In tune with the times

Mike’s Place is bringing nightly music and beer back to Jerusalem – this time with a kosher menu.

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By Amihai Zippor

10/15/2010

(Jerusalem Post) When the downtown block of property on Jaffa Road housing Mike’s Place was set to be demolished and replaced with a large mall, the landmark bar was forced to shut its doors in January 2009.

Now, after a brief hiatus, the establishment is less than two weeks away from its grand reopening, hoping to bring nightly live music and a full kosher menu back to the capital.

For long-time Mike’s Place co-owner and Israeli blues musician Assaf Ganzman, being back in Jerusalem was a no-brainer.

“Part of the Jewish wedding vows include a part about Jerusalem, and I really connected with that when I was getting married,” Ganzman told In Jerusalem. “I grew up in Jerusalem, my brother lives here, and our partner and half our staff from the Tel Aviv locations are Jerusalemites. We started in Jerusalem and did great and it really, really hurt us to close the last location,” he said.

First opened in 1993 by photojournalist Michael Vigodda, the bar was taken over by Ganzman after Vigodda returned to Canada in 1995. As the clientele grew, the bar moved locations (the new site will be its fifth), yet each setting retained the close-knit “living room” feel of the original space. Since 2001, Ganzman and his co-owners have overseen the expansion of two other locations in Tel Aviv and over the past year sought a franchisee for the new Jerusalem location. That’s when Reuben Beiser stepped in.

An architect, former Mike’s Place customer and friend of Ganzman’s, Beiser was in the process of deciding which direction to take his own business when the opportunity to be the new owner-manager presented itself.

“Someone said to me it must be easy as an architect. You don’t have any overhead; you don’t need an office, a secretary, etc. You can take your laptop and go do projects here and there. To one degree it’s true, but I wanted to be an architect with an office, which is a difficult business in general,” explained Beiser.

“Then I joked about how I don’t want to be in a room and hold meetings in a coffee shop, but if I owned the coffee shop that would be different, though there would have to be beer.”

Seriously considering a bar with an upstairs office, Beiser knew that if there was anybody he was going to ask about the industry, it was Ganzman. “He said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do that, why don’t you take over Mike’s Place?’” Beiser recalled.

Searching for a location, Beiser approached Barry Sibel of the Village Green restaurant on Jaffa Road, and the two came to an agreement on sharing the property.

“It was a strategic business decision for both of us,” Sibel said. “We decided we can do everything we need to do and want to do in smaller premises, and the big picture is we are hoping to have more Village Greens in other parts of Jerusalem and other places as well. Any business that can cut its overhead and still do the same kind of trade is probably wise to do so, and that’s what we decided.”

As part of the arrangement, Village Green retained two-thirds of its upstairs space, leaving the remaining area and the large lower level to Beiser. A sound-proof wall was erected between the two establishments, and the fact that music from Mike’s Place will be played only on the lower level allayed any fears of noise affecting Village Green customers.

Meanwhile, part of the agreement between Beiser and Ganzman was that the new location would be kosher, as in the past many yeshiva and seminary students and other religious music lovers would come to listen to bands and drink beer but were never fully content.

“We were open for many years not being kosher, and even though we had a lot of religious clients, they didn’t seem comfortable and it was an uphill battle,” said Ganzman. “I believe that Jerusalem is the kind of town where you have to be kosher, and our products will compete with any competition, including the nonkosher market.”

The new Mike’s Place also hopes to be a positive influence on the neighborhood, as the location is right in the middle of what’s known as “Crack Square.” The owners hope to help clean up the graffiti and the smell of urine, and change the dynamic. Furthermore, it will take on the characteristic of its sister locations as a restaurant-bar stressing the home-away-from-home atmosphere for Westerners.

“People used to ask Revisionist Zionist founder Vladimir Jabotinsky why if he was so Zionistic did he write about Odessa so much,” Beiser said. “I believe there is always nostalgia for where a person grew up that he can’t get away from, and there’s that aspect for people living in Israel. There’s definitely a community of people who made tremendous sacrifice bringing their families here, and with all that they still have a nostalgia for their home team, for their home food and holidays like Thanksgiving,” he said.

“Also Jerusalem has a whole group of tourists and businessmen seeing a lot of things they are not used to seeing, tasting a lot of foods they are not used to eating. During their trip for one or two days, they want those tastes of home or to watch that game they really don’t want to miss. That’s where Mike’s Place comes in,” he said.

Still, the emphasis will be on the music, as Mike’s Place always had an appreciation for various genres and drew musicians of all backgrounds, including some internationally recognized groups such as the Moshav Band. In recent years, a combination of a lack of suitable playing space and the mess from the light rail construction diminished the cultural nightlife downtown; but with that project nearing its end, the owners and the community of musicians are excited to get reacquainted with the stage.

“The place has nostalgic meaning for me because it was the first time I had a band playing on a weekly basis and developed a following of sorts,” Jon Nelson of Eden Mi Qedem said. “It’s where my music developed on stage in Israel, and I was able to bring together disparate influences that I had accumulated over the years and put them all together,” he said.

Nelson was one of the last to perform at the old Mike’s Place and looks forward to playing there again soon.

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