Rich conversation the main course at Tzavta dinner gatherings

Undated photo of Tzavta events related to Sidewalk Citizen. Photo courtesy Ryan Karr Photo courtesy Ryan Karr

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A Man Booker prize winner. An outdoors physician who founded Everest ER. A physicist from the 2017 Nobel Prize-winning team and a knighted playwright and film director.

For the past three years, luminaries in the arts, along with world-renowned experts in a wide variety of fields, have come to our fair city to break bread and speak with a small group of Calgarians.

The gatherings take place not at one of the city’s post-secondary institutions, but in a century-old brick building which once housed a mattress factory. Since 2015, it has been the home of an award-winning bakery and eatery, along with another restaurant and coffee shop.

The event is called Tzavta, which founder Michal Lavi says translates from her native Hebrew to “not alone,” or a gathering. “We wanted to create an intimate and casual surrounding where people feel comfortable asking questions,” says Lavi, co-owner of Sidewalk Citizen (, an organic bakery and eatery housed in the revitalized Simmons building in the East Village that also includes Phil & Sebastian Coffee and Charbar restaurant. The Tzavta environment, says Lavi, “allows for breadth of time, for conversation to truly evolve.”

The concept, while new to this city, is inspired by a centuries-old tradition. In 17th and 18th century Paris, salon culture grew out of the age of Enlightenment. In private homes, French noblewomen hosted gatherings where everything from the highest intellectual discussions and debates to idle gossip could flourish, far from the strictures of the royal court.

According to Benedetta Craveri, author of The Age of Conversation, the French aristocracy was witty and elegant to the end, when salons “were held in prison as the conversationalists awaited the guillotine.”

Lavi’s 21st century version, however, is far more democratic. She and Aviv Fried, her partner in life and business, see their mission with Sidewalk Citizen to be part of Calgary’s “sidewalk,” an integral part of the local community.

“We also missed the learning environment and discussion from school,” says Lavi, who, after moving with Fried from Israel in 1999, completed a degree in geology, while Fried received his masters in biomedical engineering. “We believe that art and culture are integral life.”

Michal Lavi, co-owner of Sidewalk Citizen, who founded the Tzavta salon, is shown at a gathering in 2016. Courtesy, Ryan Karr Courtesy Ryan Kerr

Since launching three years ago, every one of the Tzavta events as sold out, with many having a 100-plus person wait list.

Shelley Youngblut ascribes its popularity to both the quality of the speakers and to Lavi’s attention to making every aspect of the event top notch. “There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Youngblut, CEO of Wordfest, Calgary’s international writers’ festival. Youngblut has partnered with Lavi on eight salons, helping to bring renowned urban ink forager Jason Logan and Italian intellectual Nicola Lagiola to town, to name just two.

“As a guest — and I’ve been to most of the 32 salons since the series launched in 2016 — it’s the unexpected conversations that keep me hooked … Tzavta feeds the mind, as well as the body.”

For a decade now, Fried has devoted himself to learning to bake and operate their business in a sustainable and conscious manner. Back in 2009, he turned his back on a job in Toronto’s banking industry to learn the art of bread making. He first sold his loaves to friends, donating the first $2,500 he made to help build a library in the southeast African country of Malawi; then, he began to deliver his bread — made with organic flours from Highwood Crossing, Grainworks and Heritage Harvest — by bicycle.

In 2011, the couple was working out of a small storefront in the city’s southeast, an out-of-the-way location that saw weekend lineups snaking down the street; in 2013 they added a small shop housed in Sunnyside Grocery and then the flagship Simmons location in 2015. This October, they will open their newest location in Memorial Park in the city’s Beltline district.

Over the years, Sidewalk Citizen has also expanded its menu to include breakfast and lunch, all from scratch by a team of chefs, including fresh sandwiches, salads, stews, pizzas, as well as the street food offerings from their native Israel and around the Mediterranean. At the Tzavta, the 60 paying guests are treated to a family-style meal with a variety of starters, a choice of a meat or a vegetarian main, their famed bread and a custom dessert and coffee, while a cash bar serves up beer and wine.

At each event, the menus are created based on the interests and requests of the special guests: previous Tzavtas saw Korean and Romanian menus as well as more metaphorical themes such as “Compassion,” “Risk,” and “Fluidity.” Every menu is unique, never repeated nor it is a part of the regular bakery and restaurant offerings. For each salon, a special work of art is created by one of the bakery’s employees and is presented at the event.

Along with experts flying in from all corners of the world, the Tzavta has also hosted such celebrated local artists as illustrator Cam Christensen and award-winning magazine writer Christina Frangou; along with Wordfest, they have collaborated with the University of Calgary’s English, science and medical departments, as well as the Calgary Public Library, One Yellow Rabbit theatre troupe and the Esker foundation.

Lavi is currently formulating plans at the new Sidewalk Citizen Memorial Park location to host two new series, a winter ethics and morality philosophy salon and a summer skill series, alongside her monthly Tzavta.

“We need to remember that listening, paying attention and debating are not just a human pleasure, but also a necessity,” says Lavi, who is proud of these often fun, warm, intellectually and emotionally stirring gatherings, as well as the devoted community they created.

It’s a memorable experience, even for the invited guests. After his presentation in 2018, celebrated American author and 2017 Booker prize winner George Saunders wrote this:

“Tzavta is a wonderment: a gathering of talented, engaged, energetic people, discussing the things that matter and embodying those things: frankness, fearlessness, affection, curiosity…and celebrating the delights of the senses, especially food-as-gift.  I loved my evening there so much. I left with a renewed vision of the possibilities of human generosity.”