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Black, heavy, nearly soundproof curtains welcome Marshal's clients as they enter the Tel Aviv bar. The music is never too loud to hold a conversation - or hear the one going on between the adjacent barstools.
"How long have you been single?" a young man is asking a girl sitting next to him.
"About a year," she seems too shy to answer; her shoulder-length hair moves slightly as the entrance curtain is pushed aside by another couple thirsty for some beer, good conversation or both.
At another corner of the bar, a group of young girls are giggling as they stare at some guys sitting next to them. There is a sexy vibe in the joint, yet far from being sleazy - a characteristic that dominates most neighborhood bars in Tel Aviv.
A new trend has emerged in the "city that never sleeps" over the past year, as the fad of large pick-up bars along Lilienblum and Allenby streets and in the port area peters out. Unlike the new neighborhood bars, the pick-ups boast an extremely liberal atmosphere. There, people do not come to enjoy a drink with their friends, rather to meet members of the opposite sex. And everything about such nightspots serves as a means to that end: The music is loud, preventing any conversation other than brief messages directly into the listener's ear; the lighting is dim; and the bathrooms are spacious and even darker than the main floor, inviting more intimate activity that may have started at the bar.
But this is far from being the case at the summer spot Toma, located only a couple of blocks away from Marshal on Rehov Ibn Gvirol. There, the lighting matches the surroundings and the ambience is more reminiscent of Paris than Tel Aviv. Toma is an open bar, and on a hot summer night is packed with people of all ages. If anything, the atmosphere is elegant. The open-air location prevents the usual cigarette stench from sticking to hair and clothes, and low-key music enables visitors to engage in small talk while not being forced to cling to their partners' ears.
"About 15 neighborhood bars have been opened in the inner part of the city during the past two or three months," says Ilan Mukatel, 33, the enthusiastic owner of Toma, who is counting the days before his bar reopens in less than a month. "I think that half these bars will be forced to shut down, as this bubble will explode. After all, there is a very specific crowd that chooses to go to neighborhood bars rather than to big places in the outskirts of the city. The number of places that opened to serve this crowd is disproportional to its size."
According to Mukatel, it takes an investment of some NIS 100,000 to open such a bar. "Toma was an exception in terms of the investment. The courtyard was already there. All we needed to do is have a vision in terms of how we wanted to design it. So we decided to create two separate bars in the space and invest in creating a magical garden that would function as a natural barrier between the noisy street and the clients," he says. "I remember when I first saw the place it took me a second to decide. It was obvious to me that this is a great opportunity."
Mukatel is a regular at Marshal, where he hangs out with the owners, who are long time friends. Saar Raz, 32, opened Marshal three months ago with a partner. "Even before I opened this place, as a bartender for the past decade or so I always worked in places like this - small and friendly. It's in my nature to stay away from the overpopulated mega-bars. I like coming to places like this, where everyone knows me and my favorite drinks, and there is a home environment," he says.
"It was only natural for me to open a bar that I would feel comfortable in. There's nothing threatening in places like this," Raz adds, before turning to a small group of customers who just entered the place and seem very happy to hug and kiss him.
They choose to sit away from the entrance, in the shadow of a large yellow wall painting of a pretty girl smoking a cigarette. This painting, which overlooks the bar, and a large, classically framed mirror are the only decorations in this section of the pub. A graffiti-like, pop-art style oil painting of U2 lead singer Bono adorns the bar's lounge area.
At the entrance to the bathroom area is a portrait of model Kate Moss with large, dark sunglasses and a cigarette in her mouth. Raz says that although he and his partner aspired to keep the design "as clean and simple as possible," they chose these paintings in order to juxtapose the dark gray walls. "We wanted to add some culture, but nothing heavy - something light, like a cool Manhattan gallery," he explains.
But the highlight of the joint is the toilets, where wall paintings of pink ballet shoes entertain the eyes of lady visitors and comic drawings of cowboys decorate the walls of the men's room. "We wanted to make our friends laugh," says Raz, when asked about this light-hearted d cor.
Thinking of the customer's comfort seems to be a leading factor in the design of such local-neighborhood bars. At Toma, this is done by utilizing every spot of the courtyard in order to create spacious sitting. A round bench with white cushions was placed at the bottom of a tree at the center of the courtyard between the two bars, taking up the majority of the space.
"People want to come from home in their sandals and jeans, sit down and have a drink quietly. They don't want to get into their cars and look for parking. They don't want the scene that the big places offer, they want to lie under a tree and chill, and that's what we give them," Mukatel explains the rational behind the detailed design.
Most local bars offer seating for about 40 people. At Marshal, for instance, there are 35 stools around the oblong bar; Toma, with a bit more space, offers 35 seats at one of its bars and an additional 45 by its second, slightly larger bar. In addition, about 14 double-seats tables are scattered by the trees, providing a more peaceful option for those in search of serenity. There is also what Mukatel fondly calls "the birthday corner," which can be booked in advance on special occasions.
Like Mukatel, Raz likes to emphasize the casual attire of his clientele. "My clients don't come here because they want to be seen or to check other people out. Here they feel like they are in their element, so they wear jeans and T-shirts," he says. "Also, whenever there is a major basketball or soccer game on TV, we invite our regulars and we watch the game together."
It is the personal treatment that makes or breaks small enterprises such as these. Indeed, Raz and Mukatel are both very friendly guys who are constantly smiling. "I want my customers to come back," Raz says, "so I always offer them a chaser on the house and make sure our bartenders know them by name. Ours is a place that is all about attention."
In terms of menus, most of these neighborhood places offer a small selection of sandwiches and dips. "People come to Toma to have a drink and spend time with friends, not to have large dinners," says Mukatel. Raz says that most of his clients enjoy having some peanuts or olives with their beer, and takes pride in the fact that his bar is one of the few in the city that still offers such snacks, which seem to have lost their traditional place in bars in favor of sushi and gourmet dishes.
As Tel Avivians from birth, Raz and Mukatel know their city inside out. Both have had a long career as bartenders before they decided to open their own places, and they seem to enjoy every second of the very experience they offer their clients: a place "where everybody knows your name."
Much like the bar in Cheers that became the model for all neighborhood bars.