Mike's Place: A niche all his own

Downtown Dave runs two of the most popular bars in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

mikes place 224.88 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
mikes place 224.88
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Dave Beck, better known by his thousands of drinking buddies as Downtown Dave, is a fixture in Israel's lively English-speaking bar scene. He is one-third owner of the two Mike's Place branches, highly popular drinking holes located in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Beck and his partners, brothers Gal and Assaf Ganzman, share responsibility for making sure the good times roll and the musicians play, every night of the week until the wee hours. There is never a cover charge at Mike's Place, whether at the Tel Aviv seafront venue on Rehov Herbert Samuel, or in the historic 19th-century courtyard in Jerusalem's Nahalat Shiva, now a contemporary bar district. The mix of live blues and rock-and-roll would continue on Yom Kippur and Tisha Be'av if the law permitted, and Mike's Place remains a landmark defined for adhering to its strictly not-kosher menu in the holy city. The bar was founded in 1993 by Mike Vigoda, a bon vivant journalist originally from Toronto, who opened his eponymous pub in a tiny Russian Compound cubbyhole that many mistook for his private living room. Mike's Place quickly became a refuge from Israel's at times rough and tumble reality. From the beginning, the bar attracted an eclectic assortment of carousers - travelers, native Israelis, foreign students, Russian immigrants, Arabs, foreign journalists, diplomats, IDF soldiers and UN personnel - all sharing the good vibes. It's a dream job for Beck, a 36-year-old Toronto-born party animal, but it's a tough job also, he says, winking while sipping a beer. Beck had a hard landing when he arrived on aliya with his family in 1984, when he was 13. "I was extremely rebellious. It's difficult for a teenager to come here and adapt to a new mentality and language. Israeli kids were not too friendly. I just wanted to go back," he recalls. Beck's ambivalence about staying saw him wait until he was 18 to become an Israeli citizen, after which he was drafted by the IDF. After three years in the tough Givati Brigade, including service in Lebanon and Gaza, Beck explains, he had outgrown his teenage rebellion. But what to do with the rest of his life? Taking another gulp of his beer, Beck relates that he then worked as an armed security escort in the Old City. But when a friend got stabbed by a Palestinian, he called it quits and went traveling in Europe, only to end up back in Canada. After shivering through three Canadian winters, he realized he preferred the sunny Mediterranean. Thus in 1996 Beck found himself back at his parents' home in Har Adar. Shortly thereafter, Beck stumbled upon Mike's Place. Attracted by the casual, English-speaking ambience, Beck soon became a regular. One day he introduced the place to his friend Assaf Ganzman, the son of Israelis living in New York. Ganzman eventually ended up taking over the bar from Vigoda, and then in 2003 Beck became a part-owner. But it was not to be all smooth sailing. On April 29, 2003 the Tel Aviv branch was bombed by a British citizen of Pakistani origin. Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide attack . Three were killed and over 50 wounded, and the bar suffered extensive damage. The owners were determined to get up and running as soon as possible. "Amidst the shock and horror and funerals and hospital visits, we managed to put the bar together again within a week," Beck recalls. Exactly a week after the attack, hundreds of people including foreign and local dignitaries attended a remembrance service held at Mike's Place. Meeting thousands of people at the two bars over the years, Beck considers himself an above average player in Jewish geography. "I love meeting people who literally just got off the boat. Me and the people who hang out at Mike's Place are ideal for tourists to meet. We can explain Israel." Jerusalem - with its intense political strife - is too restrictive for Beck. Based in Tel Aviv, he frequently makes the 50-minute trip to Jerusalem. His current commute to the Tel Aviv Mike's Place is a five-minute stroll along the Mediterranean. Beck seems content with his lifestyle, which combines work and play more than most. "I'm having too much fun to meet my soulmate right now," Beck smiles. "Through Mike's Place, I want to make Israel a destination," he says. "We may never be an 'in' bar, but we'll never be out either. With good food and music, we'll just keep a good thing going."