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City's First Kava Bar, Offering A 'Natural' Buzz, Hits West Town

By Alisa Hauser | May 5, 2016 8:44am
 Inside Tropikava Kafe and Juice Bar st 1115 N. Hermitage Ave.
Tropikava Kafe and Juice Bar
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WEST TOWN —  A juice bar serving nonalcoholic drinks made with kava root — offering a natural remedy for anxiety and a buzz minus the hangover, among other claims  — has been steadily gaining converts since opening in March, according to Tropikava Kafe & Juice Bar owner Jeff Ramsey.

Drinking kava has been described by one user "as if alcohol, marijuana and coffee had one wild night and created the sedating, antidepressant drink."

Ramsey said the feeling a person gets while drinking kava is "a euphoria that makes you mellow."

"Here, it's about relaxing, enjoying and socializing," he said of the 25-seat cafe, where patrons can sit on couches or at the long bar and drink kava together. Since the cafe is BYO, some patrons also bring in wine and champagne and mix it with their kava, Ramsey said.

On Wednesday, Ramsey said he had just catered a midday kava event for workers at a Downtown architectural firm arranged by a woman who has become a regular at Tropikava, located at 1115 N. Hermitage Ave., just south of Division Street in West Town.

The goal of the catering was to "mentally focus" the firm's 45 architects, who were working around the clock and needed a boost, Ramsey said.

Since quietly opening his cafe — the first of its kind in Chicago — on March 15, Ramsey said the most popular "kavatails" are the Ging Rickey, made with beets, ginger, pineapple and pear, and a spicy Bell-ini with jalapeno, red bell peppers, apple, strawberry and cilantro.

A Ging Rickey Kavatail. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

The "kavatails" cost $10 for a 16-ounce glass and use kava as the drink's base.

Tropikava's housemade kava is a clear elixir brewed with coconut milk, water and dried kava. For those wanting to drink kava only, a 4-ounce shot served in a coconut shell with a slice of pineapple is $5.

Tropikava's kava is available in five strains, each with different effects outlined on the menu. 

The Hawaiian strain is "rich and earthy with black tea-like undertones" and is known to help with sore muscles and headaches, while Vanuatuan has a peppery flavor with coffeelike undertones and "offers an uplifting euphoric energy."

The kava root is derived from a pepper plant. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, chemicals in the plant have been found to relieve anxiety and pain, promote sleep and relax muscles. However, those with potential liver problems should consult a doctor before taking it, the center says.

In a posting, the National Institutes of Health cites some reports of liver injuries but adds that those incidents may be due to herbs or drugs that were mixed with kava. Supporters note that it has been used socially and ceremonially for hundreds of years in Hawaii, Fiji, and Tonga.

Ramsey, 33, who previously worked in IT and real estate, said he began drinking kava in the South Pacific island Vanuatu when he was visiting a cousin who was volunteering in the Peace Corp.

When he decided to open Chicago's first kava bar, Ramsey selected West Town's Hermitage Avenue.

"I wanted to find a space off the beaten path, just open the doors and see what happens," Ramsey said, adding that he has plans to expand to Colorado next, and then possibly Logan Square or the West Loop.

Currently there are several kava bars in New York City as well as Oregon.

"I'm on the cutting edge of the trend," Ramsey told Eater.

Ramsey solely owns the venture, but the drink menu and recipes were made by the cafe's general manager, Emmeli Blackall, who previously worked at Red Hen Bread and West Town Bakery & Diner.

While a sandwich board sign in front of the cafe extols the benefits of kava —  mental clarity, and increased focus — the menu's finer print carries a warning that kava has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and the product is "not intended to cure, treat, diagnose or prevent any disease."

For those hoping to feel the effects of kava immediately, it might take a few glasses unless you first try it on an empty stomach.

Kavalactone, the compound in kava, has "a reverse tolerance," so the body needs to learn to break it down to be effective, making it stronger when consumed regularly, said barista Stephanie Kennett. 


Topikava Kafe & Juice Bar, 1115 N. Hermitage Ave. Hours are 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Ph: 773-840-7774. 

(l.) Alex Childs and Justin Chin, coworkers at a banking firm, checked out Tropikava on Wednesday. [Photos by DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

Barista Stephanie Kennett with a shot of kava; a Ging Rickey "kavatail." 

Owner Jeff Ramsey in front of a spray painted Tropikava mural. 


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