Something about the atmosphere of Da Kine’s Kava bar takes me right out of Durham. Maybe it's the flourishing tropical plants in every corner. Perhaps it’s the never-ending loop of waterfalls, crashing waves and pristine reefs that play on the television screens, accompanying the gentle strum of Hawaiian music that drifts through my ears.
Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m onto a new Kava mocktail, making easy conversation with Deborah Rosengarth, the bartender, and feeling at home in a place I’ve never been to before.
It’s late on a warm and drowsy Sunday evening, and in just the past hour, I have learned about Japanese martial arts, been psychoanalyzed by a therapist-in-training, discussed my plans for the future with complete strangers and tried my first cup of Kava.
The pleasant atmosphere is no accident. It's been carefully curated by owners Zoey Best, Trinity ‘12, and Brent Waffle, who wanted to create a place that embodied their passion for Hawaii, Kava and bringing people together. Da Kine’s is the result—a non-alcoholic bar where anyone can hang out, have a few drinks and safely be themselves.
Da Kine’s opened in July 2020, but the idea for the space originated long before then. Kava is a staple beverage in Hawaii, where Best, who is 30, and Waffle, who is 36, both lived separately before they met working at the same company in North Carolina. After discovering a shared history and love for the Aloha State, their first date was at a Kava bar in Wilmington. The couple decided that they wanted to recreate the alcohol-free environment in Durham, Best’s home and college town.
A natural antidepressant, the Kava root comes from the Pacific Islands and contains chemicals called kavalactones that affect receptors in the brain, causing both mental and physical relaxation. It’s a euphoric feeling, almost like drinking alcohol, but not one that impairs your judgment.
“It’s difficult to find a niche that hasn’t been filled yet,” Best says. “The Kava component in our lives seemed to be lacking in this area, and we decided to jump on that opportunity.”
The couple started out by selling their drinks at the Durham Farmers Market in cups. However, the main goal was to find a storefront.
“One of the best parts about Kava is that it’s a social lubricant,” Best says. “There’s something special about having a physical space where people can come and socialize and have that full experience.”
When Joe Van Gogh moved out of their location on West Chapel Hill Street during the pandemic, it seemed like the perfect time for Da Kine’s to move in. Best and Waffle painted the turquoise walls themselves, and since then, the menu and bar have been constantly evolving.
The store is peppered with pieces from Best and Waffle’s lives in Hawaii that highlight the personal aspect of the Da Kine experience. The mural out front depicts where Waffle used to work, while the three-paneled photo hanging on the wall shows the island that Best used to live on. Above the flavored syrups are Waffle’s martial arts certificates from the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Behind the counter dangles a curved wooden Lua weapon for Japanese martial arts, lined with shark teeth and waiting for action.
When I ask if he knows how to use the weapon, Waffle answers without hesitation: “Yup.”
Best, who wasn’t a huge fan of Kava at first, focused on making the flavor more approachable and easier for people to drink. Her background working as a bartender fueled her experimental mixing of Kava with syrups, juices and even Margarita mixes.
“Most of our recipe testing was in my parents' kitchen,” Best says, laughing. “There was a lot of research and development that went into this.”
Along with their bottled flavors, like Hibiscus lemonade and Cucumber Mojito, the bar also serves mocktails. My second drink was a Haleakala Sunrise, one of the most popular mocktails on the menu. The drink is named after a mountain in Maui, which is said to have the most beautiful sunrise in the world. Best, who wears gold earrings and summery jean shorts, says that the name “Haleakala” means “House of the Sun.”
The menu also includes Kratom, another plant extract with opioid properties, CBD and botanical teas. Each has a different effect, and the bartender guides customers in the right direction based on how they want to feel.
Tonight, I’m also trying a new version of the traditional Kava, which is now offered with mango juice. Rosengarth, the bartender on duty, guides me through my first Kava experience. She advises me to get a “low tide,” or a size small, of my first drink. “High tide” is the larger size for more avid consumers.
The Kava has a bitter, earthy taste that makes the back of my throat go dry and prompts Waffle to tell me that I’m not allergic—that’s a normal sensation.
Across the bar, Kyera McCrimmon, a 23-year-old customer with spiky red hair tied up in a handkerchief, spies me taking tentative mouthfuls from my cup.
“I see you sipping on that Kava—you gotta drink it in one go!” She cups her hands and downs an imaginary drink.
Rosengarth notices my worried look and assures me that I can continue to sip.
McCrimmon has been coming to Da Kine’s for a little less than a year.
“I usually get nervous in a lot of social situations, but I don’t get nervous here,” she says as she works calmly on a punch needle pattern with red yarn.
After a few minutes of watching me talk to Waffle about the bar, she jumps in again.
“You’re a people person,” she says definitively. Upon seeing my reaction, she reassesses. “OK. You’re an introvert, but you’re curious about people.”
Her second analysis is spot-on, which makes sense, as she is in the process of going to graduate school to become a therapist.
Waffle stresses the importance of the “aloha-mentality” at Da Kine’s, or what Best prefers to call “Southern hospitality.” The name “Da Kine” comes from the Hawaiian pidgin word that can act as a replacement for “anyone,” “anywhere” or “anything.” Da Kine’s is all about
kindness, acceptance and looking out for each other.
Thomas Anderson is another regular who finds solace at the bar. A solar-consulting salesman, Anderson likes to drink a cup of Kava before spending the day knocking on strangers' doors.
“I found Da Kine’s at just the right time,” he said, his eyes serious behind his glasses. “I don’t know where I’d be without it. I wouldn’t have gotten half as far as I did in a year if it wasn’t for this place.”
Anderson takes a drag from his vape and tells me about his plans to save up and buy a house in Durham in the future. I share my plans to move out of New York after college. My mind is clear, but I feel myself laughing more freely, blinking a little too slowly and forgetting the passage of time.
The sun goes down quickly, and the air is suddenly cool. Rosengarth wipes down the bar with a towel and cleans containers and towels off the floor. She moved here from Boone, and although she admits to missing the mountains, she says “the people and career and cultural opportunities in Durham are worth the change of scenery.” Her favorite thing about the job is working with Best and Waffle.
Although Deb’s starting to close up, a few people linger to finish their Kava and talk about everything and nothing. With a wave goodbye to the place and its crowd, I leave Da Kine’s with my spirits lifted, my head clear, my body relaxed and my heart full.
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