At Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai, It’s Always Tiki Time


David Levy.

Sven Kirsten

Come June, expect your local tiki bar to be understaffed. Every Hawaiian-shirt wearing, orchid-bearing, coconut-sipping tiki nut will have packed his ukulele and flown to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to attend the Hukilau, an annual festival that is Christmas, New Year’s and Fourth of July combined on the tiki calendar. The Hukilau, which was first staged in Atlanta in 2002, is named after a traditional Hawaiian feast. For many years it has been held at the Mai-Kai, a sprawling, 600-seat, Polynesian restaurant-bar-theater-garden compound that has survived largely intact (waterfalls, thatch roofs) since it opened in 1956. Entertainment goes well beyond navy grog and steaks cooked over oak in a Chinese oven, to include a time-warp stage show called the Polynesian Islander Revue (fire dancers, headdresses, pulsating drums). Since 1991, it’s been run by David Levy, the chief executive, who was born in Tahiti and is the stepson of the founder Bob Thornton. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Levy.

Q. I imagine you get a lot of people who travel to Fort Lauderdale just to come here.

A. Exactly right. All year round, it would average about 65 percent of our customers. If you go in the bar right now, everybody knows each other. We get phone calls for reservations, saying: “We were here last summer. We’re flying in for the weekend and we’re coming to the Mai-Kai.” We have devoted customers.

Has it always been that way? Was there ever a fallow period?

Only one time, when the nouvelle cuisine came around. People wanted to try something new. After a year or so, people came back.

Have you kept the same food over the years?

Same cuisine: Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese, Vietnamese. If you look at the menu 50 years ago, it’s exactly the same. We just perfected the dishes.

During the decline of tiki culture in the…

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