I don’t like alcohol. And the cultural institution of the neighborhood bar, the “watering hole” where people go for easy camaraderie and relief from their stresses, aided by darkness and drink – and traditionally cigarettes too (though most states no longer permit indoor smoking in bars, so now people stand outside the bar and smoke instead) … has always felt a little sinister to me. “If we’re going to stuff our feelings and slowly kill ourselves, let’s at least do it together” seems to be the implicit contract.
But this womb-like haven I’ve found – a venue where I myself am now seductively drawn to spend hours on many an evening – is the polar opposite of that.
The one thing Nalu Kava Tea House Lounge does have in common with a bar is that it’s kind of dark inside, but it’s a much different texture of darkness.
The darkness is softened by:
- Candles all over the place
- Sparse, strategically placed, delicately tasteful track lighting (as opposed to, say, neon signs lit up by the name of some beer)
- Flourishing green plants throughout the room (and out on the fabulous rooftop patio)
- Thoughtful, arresting (and periodically changing) art on the walls
- The little couch/cushion nook
- The curtained-off booth in the corner
- The cool, strange, and provocative books piled on tables and on the rustic bookshelf
- The intriguing, odd card games and tarot decks dispersed liberally hither and yon
- The quiet, interesting, non-mainstream, often spiritually-tinged music that plays in the background, and which changes all the time
- The gentle demeanor of the servers
And the drinks! First and foremost: kava, an ever-so-mild, ancient plant-based sedative/stimulant that has been used in ceremonial settings for millennia!
And extraordinary chais, smoothies, mushroom and herbal teas, cacoa elixirs… all such premium fantastic stuff!
“Honestly,” states co-owner/founder Holland Nell, “I probably would have preferred to just serve kava and water, maybe coconut water. But we probably wouldn’t be in business then. So it was an organic thing to add more drinks, and I’ve always enjoyed exploring herbs and plants.”
Holland’s business partner and co-owner Mary Rose agrees: “I love plant medicine and I love the idea of a space where everything you get to drink is good for your body. So it can feel like indulgence, it can feel entertaining, you can have that senseof going out in the evening with your friends to a bar or wherever, and additionally you can walk away feeling like you took care of yourself, you gave yourself some love.”
Nalu Kava does not serve alcohol. This is a life-giving place. Not to harp on that topic, but I have a deep-seated belief that alcohol corrodes the soul, while kava dignifies it. Holland and Mary are less reactionary than me when it comes to alcohol, but they are true believers in the wonders of kava.
“I stumbled into a kava bar in Fort Lauderdale, FL when I was 21,” recalls Holland. “I began hanging out there, and the kava was amazing. Not only did it help me with my anxiety and depression, but I was meeting people and feeling like I was finally able to socialize in a way that I had been wanting to my entire young adult life.”
“Kava has the effect of relaxing people and opening them up,” Mary affirms. “When we met, Holland had knowledge of kava, a relationship with the plant and its medicine, and she knew people in the kava world, and she had this vision of opening a kava bar. My husband Sean and I were involved in the local performance community; we could contribute by bringing theatrical and art elements into the space. Also, because Sean does construction and renovation, Holland suggested he could build out the space for sweat equity in the business.”
Sean, a highly skilled craftsman, built Nalu Kava’s exquisite hardwood bar, tables, shelves, and outdoor planters, and created a small elevated stage space indoors. Over its four years of existence, Nalu Kava has hosted an eclectic assortment of off-the-beaten-track cultural events, from salons and book discussions to unusual musical performances and embodied song circles, kids’ open mics to adults-only Standup Smut, kava-making classes to sacred tobacco ceremonies (on the patio!).
But perhaps Nalu Kava’s most charming quality is its convivial and intelligent culture. The people I’ve met and the spontaneous conversations I’ve struck up there – often with complete strangers – have been lovely and unpredictable and simply … awake. The atmosphere is one of subtly heightened presence. Even when the room is full, it never exactly feels “busy” in an encroaching-on-you kind of way.
Mary says, “I love watching people who don’t know each other meet, and the conversations that arise. I get to see as conversation starts to spread in the room and different people pipe in from all sides. Every time I come to work, I’m happy. I love the people that come in, I love the conversations we have. I have made so many great connections with new people by working here. It feels like a place where my life expands.”
Holland puts it just a little differently. “I just wanted to create a safe space where people could feel okay to be themselves. We all exist for a reason, we’re all children of the universe, we all belong, and everyone should feel welcome. There is so much synchronicity in this world, and I feel like kava really opens up the portal for those synchronicities to happen.”
To be clear, I’m not always in a social mood when I go to Nalu Kava. Sometimes I like to sit alone and read or write – and lots of other people do that too. The space is amenable to solitude as well as communion, which is kind of an unusual trick, I think.
All in all, I visit Nalu Kava to be nourished physically, spiritually, and sensually (see: extra dark drinking chocolate). Having visited many dozens of times over the last few years, I can honestly say I’ve never regretted going there even when it’s been out of my way or off my established agenda. My experiences at Nalu Kava Tea House Lounge have ranged from sweetly pleasant and refreshing to magnificently delightful.
The existence of Nalu Kava has enriched my life. If you live in the Portland area, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Check it out.
This is a public service announcement. I was neither asked nor paid to write this.
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