MeloMelo Is a Bar Without Booze

You can get shell-faced at MeloMelo thanks to the kava. No haters allowed.


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Patrons find camaraderie

Photo by Chris Duffey

The home of MeloMelo, down University Avenue in Berkeley past Nation’s Burgers, is by no means an ideal spot for a bar. The building is the former home of several ill-fated businesses including, most recently, an erotic boutique. More to the point, the unit isn’t even permitted to serve alcohol. Yet there it is, MeloMelo, the kava bar. The bar without booze.

Outside the bar on a recent Monday, neon lights emanate from huge, 20-foot floor-to-ceiling windows and pierce the tiny clouds of vapor billowing from the e-cigarettes of patrons down below. Inside, there’s music, comedy, and poetry. It’s an open mic night, and the crowd is a collection of buttoned-up students, man-bunned burners, and tattooed punks. A comedian poignantly refrains, “MeloMelo: Where sober people go to get laid.”

Several years ago, three friends high on mescaline—Nico Rivard, Rami Kayali, and Derick Morgan—tumbled into a kava bar in West Palm Beach. The vibe was friendly, and, unlike many places in that Florida city, unpretentious. The friends decided to return again to see if the positive vibes were a mescaline mirage or a result of the bar itself. As it turns out, it was the latter.

“I know that it sounds cheesy and all, but it really did feel serendipitous,” Kayali remembers. “It felt like a spiritual quest.”

The drink itself, kava, tastes eerily like mud-water. The active ingredients, however, the so-called kavalactones, have a noted anxiety-reducing effect on the body and mind. It also has an analgesic quality that leaves drinker with a numbing aftertaste. It’s Latin name, Piper Mythsyticum, means “intoxicating pepper.” The drink is served in hollowed-out coconut shells, and Kava drinkers use the term “shell-faced” to describe the sedated state that kava summons. A kava researcher, E.M. Lemert, once observed, “You cannot hate with kava in you.”

Rivard and Kayali quickly became regular kava drinkers and learned that, in the South Pacific, where the drink originated, kava has been calming down (mostly) men for thousands of years. In fact, it was even used as a lubricant for peace resolution talks between tribes in a region where cannibalism wasn’t uncommon. Soon they were fascinated by the alchemy of the drink and, before long, were grinding, blending and extracting their own kava varietals and blending root and stump.

Last February, Rivard and Kayali opened MeloMelo at the “doomed” corner of University and McGee. Coincidentally, the bar is in an area concentrated with young people living alternative, often sober, lifestyles. There are several reasons to come and visit this nonalcoholic bar. Some are here to evade the weekday hangover, and others are here for the naturopathic benefits. Others still are looking for a healthy alternative to a bar. Something new.

American marketers have been successful in inextricably linking “fun” and “alcohol,” and whether it’s happy hour, art shows, or watching sports, it’s tough to avoid bars for the young and socially inclined. MeloMelo is the rare place that boasts a bar environment without a traditional bar’s least savory aspect: drunken people. Also, because there isn’t anything like it, people tend to come back, fostering community. Everyone seems to know each other here.

 “It’s a social dynamic you don’t really get at an alcohol bar,” Rivard explained.

Bars aren’t always nurturing environments for open mics, but kava’s mellowing effect serves as an equalizer. The event’s MC, Cooper Lee, has hosted several events like this, but has noticed that, unlike the bar crowd, patrons are generally respectful and the atmosphere judgment-free.

 “We get a lot of really talented people on Mondays, and we also get a lot of nondrinkers,” Lee said. “I don’t know how closely those things are related, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Lee was in the beginning of a major lifestyle change when he first came to MeloMelo. He said that his relationship with booze and partying came to a “less-than-glorious end,” and as he was looking for something new, MeloMelo cropped up across from his apartment. “I was skeptical at first,” he recalled, “but now it feels like home.”

Last summer, Lee’s friend, who is in recovery, visited him from his home state of Missouri. The two went to MeloMelo daily during his visit, and now when they talk on the phone, his friend often reminisces about the glory that is the kava bar. He would hang out there everyday, he says.

At the long wooden bar inside MeloMelo, shells are raised and an exclamation resounds, “Bula!” The word, which means “life” in Fujian, is the toast. It’s a fitting reminder that there’s always reason to celebrate here.

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