A quiet street off Division near Noble Square with minimal signage is home to Chicago's first dedicated kava bar, Tropikava Kafe. Kava, not confused with the Spanish wine, cava, is an ingredient popular in the Pacific Islands. It's not government regulated, but drinkers have described the effect akin to consuming booze or smoking marijuana.
Tropikava owner Jeff Ramsey isn't worried about any potential blowback right now. He opened the cafe in the middle of March without much fanfare. There's room for 15 at the bar, and a couch and seating for about 25 more inside the space. The cafe features a menu of eight juices that cost $7, drawing customers "off the beaten path." Nearby Wicker Park Fitness attracts health-conscious customers, but they're open until 2 a.m. on weekends as an alternative to normal bars. Ramsey said they're the first kava bar in the Midwest.
"I'm on the cutting edge of the trend," he said.
Kava is a relative of peppers, so there's a bit of kick in each juice, and a buzz that comes with it. The menu includes drinks like the Bell-ini (red bell pepper, strawberry, apple, jalapeño, cilantro). Ramsey made a trip about seven years ago to the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific and tried kava for the first time. Since opening the cafe he's seen customers from Florida and New York, all places that have already seen kava bars open. Ramsey touted how kava doesn't lead to hangovers.
"People love to get [messed] up," he said. "They love something to alter their mood."
The Straight Edge crowd may not approve, but Ramsey sees alcohol as a complement. The cafe is BYO, as customers can bring in champagne which Ramsey said pairs well with their juices and creates tasty mimosas. Traditionally, kava is brewed with almonds and cinnamon with agave nectar.
The vibe inside could be ideal for Tinder with music played at a low volume, providing an intimate atmosphere. There's photos of beaches, as Ramsey wanted to created an island getaway. There's a type of bottle service with the cafe's bowls, ideal for groups and served with a ladle. There's also five smoothies on the menu, but Ramsey said they don't ideally go well with kava; customers can order them on the side. There's four different kavas that are added into juices like any supplement, all with different flavor profiles. Traditional add-ons, like protein powder and chia seeds, are also available.
The business continues to evolve. For example, Ramsey said he wants to install windows that fully open to the street giving the space an airy feeling. He purchased the property about two years ago and wants to open two more cafes in Chicago, but the Indiana native right now said he's in process of opening a cafe over in Colorado. The drink isn't filling, but Ramsey has advise.
"Kava is best on an empty stomach," he said.
Tropikava Kafe, 1115 N. Hermitage Ave., (773) 840-7774, Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday; 10 a.m. until close on Sunday. They plan on opening on Mondays starting on Memorial Day.