Eating Out: Izy’s place, the second time around

The roaring success of a restaurant that offers good food and down-home comfort in Beersheba dates back to when its proprietor had his first venture pulled out from under his feet.

November 12, 2010 16:39
Inside Izy's Bar in Beersheba.

311_bar. (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)

It’s pretty hard to improve on perfection, but second- time-around restaurateur “Izy,” proprietor of what’s become Beersheba’s most popular eating establishment, appears to have done it.

Celebrating its first birthday on November 3, Izy’s Chicken Bar-B-Q and Grill captured the hearts of local diners from the beginning.

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Maybe it’s because Izy wasn’t trying to do something new. He was trying to do what he’d done before – only better, and in a new location.

“I built and ran Izy’s Bar for 13 years with great success,” the 49-year-old food-meister recalls. “When I lost it three years ago, I knew that in any new place I built, I wanted to recreate the very same atmosphere we’d had there.”

Izy’s Bar had been an adjunct to his riding stables, located near the veterinary hospital near Omer. “We just had a simple kitchen serving pub food. But Izy’s became a legend – everyone remembers it. If you wanted good food, great drinks and down-home comfort, that’s where you went. I wanted to create that again.”

The new location, just west of OnePlaza on Derech Hebron, co-located with a Delek gas station, puts the new Izy’s in the midst of several new shopping centers.
The décor surprises most first-timers. How many eateries in Israel use enlarged reproductions of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers as art? Or, for that matter, how many adopt an English name, spelled out phonetically in Hebrew?

Some of the English touches might stem from the fact that Izy’s wife, Kati, a riding instructor from England, made aliya in 1990 just before marrying the Beersheba-born guy who owned the riding stable.

“I was born here,” Izy Israel says, adding that his name is really Isodor, after his Bulgarian grandfather.

Horses played a big part in his life. “Back when I was growing up, there was a lady in Neveh Noy who had horses. I loved being there, helping with the horses. Opening a riding stable seemed like a natural; then came the bar.”

But it’s really the tale of how the first bar was lost that flavors the success of the new Izy’s. Trouble erupted because the land on which the bar and stables sat was owned by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Three years ago, they terminated my contract. I lost my lease and everything I’d worked so hard to build,” he says with obvious pain. “I couldn’t afford to just walk away. I had to sue BGU.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Izy’s father was stricken with cancer.

“We’re six siblings, but our youngest brother was killed in an accident and our family hadn’t really recovered from that. Still, since I’d lost the bar, I was available to help my father. During the last six months of his life, I cared for him. I was holding him, hugging him, when he passed away.

“For a year after that, I couldn’t do anything. How could I think of celebrating when my father wasn’t there?” Still, the urge to start a new Izy’s gathered steam.

“I realized that in Beersheba, most bars and cafes cater to the young. They’re places to eat and meet. It looked to me as though there was a need for something different, a more cultural place where you could take your family. If you were looking for a nice restaurant, good food, with a family-friendly setting, there weren’t many options in Beersheba.”

Odd as it sounds, finding the current spot – co-located with a gas station – works well. “We’re not in the same building – the gas station is next door. But they wanted a nice restaurant for their customers who also wanted a bite to eat, and that works well for us, too.”

Izy’s opened, but more trouble loomed.

“Avi is my business partner, the best partner anyone could possibly have. On a Sunday morning a little over a month after we opened, I got a call from Avi’s brother.

‘Are you sitting down?’ he asked. I told him I was. Avi had suffered a very serious heart attack, he said. ‘He’s two legs up [in heaven] already,’ his brother told me, adding that he’d been resuscitated 16 times after his heart had stopped.

“He was in a coma with a very grim prognosis. Even if he woke, the doctors were afraid of brain damage.

“I put on my tefillin, and I prayed. I told God that this was it. I’d lost my old business, I’d lost my brother, I’d lost my father. Now if I had to lose Avi, too – well, that was it. I’d give up. I couldn’t take any more tragedy.

“If Avi went, I would understand that this wasn’t something I was supposed to do. I’d move on.

“I took off the tefillin and went to the hospital. I walked in and saw his family – all of them smiling and laughing.

“‘You won’t believe it!’ his mother said. ‘Thirty minutes ago, he woke up – and he remembers everything. There’s no brain damage.’

“I was overjoyed. I spoke with him, and Avi told me how he’d been in the tunnel, how he’d followed the white light. He felt so good there he wanted to stay, he said, but then his father – who had also passed away – and my little brother came to him, putting their hands on his shoulders, telling him he had to go back. His life wasn’t finished.

“Avi came back, and now I knew God was smiling on me.”

The new Izy’s took off with so much success, even Izy seems surprised.

“Last week, the Jewish Agency brought in some visitors from Montreal. They couldn’t say enough good things. One of the ladies told me I should open a place like this in Montreal. ‘Make it kosher like this place, and you’d have a hit,’ she said.

“The next day, they all came back for another dinner. I guess we’re doing something right.” But perhaps the biggest surprise is that BGU officials have become some of Izy’s biggest boosters.

“I was wary at first,” Izy admits with a shrug. “My lawsuit is still pending. But about six months ago, a lady called from BGU, saying she was organizing a big dinner for visiting dignitaries. Would I host it in my restaurant? “It made me a little uneasy – I didn’t want any problems, so I asked her to check, to make sure it was okay. She called back, ‘No problem!’

“The night of the dinner came, and I was still concerned. I decided I’d stay in the kitchen, out of sight, and let someone else do the front work. But then something happened, and I had to go out front.

“Who was the first person I ran into? The man I’d had to sue! But it was good. He took me aside and explained that in his position, he didn’t have any choice, either. He said he still liked and respected me, and was delighted with my success here.

“‘This is Beersheba’s first really good restaurant,’ he said. ‘I’ll be a loyal customer.’

“That night, they sat around, telling stories about the old place, how much they missed it. Later, BGU encouraged me to become a food supplier for their official events. Can you believe that?”

The story gets even richer. “A little while later, a delegation from the Beersheba court system arrived, and I recognized the judge who’d heard my case. He’d been promoted, and now someone else is officiating, but still, they came for dinner and loved it. In fact, the day after, the president had been telling his office staff so many good things about my place that they insisted they wanted to come, too. He brought his whole office staff for lunch! “I’m still amazed. Maybe there’s something healing about the power of good food.”

Big plans lie ahead. In addition to opening more restaurants, Izy recently began a Kabbalat Shabbat celebration, starting at about 11 a.m. on Fridays and lasting until two hours before Shabbat.

“It’s a friendly, relaxed time,” he says. “We have beer and lots of small salads and desserts, but most important is the atmosphere and music.”

What’s next? Maybe to reflect Kati Israel’s British heritage, an English breakfast will be offered.

“I came from Blackburn, in northern England,” Kati says. “We lived right across the road from Beatrix Potter’s house. We’re thinking of adding a traditional English morning breakfast with kippers, tomatoes and mushrooms. We might even redesign of a part of the outside patio area into something like an English tea room.”

Izy’s is kosher, with chicken reigning supreme, whether its smoked, barbecued, rotisseried, sautéed with any number of sauces or made into cacciatore, sandwiches or schnitzel. But steaks, osso bucco, fish and salads are also on the menu, all of it served up in heaping, hungry-man portions.

“The restaurant itself is open from noon until 10 p.m.” Izy notes. “Then we close off the back and operate as a bar serving drinks and appetizers until the last customer leaves.

“In all, we can seat 100 people – 50 inside and 50 outside. Prices go from NIS 78 for steak to mid-NIS 30 for the chicken dishes, less than that for the children’s dishes.”

All his recent success aside, Izy’s plans remain simple: “All I want is for this place to be loved as much as my old place was. I want it to have the same friendly atmosphere, good food and loyal customers as before. That’s what makes me happy, when people say, ‘It’s just like the old place!”

Izy’s Chicken Bar-B-Q and Grill, Rehov Pinhas Hahotzev 2, tel. (08) 627-8030. Kosher, Beersheba Rabbinate

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