Mai Kai is the best old-school tiki bar in the USA
By Elyssa Goodman / September 30, 2019 6:00 am

This is One Night Out, a new series in which we deliver you marching orders for the perfect vacation in cities around the world with one caveat: you’re only planning to be there for one night.

Even by Florida standards, Fort Lauderdale is a bit of an enigma. 

It’s maybe not as trendy of a nightlife destination as Miami Beach, which is about an hour south down I-95. It doesn’t have Orlando’s acres of theme parks, or the same reputation for nouveau opulence as Palm Beach. Instead, Fort Lauderdale and its environs bring together the best parts of the bigger cities: It has plenty of places to sip stylishly and lavishly until the lights come on and the sun comes up, a booming tourist industry and, maybe most importantly, an older, kitschier Florida that people still know and love, with a new, sleek sensibility. All that, and it’s generally more affordable to fly into and easier to get around than other major air hubs. 

Sure, in the past, you might have known Fort Lauderdale as a haven for spring breakers from across the nation, but the city has quietly been upping its game in the last few years. No longer second fiddle to Miami’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, the city was recently named one of the top 20 destinations in the world by Bloomberg, is now home to part of the nationally recognized South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and sports a new Four Seasons Hotel and Residences, among many other cool, recent additions. 

While a world of cocktails, art and fine dining has opened up in the greater Fort Lauderdale area, the region is also full of madcap mainstays from its (first) glory days in the 1950s and 1960s. And despite its 28-mile stretch, it’s still relatively easy to traverse. In fact, we might say Fort Lauderdale is the perfect town to find yourself in for one night only. The kind of place where you can get dinner, dessert, see some cool stuff, get a few drinks and get back to your hotel by a somewhat respectable hour.  

If you do find yourself in what we found out is considered the “Venice of America” for an evening, here’s how to make the best of your time. Let’s hope it will be the first of many trips to this South Florida city that isn’t exactly overlooked or underrated, but isn’t always treated like the gem it truly is. 

Sparrow is one of the finest looking bars in America (Sparrow at The Dalmar)

Start off with drinks


Sparrow at The Dalmar (299 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301)

On The Dalmar hotel’s 25th floor, you’ll find new cocktail bar Sparrow. It was created in partnership with Proprietors, LLC, founders of New York’s decorated cocktail bar Death & Co. Designed to evoke a retro-chic 1950s/1960s New York-meets-Havana-meets Los Angeles aesthetic, Sparrow is the newest space in Fort Lauderdale for vintage-inspired cocktail glam-o-rama. It actually features two cocktail bars, one outside (with “tropical but not too tropical” drinks, according to General Manager Chris Cordero) and one inside with updates on the classics alongside new favorites, with everything sold in “solo” or “group” formats (the Psychic Visions tastes like a Watermelon Jolly Rancher and comes in a flamingo tea pot with two mugs). The menu will change seasonally, too. Sparrow is only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, though, so if you’re stopping through on the weekend be sure live your reservation life: they currently get over 1,000 visitors each night. But don’t worry, they have valet parking. 

Then get dinner


Point Royal (The Diplomat Beach Resort, 3555 S Ocean Dr, Hollywood, FL 33019)

Point Royal, the newest restaurant from celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian of Food Network fame, opened in 2017 to grace nearby Hollywood with its Coastal American cuisine. With everything from Italian to Middle Eastern influences and a killer raw bar, the restaurant is a fresh take on the classic seaside eatery. Live your best life with the Tomato and Ricotta appetizer, bursting with flavorful broiled heirloom tomatoes and creamy ricotta; the giant Meatball topped with melted provolone; a Dry Aged New York Strip so juicy you’ll realize you’ve been eating steak incorrectly all your life; and some creamy, crunchy mind-expanding Sweet Potato Wedges baked then fried and topped with jalapeño aioli. For the best experience, ask to be seated with all-star waiter Paul Silva, who will tell you everything you need to know about the menu. After dinner, take a trip up the beach road with the windows down like a local and bask in the delicious, salty ocean breeze.

An ice cream sundae at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor
The ice cream sundae at Jaxson’s (Elyssa Goodman for InsideHook)

Don’t skip dessert


Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor (128 S Federal Hwy. Dania Beach, FL 33004)

We won’t always tell you to get dessert when you’re visiting a city, but this one is an exception.

Go to Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor, a beloved area staple since 1956. Every single ice cream on the extensive menu is made in house, and they don’t skimp on the stuff, either: the spot is known for dishes and bowls overflowing with giant scoops of creamy goodness. Most popular are the Oreo and Butter Pecan ice creams, the brownie sundae, any of their “Spectacular Goblets,” and their banana split. Their “Kitchen Sink” is also legendary, comes in an actual sink, and feeds a minimum of four people. This writer in particular also loves the Fudge Ripple ice cream in a Hot Fudge Sundae (their hot fudge is truly the stuff of the gods and I can never keep my spoon away from it) with whipped cream — it’s small but mighty. Be warned, these dishes are not for the lighthearted: all of them easily feed at least two people, so come prepared. 

Sparrow at The Dalmar (Elyssa Goodman for InsideHook)

Check out some art


FATVillage Arts District (521 NW 1st Ave, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301)

If you’re in town on the last Saturday of the month, stop through FATVillage (Flagler Arts and Technology Village) for the monthly ArtWalk. The four-block area is dedicated to fostering artistic community, and all of the galleries extend their hours until 10 p.m. alongside a host of food and entertainment experiences (Food trucks! Installations!) which go until 11 p.m. Between the music and stunning visuals from local artists (not just out-of-town big names), ArtWalk draws thousands of visitors every month. If you get there when it’s still light out, walk around and check out all the buildings’ vibrant, intricate street art murals. At each ArtWalk, there’s also The GOODS, a market of local vendors and artisans selling their wares. It’s a great way to walk off that ice cream. Tip: finding a parking space nearby can be difficult during the ArtWalk, so take a Lyft or an Uber to minimize hassle.

But if you only go to one place…

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show (3599 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308)

Maybe you wouldn’t expect to find tiki culture in Fort Lauderdale, of all places, but Mai-Kai, a Polynesian restaurant, tiki bar and floor show, is one of tiki culture’s most beloved icons. Opened in 1956, Mai-Kai is on Florida’s National Register of Historic Places. It’s the height of 1960s tiki kitsch, from drinks served in coconuts to a backyard waterfall to a straw hut onstage hosting musicians, hula dancers, fire-eaters and more. Every Fort Lauderdale resident worth their salt has been at least once, and visitors should take note! It’s currently run by Tahitian-born David Levy, whose mother Mireille, also from Tahiti, danced in the show and is now the choreographer. Weekend shows run Friday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., and Saturday at Saturday at 6:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Bring a healthy sense of irony and nostalgia for extra fun, and be prepared for their menu of infinite rum drinks, all served with a healthy pour. 

Wetness is the essence of beauty at The Wreck Bar Mermaid Show (Elyssa Goodman for InsideHook)

And something out of the ordinary…

The Wreck Bar Mermaid Show (B Ocean Resort, 1140 Seabreeze Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316)

Depending on your schedule, you can stop by B Ocean’s famed Wreck Bar for either an evening or a brunch with some of the most gorgeous mermaids this side of the Atlantic. Opened in 1956 when the hotel was previously called the Yankee Clipper, the Wreck Bar is made to look like a Spanish galleon sunk on the ocean floor (and also appeared in 1999’s Analyze This with Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro). What are meant to be the ship’s windows actually look into an aquarium that features mermaid burlesque and performances. The swim shows first ran until 1965, but were revived in 2006. Now, you can see these ladies with long flowing locks blow bubbles and kisses from Wednesday to Saturday evenings (free admission with $30 minimum per person), and experience casual mermaid sightings during the bar’s Sunday three-course prix fixe brunch.