A successful representative of the younger generation of Zagreb’s bar owners, Marin Levaj is one of the four co-founders and co-owners of the popular Mojo bar at the very start of Martićeva Street ― that is, at the Croatian Nobles Square.
In Mojo bar, the fun and the high spirits never wane throughout the week, especially in the spring and summer, when the large terrace, where live music can often be heard, becomes the center of events. We talked about all of this with Marin in this little interview.
Bojan Krištofić: How did the Mojo bar story begin and what was the starting idea?
Marin Levaj: Mojo bar is a project by four best friends ― Davor, Hrvoje, Luka and me. The idea wasn’t that hard to come to. We’re all big fans of wine, and there were hardly any places to drink wine by the glass in before we opened our bar. OK, there were some wine bars, but these were quite sterile, snobbish places. We thought that superb Croatian wines should be available to the common folk. I’m joking, exaggerating a bit, but really, there was no leisurely place to taste wines in, so we got the idea to open a wine bar. Since rakija and liquors were very popular at that time, the decision was made to make it a wine and rakija bar. We began working on the project about seven years ago, and we opened the bar itself almost five years ago. Its 5th birthday is at the end of this July!
BK: How is your wine and rakija selection different from the others’?
ML: By now, there are good wine bars in Zagreb, many places to drink wine by the glass, and not too expensive, but five years ago we had no real competition, and it seems to me that to this day we remain the place with the most diverse selection. Currently we offer 120 varieties of wine and 80 varieties of rakija, alongside the usual drinks offered by any bar: beer, whiskey, etc. We often travel looking for the so called best buy options, with the best cost to quality ratio. Our house wine is “Međimurski cmrečnjak” ― 90kn a bottle, 17kn a 1,5 dL glass, which is a very good price for a bar. Besides wines from Međimurje, I would also single out the “Zeleni Silvanac”, and wines from Kutjevo as perfect examples of a good cost to quality ratio, and of course there are the big names such as Belje, Laguna, Iuris, Tomić, and the like.
BK: So you exclusively offer domestic wines?
ML: We also have about 5-6 foreign wines dear to us, but over 95% of our selection consists of Croatian wines.
BK: What influenced your choice of location for the bar?
ML: Finding the right location if the hardest part of opening a bar. The further you go in this business, the harder it is to find a good location. It took us two years to find a suitable place. We negotiated on many other locations, such as Tkalčićeva Street or Teslina Street, but in the end, we found this place ― not perfect at first, but the owner offered to make it better by taking down some walls. When we saw the end result, it was just what we wanted ― an old Zagreb style brick wall basement, with a terrace up on the square ― we were delighted. The square itself was somewhat neglected at that time, and even though it looked beautiful, especially with the HNB (National Bank of Croatia) building, there wasn’t a single café terrace on it ― and that’s where we saw our chance.
BK: What is Mojo bar’s role today concerning everything that has been happening in Martićeva recently?
ML: Even though I was born in Split, I spent my whole life in Vojnovićeva Street with my parents, so Martićeva is my natural environment. My street, I would say. I am a descendant of the old Martićevans. I never participated in gang fights, but… It was a cult gang, it died out just as I was finishing elementary school, so all I heard were stories and I knew some people, but all of this is ancient history now. We utterly immodestly claim that the blooming of Martićeva began with Mojo bar, because, prior to it, there was no life there, which was really unfair. It’s a beautiful street with infinite possibilities. However, when we came here, we ourselves wondered if we made the right choice. After Martićevans, no one went out to Martićeva any longer, there were no good bars… But, when one project succeeds, it is naturally followed by others. We love it because the more good places to go out there are, the better it is for all of us.
BK: How long did it take for people to start noticing your business?
ML: We opened the bar at the stupidest time possible ― June 25th, just when summer begins and the city empties, but, somehow, we endured for the first two hot months, when no one came… But, as soon as we brought in DJs and concerts in September, people came. Really, it was an instant success! I can’t tell what really made it work, but we were completely crowded in the start. We began working more and more, until it turned into torture ― keeping up with a six-day weekly program. We have a concert or a DJ every day, which is hard work, but we keep doing it.
BK: What are the best days for the evening program?
ML: Of course, Friday and Saturday are the ones with the most guests. The four other days are even. On Mondays, there are performers doing Mediterranean music, primarily Mate Grgo, the popular tenor. I think we are the only place in Zagreb that’s crowded on a Monday. Everyone’s dancing and singing, and the atmosphere is really great. On Tuesdays we have cover bands doing mostly foreign pop, rock, soul, and funk hits, and on Wednesdays, we have jazz nights, of which I’m especially proud. There virtually isn’t a good jazz musician in Croatia that never played in Mojo bar – we’ve had Saša Majstorović, Duda Vorih, Lela Katavić, Maja Savić, and so on… Thursdays are marked by very successful after work parties. I don’t like that phrase, but that’s exactly what it is. We plan Thursday nights with the cooperation of Ozren Kanceljak, the legend of Lapidarij and Kulušić, one of the very best DJs in Zagreb. This is something we were doing from the start, but now we took a break from it to come up with a new concept, coming this autumn. On Fridays and Saturdays, we have the best DJs Zagreb has to offer ― from Tomo Ricov and Bizzo Bodega, to Oli Doboli, Pill Jackson, Eduard Werft and others… There really isn’t a DJ that never performed here.
BK: Did you know anyone in the music scene before opening Mojo bar, or did these acquaintances come after?
ML: Planning the musical program of Mojo bar is my job. I’ve had relevant experience and acquaintances ever since I’ve worked as a journalist and a photo-reporter for Večernji List, and some from my private life. Just prior to opening Mojo bar, I was working for Mario Petreković in the Shock Show Industry organization, I spent three seasons there… As a journalist and a proprietor you can meet mostly anyone you need. Besides music, Mojo bar also holds daily wine festivals and other events. There would be many more if the city fathers were more understanding towards that kinds of things. I believe that the city center should primarily be used for culture and entertainment and also catering to tourists in more ways than just offering rest and beds.
BK: What was your approach to interior design?
ML: We are very proud of our interior since we planned and built it all by ourselves, with no help from designers or architects, so there is a part of each of us built into Mojo bar. My grandfather was an academically trained painter, so one of his works went into the bar, framed with the window blinds taken from his birth house. My partner Luka brought in the nose panel of his Mercedes, and now it adorns one of the walls. After we crashed it, we hanged it on the wall! Davor made a fantastic chandelier made out of old audio tapes, and so on… Everyone brought in a part of himself. We would spend whole nights debating and thinking about what and how to do, and I think we succeeded in doing what we wanted. Building the interior took eight months overall, since we did most of the work ourselves, such as honing bricks… The worst job ever, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. We cleaned every single brick individually from tar and mortar… To get the wanted old Zagreb feeling.
BK: Do you want to announce an upcoming event to the readers?
ML: On May 13th we are organizing a traditional Wine Spring Break festival, fifth year in a row. We are trying to do something different from the other wine festivals that we ourselves visit and appreciate – our festival is perhaps the only one that takes place in the open and has live music. We will remove the terrace from the square, about twenty winemakers will come, representing two or three of their wines, with good music in the background. It will be a nice, nice feast!