I walk through the single glass door of Berkeley’s MeloMelo Kava Bar in the middle of a rainy Friday afternoon. There’s a man in a plaid shirt reading a book on a bright orange couch in the back corner and a woman perched on a bar stool, gazing into an empty coconut shell.
“They’re called bilos,” says part-owner Nicholas (Nico) Rivard from the other side of the polished Monkeypod bar that serves as the focal point of the establishment. His hair is pulled back and he smiles as he pours murky-gray liquid into two shining shells. “That’s what they call coconut shells on the islands.”
The islands Rivard are referring to are those of the South Pacific, the historic homeland of the drink that Rivard is pouring and the pschyoactive plant for which his bar is named. Melomelo is one of 76 cultivars of of kava — a mood-altering beverage made from the hand-pounded roots of the Piper methysticum plant. Legally, kava is classified as a supplement and is composed of 18 active ingredients that produce sedative effects.
Food-grade polished coconut shells are surprisingly hard to come by, Rivard tells me. His are from India — smooth and sleek and resting on tiny stands. Rivard slides one my way and lifts his up to toast.
“Bula!” he says, downing the whole shell in one gulp and then watching as I eye the one sitting in front of me.
“Traditionally we just knock it back,” says Rivard. “We admittedly know it’s not the tastiest of beverages.”
It’s a lot of liquid to shoot, but I lift up my shell and get it down in two swallows.
“Boo-low?” I ask after I’ve finished.
“Bula,” says Rivard. “It’s ‘cheers’ in Polynesian.”
It’s also the most common word I hear during my visit to MeloMelo. The first bar of its kind in the Bay Area, the trippy tranquil booze-free bar has developed a cult-like following in its inaugural year. It may be the culture. It may be the kava. It may be Rivard himself.
“I just jumped in a car and drove here,” Rivard tells me. “Step 1: Get to California. Step 2: Worry about how to open a kava bar.”
A few minutes after downing my first shell of kava, my tongue and lips tingle and begin to go numb. The menu informs me that this is due to kavalactones — the active ingredients in kava. It’s a little disconcerting, but doesn’t last long.
After arriving in California with fellow kava enthusiast and business partner Rami Kayali, Rivard and Kayali took a couple of years to sort themselves out. They ended up in the East Bay, where the two got MeloMelo up and running. “Florida has lots of kava bars,” says Rivard. “I would have done it there, but I really don’t like Florida.”
A young couple comes through the door. They look like they might be students. Rivard flashes a toothy smile as they walk up to the bar.
“Have you had kava before?” he asks.
“I’ve been in once,” says the girl. “This is his first time.”
Rivard takes them through a crash course in kava. His script is streamlined, but interesting, like he never gets tired of telling newcomers about the beverage.
“The effects are really calming,” says Rivard. “Mellow. Kava has been used as a muscle relaxant and pain reliever.”
At this point my throat is a little numb — relaxed, you might say — but the feeling has come back to my lips. Rivard slides a menu toward the couple as the man in plaid gets up from the couch.
“Kombucha?” asks Rivard.
The man nods. MeloMelo carries a rotating selection of kombuchas from a variety of suppliers including Synergy, GT, House, Marin and Bucha. There are four on tap right now: pink ginger berry, grapefruit sage, candy cap mushroom and pink lady apple.
“Every time you come there’ll be a different combination,” says Rivard. “We’ve probably had 30-40 flavors.”
Rivard rattles two cocktail shakers, one in each hand, and pours out a “kava colada” and a “root squared,” two of the four “mixed” drinks that attempt to temper the earthy taste of the kava root with ginger, pineapple, orange and coconut milk.
“Kava’s really difficult to work with,” Rivard tells me. “Rami and I went to Safeway and Whole Foods and went mad scientist with it and nothing worked. We have other concoctions we can make, but we’d rather just have a smaller menu.”
They new couple take their shells to a couch and sip slowly.
Projected on the wall behind Rivard is a video of an alligator attacking a zebra in slow motion. The movement of light and color against the stark white draws me in. Rivard says they typically play visually pleasing, mostly natural videos including Planet Earth, National Geographic, the South Pacific and a lot of surfing videos. On Tuesday nights they play movies with subtitles.
“We’ve tried it with sound, but the noises can be kind of jarring,” Rivard explains.
As he does, an older man in glasses sidles up to the bar. His name is Joe. His wife is one of Rivard’s kombucha suppliers.
“Want the bottom of the barrel?” asks Rivard.
“That’s fine with me,” Joe says. “I need three so I can go home and go to sleep.”
Joe turns to me. “[Kava] changed my life,” he says. “First night [I drank kava] I had a full eight hours of sleep, which I hadn’t had in five years.”
All manner of people come in and out of MeloMelo over the course of an hour: a student sporting a backpack and headphones drops in for “a quickie” just before work, a girl on her way to the vape store “just needs to unwind” and “knew right where to go,” a hoodie-clad woman just returned from Italy is picking up a pound of dry kava and a “roadie” for the drive home.
Though MeloMelo offers more palatable alternatives, 60-70% of their sales are in pure kava made from the plant’s 10-foot long roots. “The stump is less bitter and more full body,” says Rivard. “The lateral is more heady. [It’s] still relaxing, but a little more energizing for me.”
Rivard and Kayali grind their kava themselves, so they know exactly what’s going into it. They source their roots from Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu.
“Our regulars are die-hard regulars,” says Rivard. “Four, five, or six times a week.” MeloMelo sees a number of new faces as well. “Not too many of them ultimately become regulars, and that’s OK too,” says Rivard. “Main thing for us is personality.”
Rivard wants the bar to be the sort of place you can walk into by yourself without really feeling alone. He tries to remember everyone’s name. “It’s different from a coffee shop where the energy is really ramped up,” he says. “Here people are really interacting with each other. It’s a new experience and people aren’t really sure what to do with it.”
“[Kava] isn’t for everyone, but I think people appreciate the atmosphere.” I ask Rivard about the modular burnt orange and cerulean couches, which he describes as the colors of awesome. “We put a lot of thought into the minimalist décor,” he says. “There isn’t a lot, but there is a lot of thought behind it.” That thought extends to local artist Kelly Porter’s collection of work, the eco-friendly LIFX LED lights, and an air-recycling wall made entirely of greenery.
One of Rivard’s employees walks in fresh to her shift. She greets the regular customers more like she’s coming home than coming to work.
“I’ll take a shell with you,” she says to Joe.
Rivard pours shells all around and we all toast to Joe before he heads home to go to sleep.
“This place just sucks you in,” says Rivard.
That it does. Without realizing it, I stick around for over an hour, wanting more kava before hitting the road. After two and a half shells, I’m pretty mellowed out, but somehow I still manage to finish an hour-long spin class that evening.
Before heading out, I pack up my bag and put on my coat. “Wait a second,” Rivard says, coming out from behind the bar. “Hugs for new friends.” He opens his arms. It was an offer I might not have embraced when I first walked through the doors, but after an hour of kicking back kava, I want to be Rivard’s friend. I have a feeling I’ll be back — for the culture, the kava, and for Rivard himself.
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