All across the Sunshine State restaurants are drawing groups with an array of unique themes. And diners don’t just come for the food—these restaurants have a history or a story, or are just plain fun.
When brothers Bob and Jack Thornton arrived in Fort Lauderdale for spring break from Chicago in the ’50s they fell in love with the area and imagined opening a Polynesian-themed restaurant with palm-thatched roofs, flaming torches, waterfalls and lagoons.
And so they did.
In 1956 Mai-Kai was born. Famous for its dinners as much as its Mai-Kai Island Review, featuring native songs and dances, the restaurant is made for groups. There are eight different dining rooms paying homage to different islands around the globe—Tahiti, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii, among others—with indigenous artifacts adorning the walls.
Authentic Asian-inspired food like the pupu platter and crab Rangoon are on the menu, and more than 50 tropical drinks can be ordered from the bar, where they make all their own syrups.
“There’s no other place like it,” said Pia Dahlquist, director of sales and marketing for the restaurant. “Most people come for dinner and a show [where they can seat up to 286] but we can seat up to 600 in all the dining rooms and the Molokai Bar.
Also in Fort Lauderdale, at B Ocean Resort’s Wreck Bar, every Friday and Saturday night features the Glamour Girl Mermaids swimming behind the bar while guests sip on one of their classics, like Aku Aku, made with pineapple, rum, bitters, mint and luxardo—a secret spice blend served in a traditional “god” mug.
For another unique water-themed restaurant, the Fort Walton Beach Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park is known for its private animal encounters and dining surrounded by clownfish, seahorses and other sea life. The Living Sea room, which faces a 45,000-gallon coral reef with tropical fish, can be rented for up to 100 people, or the entire park can be rented for events.
In Orlando, there’s dancing right down the street from the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive. Mango’s Tropical Cafe is a high-energy haven for those who have worked a tradeshow all week and want to cut loose. It’s a great place to celebrate with live music—including a spot-on Michael Jackson impersonator—and Las Vegas-inspired Latin dance shows complete with feathery costumes and tango lessons.
This Latin-themed restaurant is the largest nightclub in the Southeast and can accommodate up to 2,000 guests. Its unique private party areas can also seat up to 600. Mango’s, which has a second location in South Beach, Miami, is known for its authentic cuisine, including its famous churrasco steak, and Cuban-style ropa vieja served with plantains and black beans.
Orlando is also home to oodles more theme restaurants thanks to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk are chock full of restaurants that all tell a story, and SeaWorld, well, is all about the sea.
The Edison is the newest offering in Disney Springs. Set in what looks like a former power plant, this restaurant, bar and nightclub features a dance floor in the main room and a stage where local musicians, dancers and aerialists perform nightly. Groups of up to 325 seated can take over the whole venue or utilize several other areas like the back outside patio for 66 and Generator Hall for up to 74.
At Universal CityWalk, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen is themed as a 19th century steampunk-era chocolate factory. The restaurant offers steaks, seafood, pastas and sandwiches, but the wow factor is in the desserts, like the Banana Brain Freeze or the Marshmallow Crisp milkshakes, or sundaes like s’mores or the banana cream pie, all on the extensive milkshake and dessert menu. Toothsome seats 856 in the entire restaurant; the private room can accommodate 12.
At Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando guests dine alongside more than 50 sharks of all species and sizes swimming menacingly around gargantuan tanks. The fare served here is called “Floribbean”—a mix of seafood and steaks. But it’s all about the sharks that appear to pose while guests take their picture. The private dining room is all one level, has great views of the main shark aquarium and seats up to 80 guests.
A Key West Vibe
Everyone knows Jimmy Buffett’s songs, but just imagine listening to them at Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina located steps from Mallory Square in Key West.
There’s dining indoors, naturally, but the most popular spot is the Sunset Deck where guests and locals gather nightly to watch Key West’s famous sunset and check out the local “talent.”
Open from 6 p.m. until sunset, the Sunset Deck serves seafood and other entrees, sandwiches and salads, appetizers and cocktails. The restaurant is available throughout the day for private group gatherings.
In Miami’s South Beach, the Mexican-inspired Agaveros Cantina in The Gates Hotel South Beach-a DoubleTree by Hilton, pairs Mexican fusion dishes like tacos served in crunchy wonton shells or taco eggrolls with more than 100 Mexican tequilas on the menu. Handcrafted cocktails and cocktail flights are also available.
In St. Pete Beach, Station House is a 1911 fire and train station, and home to restaurant Ichicoro Ane and several spots for private events. One ballroom seats 120 and another, which features a rooftop bar, seats up to 100 and accommodates up to 250 for cocktails.
“Our Booksmart and Visionary conference rooms each hold about 12 people for small meetings and the smaller classroom can hold six,” said Peyton Samardzich, director of operations, Station House. “Our Do Things room is used for yoga and can hold up to 20 people for yoga classes.”
In St. Augustine, Prohibition Kitchen is a vintage gastropub in the heart of the oldest American city. It was the social epicenter of Henry Flagler’s Prohibition Era, when women wore flapper dresses and moonshine was plentiful. Today, the chef highlights seasonal ingredients in fish dishes, pork tenderloin, ribs and a list of burgers. On special nights, local musicians are brought in to entertain.
According to OpenTable, one of the best restaurants for groups is the original Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Founded in 1905 and still owned and operated by fourth- and fifth-generation family members, this landmark features award-winning Spanish and Cuban cuisine.
Meeting space is available for groups of 10 to 175 with 15 distinctive dining rooms filled with hand-painted Spanish tiles and beautiful antiques. Fiery flamenco dance shows are featured nightly during dinner except Sunday, though private shows can also be arranged.
“As Florida’s oldest restaurant, we’re the taste of Florida, still using some of the family recipes from the early 1900s,” said fourth-generation co-owner Richard Gonzmart.
Several other Columbia Restaurants can be found throughout the state, including Sarasota, St. Augustine and Orlando.
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