Intricately intertwined in the folklore of the South Pacific, islanders from this remote pocket of the globe would drink this intoxicating pepper root, kava, for its relaxing, blissful properties. It took almost 3,000 years for this potent plant to reach our shores. But now that it's here at the Mystic Water Kava Bar in Hollywood, it might not be here to stay.
It's already banned in Poland. And Portugal.
Like a scene from Avatar with the overarching tree branches and kaleidoscopic murals, Mystic Kava Water Bar is a watering hole for the barefoot and dreadlocked. The driest bar in the neighborhood (there's not a drop of alcohol here), the drug of choice is kava. But owner Avigodor Weber fears the alcohol and pharmaceutical lobbies will have their way and get the sacred root banned.
"Alcohol lobbies against kava. Big pharma lobbies against kava. They smear the name of kava!" Weber says with animated hand motions. "They say kava will cause liver complications, [but] it's been proven that kava doesn't fuck with your liver. It's just a stigma. I have people show up [to the bar], they've had five martinis at the Mexican place next door, and they say, 'I hear kava is bad for your liver.' It's an education thing."
In the past decade, this wonder plant first appeared in Hawaii and then slowly spread to the West Coast and eventually to the Sunshine State. A relatively new phenomenon, the effects of the root are not fully understood, and so, for the most part, kava goes unregulated: There's nothing on the books linking it to DUIs, there is no age restriction, and you can even buy it at Whole Foods.
In 2001, the Medicines Control Agency in the United Kingdom released a report claiming there was no safe dose of kava to predict which individuals would react adversely to the drug. That sparked a ban on kava that began in Germany and spread through the rest of the E.U.
The following year, in 2002, the CDC followed with another report linking the mind-altering tea to liver damage, claiming "a total of 11 patients who used kava products had liver failure and underwent subsequent liver transplantation." The terms "jaundice," "hepatitis," and "necrosis" stand out in particular.
A kava believer, Weber is unfazed. Touting the vibe the sacred root creates and its health benefits, Weber claims the tea is therapeutic, and his bar is in a transcendental harmony with nature.
"[This bar] has an energy, a vibration. I work very hard to hold it down," Weber says of his bar. "The space itself is medicine in some strange way. It recharges you and gives you a completely different perspective on life. I see the healing occur right before my eyes every day."
In 2009, Weber opened his bar with only $8 in the bank. He had been waiting tables before and was inspired after being a regular at a kava bar in Boca.
"I had $10,000 on my credit card and a $16,000 loan. For two years, we didn't even have a sign outside," Weber remembers. "But within six months, I became self-sufficient, completely debt-free. If kava didn't work, I wouldn't be where I am."
In the past four years, Weber has opened two more kava bars: one in San Diego in 2010 and one in Ithaca two months ago. Weber gifted each bar to one of his sisters. He jokes that since he has three sisters, he needs to open another in New York for her next.
Modest about his generosity, Weber hopes to one day reach out to those struggling with addiction because he sincerely believes kava is the cure.
"In San Diego, these guys coming back from Iraq and stuff, they feel like they can go to my [kava] bar and feel like they don't need to keep looking over their backs," Weber points out. "My next thing is to connect kava to alcoholics to show you don't have to get tanked to cope. Kava is medicine, it's medicine before anything else."
Shipped directly from the island of Vanuatu in Fiji, the drink is powerful and numbs the inside of the mouth on first sip. Other than flavors, like chai and maple, that can get mixed into this inebriating elixir, kava, plainly put, just doesn't taste good. You can euphemize and say kava has an "earthy texture," but really this murky mixture of water and powdered root tastes more like muddy water with a tinge of soap.
"It doesn't taste good," Weber warns. "But you don't drink it for the flavor, but for the effect. It's like drinking a massage."
Weber estimates that 70 percent of the customers have never been there before and have never tried kava. But of those first-time patrons, more than half return.
"Not too many people know what kava is, you are petty much explaining what kava is to people all day long, but once they realize that it's a stress reliever, it improves sociability, it's an anti-anxiety, an anti-depressant, and an alternative to alcohol -- well, people remember, and they come back."
Mystic Water Kava Bar is located at 2037 Hollywood Blvd. It is open from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Sunday and Monday and from 2 p.m. to 4 a.m. the rest of the week. Call 954-391-7056, or visit thekavabar.com.