At first glance, Lacuna Kava Bar looks like a spot you might find in a mellow beach town, concealed in a gray brick facade hugged by vibrant green vines. The sign out front reads "Fresh Brews: Kava Tea, Kratom Tea, CBD Tea," with a quippy "Stay Highdrated" reminder underneath. The blue light emanating from its exterior matches the walls inside.
Lacuna opened its downtown doors earlier this year on March 22, as a "space that bridges the gap between work and play." Owner Chase Brendle noticed kava bars were popping up frequently around Fort Lauderdale, Florida, near the CrossFit gym he owned at the time. When he relocated to Phoenix in 2018, he asked himself what space he could fill as a business owner. Kava immediately came to mind.
Personally, Brendle is a huge proponent of holistic living.
"These plant-based wellness solutions bring you all of the benefits of Western medication, from managing anxiety and inflammation to pain management and mood enhancement," he says. "You can feel better without all of the side effects. Mother Nature has an amazing way of making things work together, and the interaction between us and what our planet already provides is no different."
Wander into the easygoing interior, where a host stand adorned with succulents and other plants greets you via a wooden sign with white lettering. "Welcome! What's your Lacuna?" it asks. To the right, you'll find a long wall bathed in indigo, fronted by a matching marbled aquamarine bar.
Take a seat at one of the 10 barstools and a friendly kava-tender might ask if you've been there before. The trio of televisions behind the bar alternate between photos of island life and explanations of the establishment's unique offerings.
If you'd rather cozy up with some friends, opt for the daybed in the far corner, or perch on one of the two black upholstered couches opposite the bar. The 1,000-square-foot location is just the right combination of open and cozy.
"I think alcohol tends to have a numbing effect on who we are, whereas kava and kratom open you up more," Brendle says of the experience. "Having that relaxed feeling, that lower level of anxiety, allows people to share and connect on a deeper level."
So what exactly are kava and kratom? And what makes this place different from your standard bar?
Kava, or piper methysticum, which translates to "intoxicating pepper," is a crop from the Pacific Islands. It traditionally has brought indigenous people together in ceremonies and social events, and reportedly is known for its calming effect.
Lacuna serves kava on its own in a two-ounce bula bomb (think a shot of liquor without the alcohol), or in the form of tea mixed with various island-inspired ingredients. It's all poured into a festive coconut shell garnished with a slice of pineapple. The kava colada is a play on a piña colada with pineapple juice and coconut milk, while the Thai Sunset is Lacuna's version of a Thai iced tea. Don't be surprised when your tongue starts to feel numb and tingly after drinking this down. It's completely normal.
Mitragyna speciosa, also known as kratom, is a tropical evergreen tree from the coffee family, which originates in southeast Asia. Harvard Health indicates that its properties "range from stimulant-like, energizing and uplifting, to opiate-like, causing drowsiness and euphoria."
There is some controversy around this plant, as proponents and scientists believe in its ability to relieve pain and anxiety, and possibly even to combat addiction to opioid medications. However, the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to ban the herb and make it a Schedule 1 drug — in the same league as heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy — back in 2016. They called it an "imminent hazard to public safety" at the time, then withdrew the intent to bar the substance after considerable pushback.
All squabbles aside, kratom can be enjoyed at Lacuna in many forms. Experience it as a matcha-style tea, in a Bloody Kratom Sunday rimmed with Tajin, or in a Cross-Country Limeade crafted with fresh watermelon.
"A lot of students take kratom for studying," Brendle says. "I have some competitive bodybuilders who use it as a pre-workout because it gives you a nice, smooth, sustained energy without the crash."
Lacuna is a Latin word meaning an unfilled space or gap. Brendle hopes that his patrons will use that gap as an urban oasis, to escape the inherent grind of work and city life. His vision is to change the way the country socializes and interacts.
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"It has been beyond organic — the community has pushed us forward. I think it's because people are really looking and yearning for that connection. In the technological society that we're in nowadays, while we're always 'connected,' we're not really. You miss that intimacy you have when you get to talk to someone face to face. And this is the spot for it," he says. "Plus, when you go out drinking, you're basically taking fun away from the next day."
And there is certainly fun to be had at this downtown destination. A rotating art exhibit honoring the roots of the building as an Arizona State University art gallery, a guitar for creating your own jams, and games like UNO and Cards Against Humanity all can be found inside the space. Monday evening pays homage to the industry with specials for hospitality staff, while Wednesday is comedy and open mic night.
Bottoms up, or as the islanders would say, "bula." An exuberant grin formed on Brendle's face as he explains this term. "It's an expression that means something between cheers and namaste."
Lacuna Kava Bar.
821 North Third Street, #12; 602-237-6158
Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight, daily