You probably won’t ever meet Zacharia Johnson, but you’ll see his face plastered over every menu and promotion for Bograshov’s swinging new bar, Biggy Z, named after the elusive legend himself. You may ask yourself, or the bargoer at the next table, who is Biggy Z? If you happen to ask someone who knows his story, such as one of the bar’s owners, Yossi Mautner, make sure your mint julep is full and your sweet potato fries are stacked. Because you’re in for a story you won’t want to miss.
The New Orleans-saturated bar isn’t named as a pun on the Big Easy. Zacharia “Biggy Z” Johnson is, as Yossi described, a fat, reckless drunk. The jazz legend cliche. Born in the Mississippi Delta, Biggy Z was meant to play trumpet. He got his chance in the 60s to prove his trumpet jiving abilities when a musician got sick and was unable to perform at the jazz venue Biggy Z ushered at. He exploded into stardom. However, with fame came his alcoholism, and he began drinking his way down, only to be saved by the love of his life and future wife, Miss Louise. Together, they opened the first club in New Orleans. But tragedy struck when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their venue in 2005, triggering Biggy Z’s relapse into drinking and depression. The couple needed a way out. Miss Louise’s family descended from Ethiopia, so, in August 2012, they made aliyah and reopened their once-thriving bar right here in Tel Aviv.
Sitting at the bar, surrounded by purples, greens and golds, with jazz, dixie and swing tunes swimming through your ears, it’s easy to be fooled into expecting the large, trumpet-wielding icon to walk in the door. Yossi said people often ask him where Biggy Z is, fusing the elaborate details the owners wove into the bar’s personality with reality. That was his plan, though, so he plays along.
Yossi, owner of Mezeg on Ibn Gviriol and previous owner of HaMaoz on King George, strives to duplicate reality in the details of his bars. He designed Biggy Z so customers could walk in to find themselves on a street in New Orleans. Yossi imported more than 100 tin signs from the United States. Signature drinks, like the mint julep, are served in imported metal cups. One bathroom is decorated with a collage of vintage jazz and blues posters from the 30s-50s, and the other features posters from erotic and exploitation cinemas in New Orleans.
Biggy Z talks in first-person on Facebook, inviting you to his New Orleans to try his bar’s all-you-can-drink wristband specials, its most distinguishable aspect. This wristband concept adds a “go big or go home” concept to the bar, which Yossi said many bars have now adopted throughout Tel Aviv. And whether you choose the cheapest or most expensive drink deal, it’s all big. Each special comes with a different color wristband, from the 60 NIS Big Deal to the 129 NIS Big Spender, and corresponding cocktails and types of beer and liquor. You drink unlimited all night long under whichever wristband you buy. For example, the Big Deal is the cheapest and comes with unlimited basic beers, like Tuborg and Carlsberg, and house wine. The Big Time is only four more shekels and gives you a menu of wells liquor, arak, sangria and endless mint juleps, the house drink and Biggy Z’s favorite, a sweet concoction of shaken lemon, bourbon and mint served in a metal cup. A Big Daddy wristband for 79 NIS gets you all the top shelf liquor you want. However, if you really want to get in the New Orleans mindset, you can’t miss out on the Big Spender. This big band boasts unlimited anything, all night long. Choose from any of the four deals, and it’s yours with a bottomless glass. To top it all off, people will know you’re a Biggy protege by the Mardi Gras beads hanging from your neck.
Whether you’re taking a turn at the cinnamon-spiced sangria, a mojito or a Guinness, the food will complete your night. American southern food is judged by how fried it is, and Biggy Z’s bar food sits as a heavy competitor. Sweet potato fries are fried in tempura and served with spicy mayonnaise. Corn muffins with chili, lime and parmesan come with a creamy yogurt sauce. The Mardi Gras Cauliflower comes fried in fluffy panko and is served with a spicy chili dip. However, if you’re not in the mood for fried, the reuben, a stack of thinly sliced corned beef with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce tomato and sauerkraut on rye bread, is a must.
Yossi was a lawyer in Tel Aviv by day and a DJ and shift manager at bars by night who never left the Bohemian nightlife lifestyle. Biggy Z was a trumpet legend in New Orleans who was saved from the despair of alcoholism by his wife. Who’s the real Biggy Z? One thing’s for sure: If I’m ever in doubt, I’ll go back to Biggy Z again and again, pick a wristband, order a drink and snack on some southern comfort finger food while I think it over.
By Kayla Mercedes Robbins