Raising the mega-bar

Mega-bars include elements of a club while retaining the features of a more upmarket bar.

Rey club 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rey club 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's another Thursday night at Blanco, one of the newest and largest bars in Jerusalem, and the venue is so packed it is difficult to move. DJ Meir Malka is trying to make himself heard over the deep beats coming from the numerous speakers. "The atmosphere is just incredible tonight," he shouts across the DJ booth, while lining up another tune. "The crowd are really up for it." Tucked behind a furniture store in an otherwise nondescript area on Rehov Pierre Koenig in Talpiot, Blanco is part of a new breed of mega-bars, the latest trend in the Holy City's constantly evolving nightlife. Instead of dancing all night in massive, sweaty clubs, Jerusalem's more discerning clientele are following the trend in Tel Aviv and frequenting new, larger bars which include elements of a club - a DJ and a dance floor of sorts - while retaining the features of a more upmarket bar such as food menus and comfortable couches for socializing. While the legendary mega-club Haoman 17 has been closed for refurbishment for the past few months, Blanco has become the in-place for those in the know to go out and party, and has become a phenomenon in and of itself. Each of the perfectly dressed youngsters dancing in the areas around Blanco's central bar has been individually plucked from the hordes of people pleading with the door staff to allow them to enter. Every weekend, hopefuls are turned away from the entrance at the behest of a pretty young lady holding a clipboard, while the up to 1,000 who manage to make it inside the venue experience something that has never been seen in the city. It is definitely not a club, but it is also nothing like a neighborhood pub. Around the bar in the middle of the room there is just enough space for hundreds of people to dance the night away to the sounds of DJs like Malka, while earlier in the evening, and on less busy week nights, there is a more intimate and relaxing atmosphere. The era of grand scale clubbing seems to be over. After 12 years of near unparalleled success, Haoman 17 closed back in January and is scheduled to reopen some time in June in its brand new guise as a mega-bar, serving food and providing seating areas - two things that were unimaginable at the original club. The change began three or four years back with the opening of a glut of smaller lounge bars such as Open, Master Bar, Shlomtzi and Sol, mostly located around Rehov Shlomzion Hamalka in the center of town. Now, says public relations executive Haim Eldar (who represents Blanco), things are changing again. Mirroring recent developments in Tel Aviv, mega-bars are taking over. "All over the world people are opening mega-bars instead of clubs," explains Eldar. "People just like them better, it's a new trend. Although Haoman 17 is a symbol, we wanted to provide Jerusalemites with an alternative to the big clubs, somewhere they can dance as well as sit and relax." Blanco opened hot on the heels of Izen, a venue some have called the city's first mega-bar. Located next to the Colony pub just off Derech Beit Lehem in Baka, like Blanco the bar also offers food and seating areas as well as a DJ. Izen is partly owned by Gil Efrati, whose family used to own a nearby gas station. Having seen the success of Tel Aviv's mega-bars such as Erlich and Velvet, the family sold the station and put all the money into creating the new bar, hoping to emulate the success of similar establishments. A year later they have done just that. On the same Thursday night that Blanco is full to capacity, Izen is also packed. Efrati is proud of his success. "The inspiration came from Tel Aviv. We saw a need in Jerusalem for people to get out and dance, but in a smaller bar environment, and there weren't any places that provided this," he says. "We changed things." While Blanco charges an entrance fee of up to NIS 40 on the weekends, entrance to Izen is always free, except on some special occasions, something Efrati notes is a big draw for his customers. The entrance to the venue opens into a terrace area with small tables and chairs. But through what seems to be a side door revelers enter the multi-leveled main dance area, with couches and tables surrounding a massive bar and space for people to dance. The audience in Izen is slightly older and more mature than at Blanco, but although it is already after 1:30 a.m., everyone appears to be having a good time and few seem interested in leaving. "We didn't originally intend to become a dance bar," Efrati says, looking back to when the venue opened in January 2006. "For the first month or so after we opened it was quite quiet here. But we saw a phenomenon that people came to drink, and then left at around 2 a.m. to go to Haoman to dance. So we came up with the idea that we will turn the music up from around 1 a.m. and make a party. Then people started staying and now they come here instead of going clubbing." Despite the similarities between the club and mega-bar experience, Efrati says the big difference is in the DJs who, rather than being forced to stick to trance or house music as they were in clubs, are given more of a free reign. "Here in Izen they play everything from Israeli music to samba," he notes. With the new style at Haoman 17, Efrati is sure it is time for a big change in the way people socialize in Jerusalem. "The club scene is finished," he states emphatically. "In the past the clubs only played house and people liked it, but not any more. They want something different these days and they can find it in the new mega-bars as well as a new type of venue." ONE OF the big questions everyone is asking is what Haoman will be like when it finally opens - the anticipation surrounding the venue is massive. "Everybody is very curious what will be inside Haoman. There are rumors and all kinds of speculation," says Asaf Goren, a promoter who has been putting on parties at clubs and bars across Jerusalem for more than five years. "I think that although there will be a kitchen with food and a bar in the middle, everything else will be nearly the same. It may be a bar during the week but it will be similar to a club at the weekend." Haoman 17 co-owner and manager Hillel Farkash is keeping his cards close to his chest. "I'm very excited about the project, it's something we have been planning for around two years. We are building something new here. I want to surprise people. I want people to be happy. I can't tell you yet exactly what we are doing, people have to wait and see." he says. But Farkash does reveal small details of what will open in place of the biggest and perhaps most influential club this country has ever seen. "We want to make the place smaller and different. It will be a totally new design with places to sit like couches, bar chairs and with finger food on sale. Every night will have its own specialty. The new place will bring a different and positive crowd. I am nearly 39 years old now, and my friends don't go to clubs any more. I want somewhere where they will come to." Farkash stresses that he sees the onslaught of mega-bars as a natural progression that is a trend around the world. "Everyone likes to dance, it's something you are born with," he says, "But things are changing all round the world. There was a time when clubs could attract people by using big name DJs. Nowadays there are only seven or eight internationally known DJs who can pull in the crowds. It is the music that makes the atmosphere, not the DJs." Like many others who are part of the bar and club culture in Jerusalem, Farkash believes Talpiot is becoming the new popular area of the city for nightlife. Less than a year ago Lincoln, a large pool bar, opened in the same building as the Rav Chen movie theater and many more new venues are due to open. Guy Cohen, the owner of Blanco, is planning to open another, smaller dance bar in Talpiot to be called Rojos, aimed at a younger crowd, and promoter Goren says he has heard about a number of businessman looking into the possibility of opening more bars in the area. Cohen also owns Lena, formerly called Negro, a smaller bar located next to Izen and Colony. The view is echoed by Elad, the manager of Rey, a bar in the center of town. Although it is not on the scale of Izen, Blanco or Haoman 17 and doesn't have much space to dance, Elad claims Rey was the first mega-bar in Jerusalem and says he is considering opening another, bigger venue in Talpiot. "Talpiot's the place to be these days," he says, sitting in the office in the back of Rey. "We at Rey were the first to have dancing in a bar venue, but now people want even bigger and more opulent bars like Blanco. I am sure more will open in Talpiot." Some people who have been involved with the scene for many years have said that although places like Izen and Blanco are full to capacity each weekend, once Haoman reopens the public will return to the spiritual home of Israeli dance music, leaving the other mega-bars clamoring for the excess customers. Others, however, are expecting the mega-bars to encourage more and more people to try out the new venues. Goren adds that he doesn't see the phenomenon ending any time soon. "I think Talpiot will be the new cool place to go out and I know there are two businessmen looking very hard to open another venue. There could be a problem that maybe too many places will open. I think the reopening of Haoman 17 will have a big effect on Blanco, although it is likely both will survive, especially as Blanco has made a name for itself." Expressing his view that there is room for even more bars, Goren says, "I think Blanco is too big and Izen is too small. Haoman will also be big so there is room for other medium-sized mega-bars." Meanwhile, in the coming weeks Izen will undergo its first big refurbishment, with the addition of an outdoor bar and a chillout area. "I hope this is the start of a phenomenon," says owner Efrati. "Some people are saying if more bars open, then more people will go out and have fun and will join the phenomenon. Some say there's no room. I think that there will be four bars that will be very good and even more around them. Lets wait and see, this is only the start!"