So Berkeley finally gets a not-so-secret supper club, a down-home version of guerrilla gourmet hipster hangouts in Oakland and San Francisco, but now its future is uncertain.
At press time, the Multi Culti Grill and Birdland Jazz, the city’s only underground BBQ and jazz joint is retreating from its street-front presence in North Berkeley and morphing into the more clandestine Birdland Jazzista Social Club. This, says its founder, is to circumvent city action to shut down the nascent nightclub for code violations — including a lack of a special-event permit.
For those not in the know, the spontaneous community chow and music spot has been a happening Friday night attraction in a converted garage for seven months now.
The brainchild of artist Michael Parayno, better known as the Bird Man for his one-of-a-kind rustic birdhouse creations made from recycled materials, the grill-and-groove venue has been bringing a little cultural nightlife to an otherwise sleepy stretch of Sacramento Street opposite the North Berkeley BART station.
Throughout the summer, fall, and even on cold, winter nights, commuters and community members stop by, drawn in by the unmistakable smells of barbecue and the sounds of mellow jazz emanating from the grill and garage in front of Parayno’s house. The weekly meet-up has developed a loyal following — and fast.
I met with Parayno, 46, who has a master’s degree from UC and teaches ethnic studies at local colleges, a few weeks ago, and stopped by last Friday to survey the scene, which included jazz afficionados, young families, old timers, students, couples, curious locals, kids, and dogs.
Outside strings of lights and a white canopy, which creates a cosy nook for futon couches and a table boasting a hookah pipe, are the first clues that something different is going down here.
A chalkboard announces the sidewalk menu. Folks wait in line for wasabi and Coke marinated ribs and calamari rings.
A black swatch of fabric separates the outside world from the garage-cum-nightclub, and a hand-scrawled sign above a birdhouse announces “community supported barbecue, suggested donation: $10-$20”.
The money goes to the musicians. Six sponsors, including Parayno, take turns springing for food (selling BBQ would warrant a visit from the health department) and kick in extra when donations don’t cover the cost of the band.
There’s even a spot outdoors with a TV screen for sports fans, tuned to a boxing fight last week.
Inside, birdhouses line the walls, as do brown leather couches. A stage with a piano is set up in one corner, candles flicker, a couple of neon signs add to the ambiance.
A crowd trickles in to eat and listen. It’s BYOB, unfold your own chair once the lounges are all taken, and find a spot on the uneven brick floor to drink in the atmosphere. A word to the wise: Hang on to your six-pack rather than filling the small fridge, if you want to go back for seconds.
Tonight, Morgan Lim is behind the grill, cooking his signature Malaysian-flavored spicy skewers. The evening kicks off at 8:00, the band takes the stage at 8:30, and the second act at 11.
The Friday festivities are due to go on hiatus after a final show on December 17 this year.
Scheduling for 2011 is unclear as of now. Parayno hopes to resolve matters with the city and obtain any necessary permits in time to bring Birdland and the Multi Culti Grill back in February. Stay tuned.
He will open his garage to the public again to showcase his birdhouses this weekend as part of Open Studios. Chances are, Parayno, a die-hard jazz fan, will have some cool licks playing in the background.
How did this barbecue-jazz venue get cooking?
On Memorial Day, I was grilling outside the front of my house and some people walking down the street stopped, said it smelt good, and asked if they could try some. I had the radio tuned to KCSM 91.1, the local jazz station. That was the beginning of our community supported barbecue and jazz.
Why a Multi Culti Grill?
Myself, Morgan Lim, and the other three regular artists who rotate turns at the grill — we don’t call ourselves chefs or cooks — had been looking for ways to express ourselves through the medium of meat, working with spices and sauces from our diverse cultural backgrounds, instead of fabric, colors, and sketches.
Morgan grew up in Malaysia, I’m from the Philippines. We wanted to experiment with flavors. Our menu includes Penang Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce, Rib-Eye Beef with Rendang Sauce, Java Rub on Pork Loin Satay, Petaling Jaya Shrimp Satay, and Tilapia Sambal Curry Wrapped in Banana Leaf.
I’ve been to more than 40 countries and I love street food, it’s where you find the most innovative, authentic, and affordable eats. So it’s fusion food, mixed cuisines, a Multi Culti Grill.
Why do you think this venue has taken off?
People really want to find ways to connect with each other, and what better way to do that than through food and music? It’s a great way to build community and catch up with friends. We have people who come every week and newcomers each week as well. A lot of my students come by, friends of friends, increasingly people I don’t know at all who heard about us from someone else stop by to check things out.
Practically speaking, I’m opposite BART, bordered by Ohlone Park, and musicians, many of whom play here, or students live in the immediate buildings. There’s a group of students from Europe who live upstairs; they’ve told their parents they live above a nightclub. They think it’s cool, up until this week we haven’t had any complaints.
Who has played at Birdland?
Terrence Brewer, Tammy Hall, Nancy Wright. Every other week the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble plays the second set at 11 p.m. The kids love it, I’m not sure how happy the parents are about the time. The musicians don’t come here for the money. It’s a supportive place to play and the vibe is right.
Do any Berkeley characters show up?
We have two Larrys. One Larry combs the place — he’s your typical older, long-haired Berkeley guy, and he picks up every cigarette butt and piece of trash off the floor. That’s how he wants to contribute. Another Larry, who hangs out in Ohlone Park, comes by early Saturday morning and collects all the bottles and cans. So by Saturday morning you have no idea there was a jazz club here the night before. The place is spotless.
Right now, we have to work with the city so we can continue. We’d like to keep things up front, in public, that’s how you build community — not by being hidden away out back.
But we want to expand out the back, too. When it gets busy we can have 200 people here, and we don’t want anyone to have to wait for food. We might have an area for our most loyal supporters, not exactly a V.I.P. club, but we want to take care of the people who support what we do.
We hope to offer our spiced skewers online and eventually open a retail outlet. I’d love to become the best jazz venue in the area aside from Yoshi’s. We’ve got plans.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.