40), paints a vivid picture through photos, memorabilia and stories from insiders.

The book is written by someone who knows the restaurant intimately: author Tim “Swanky” Glazner, the co-founder of annual Tiki extravaganza The Hukilau, has been hosting the event at the Mai-Kai since 2003. (Prior to that, The Hukilau was held in Atlanta.) He spent more than a decade researching the book.

The Mai-Kai opened in 1956 by “a few brash young men,” according to Glazner, who aspired to build a peer to Donn Beach’s Polynesian-themed Chicago restaurant, Don the Beachcomber, “but they took the concept to new and greater heights.” The restaurant and bar became “the playground of celebrities and playboys, and the beautiful women working there used it as a jumping-off point for adventure and fame.”

Yet it was also famed for the drinks. “The Mai-Kai was the one place that accurately re-created Don the Beachcomber’s secret recipes. After Donn passed away and the last Don the Beachcomber closed, those cocktail recipes were almost entirely lost; only the Mai-Kai carried the torch and allowed us to taste the masterpieces Donn invented in 1933.”

Tim “Swanky” Glazner

Glazner began working on the book after receiving word in 2008 that co-founder Jack Thornton had passed away. “I began to look around and saw there were many stories and too much history about to be lost in time.” He began seeking out old-timers and recording their stories and archiving their photos and scrapbooks, culminating in this book, which focuses on the years 1955 to 1971. “By 1971, everything we associate with the Mai-Kai today was in place.”

Rather than a typical history book, this is a collection of firsthand stories mixed with archives of newspapers and magazine articles, presented as a sort of album. There are no recipes for Tiki drinks, but it’s certainly an entertaining and highly visual read about the heyday of midcentury Tiki.

“The fact that the Mai-Kai still exists and is not a decrepit shadow of its former glory, but rather has remained a steadfast keeper of the flame for 60 years, is a miracle,” says Glazner. This is a must-read for any Tiki enthusiast already planning for next year’s Hukilau.

Locations: Fort Lauderdale
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