What Next for Berkeley’s Multi Culti Grill and Birdland Jazz?

by Sarah Henry on December 10, 2010 · 22 comments

in berkeley bites,comfort food,food events,global cuisine,street food

Birdland Jazz Logo/Eric Arnold: EKAphotography

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 as of 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, 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 for about seven months now.

Michael Parayno

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 alike 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 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 cozy nook for futon couches and a table boasting a hookah pipe, are the first clues that something different is going down here.

What's cooking at the Multi Culti Grill?/Eric Arnold: EAKphotography

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 for a TV screen for sports fans, tuned to a boxing fight tonight.

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.

Morgan Lim satay skewers at the Multi Culti Grill.

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 this weekend to showcase his birdhouses 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 the concept of 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, Java Rub on Pork Loin Satay, Petaling Jaya Shrimp Satay, and Tilapia Sambal Curry Wrapped in Banana Leaf.

I’ve been to over 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, so until this week we haven’t had any complaints.

Tammy Hall and friends play Birdland Jazz/Eric Arnold: EAKphotography

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 too 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 goes through 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.

What’s next?

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.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Street Food Scene Mostly Bypasses Berkeley

An Edible Education in Thailand

Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Ruth Pennebaker December 10, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Sounds like a wonderful place. Hope they can work it out with the city.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Maybe We’ll Get a Rooster- Instead


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Fingers crossed, Ruth.


Vera Marie Badertscher December 10, 2010 at 2:38 pm

A place I’d love to go to. But I’m not sure why it is necessary to dodge the health department. Even street fairs with food and mobile restaurants get clearance. So it takes a little effort, why would that be so difficult? Oh, forgot. This is Berkeley. Have to go with the iconoclast flow.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..LAST CHANCE For the Passports With Purpose Glow


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

You got it, Vera. As reported here before, there’s a reason why street eats flourish in nearby Emeryville, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Vendors say dealing with the city is too difficult to start such mobile food businesses in Berkeley.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart December 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Blame it on an avalanche of real life, but I cannot even imagine having the time/energy to have a rogue supper club. Clearly, I’m not a hipster or whatever that word is these days.


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Trust me, I have no time to run one, but this joint is just down the street. My son and I walked there and joined friends for an hour’s entertainment last week. The middle school boys appreciated the marshmallows and TV screen, enjoyed the live music, and were wide-eyed at the sight of a hookah pipe.


Alexandra December 10, 2010 at 4:14 pm

This blog always makes me wish Berkeley could export its foodie ideas, gemlike. The rest of the country could do with a bit more ornamentation.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Snows Wins Raves at Christmastime


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Oh, Sandy, I bet with a bit of digging you’d find similar stuff in other parts of the country — especially in rural communities where people have to figure out their own fun.


Sheryl December 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I think I’m living on the wrong coast. What a great place to hang out, enjoy some good food and music and some socializing. I – and I’m sure all their loyal fans – hope they can work things out so it can endure.


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Mike’s been dealing with various city departments to try to get things squared away and told me that one of the local cops — who bought a birdhouse — says he won’t shut them down before things get sorted.


Jane Boursaw December 10, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Ugh – city codes and ordinances! This sounds like such a cool place – I hope it works out to stay open and retain its uniqueness. You meet the coolest people, Sarah.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..New Movie Friday- Narnia! The Tourist! The Fighter! Watch the Trailers


Sarah Henry December 10, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Stopped by tonight, Jane, and the shrimp satay skewers were getting snapped up and a group of jazz fans enjoyed the music while kids made smores in the park. All very low-key. You can’t even here the music from the street. We’ll see what happens next.


Susan December 11, 2010 at 11:28 am

Wow – this sounds like a really neat venue and I hope they’re able to continue.


MyKidsEatSquid December 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

I hope they’ll be able to continue too. Their food sounds so creative and cool.


Merr December 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I’m rooting for them. No neighborhood likes to lose an original spot. Fingers crossed!


Sarah Henry December 12, 2010 at 7:50 am

Susan, MKES, Merr: Will keep you posted.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. December 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

That bbq sounds DIVINE – I’d love to have something like this down the street from me (and I have secret aspirations to start an ad hoc supper club too). Food laws can be pretty draconian, so I hope they can find a way to succeed.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Good Luck Pork and Sauerkraut


simone December 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

Does anyone know if it’s going to be cancelled tonight due to the storm…???


Christa Johnston December 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Stopped by tonight, Jane, and the shrimp satay skewers were getting snapped up and a group of jazz fans enjoyed the music while kids made smores in the park. All very low-key. You can’t even here the music from the street. We’ll see what happens next.


Lilly Foreman December 25, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Susan, MKES, Merr: Will keep you posted.


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