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Israel’s Tourism Triumph: The Crazy Restaurant Scene

Israel’s adversaries in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement thought they could starve Israel through economic warfare that included even its food sector. Many remember the BDS furor over SodaStream, Sabra hummus, and ordinary fruits and vegetables, as well as Israeli cuisine and the country’s culinary scene. But none of it has stopped Israel’s restaurant sector from exploding into an audacious, red hot success that is now leading the planet in culinary excellence and bravado.

As far as the Israeli restaurant scene is considered, “BDS” stands for only one thing: “Breakfast, Dinner, and Sweets.” Across the country, Israeli restaurants sizzle with celebrity chefs and horizon-expanding culinary wizardry.

Decades ago, Israel’s culinary scene was largely defined by omnipresent falafel, shawarma and pizza stands, tomatoes and cucumbers sliced with endless variation, carrot juice vendors, over-glitzed coffee and pastry bars, and truck stop-like roadside eateries offering spiced Moroccan-style salads in drab arrays. Sameness and no sophistication were the main flavors of the day — every day. All that’s over.

In recent years, highly trained and innovative, if feisty, chefs have been opening one trendy restaurant after another. Now hip dining spots can be found everywhere — from hotel rooftops with majestic views to disused warehouses, converted old homes, tight alleys and sidewalks, rooftops, seaside balconies, hilltop niches, spots overlooking the seashore, a hillside, or even a wall  — and the sometimes just the cramped space between two other cramped spaces.

What is called “Israeli cuisine” is an undefinable fusion-on-steroids of 150 or so indigenous and immigrant cuisines that have left their traces on an unrestrained determination to reimagine past foods for the palate of the future. Most ingredients are obtained within a 15-minute to 60-minute drive — meaning unparalleled same-day freshness. Unchained — yet somehow tethered to a Jewish and regional past — today’s Israeli cuisine re-blends European, Arabic, and Asian traditions in a visual audacity that erases taste borders. Israeli celebrity chefs, such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Eyal Shani, and Mike Solomonov have burned their stamps on kitchens worldwide.

Dinner can easily cost more than $100 per person. Tourists must compete with an estimated 21 Israeli billionaires — half of whom live in Tel Aviv — and more than 100,000 millionaires churned out by the nation’s rarified start-up and high-tech sectors. For more than 4.1 million annual tourists, reserving a table two to five weeks in advance is a must.

Almost 200,000 people work in the restaurant business, about half of them waiters, which has created a teeming industry touching all. Restaurants mean employment to immigrant workers, average Israelis, and Palestinians who have embraced the Israeli economy. Trendy restaurants are a national pastime and uplifting social force.

Ironically, with all the dining fervor, here are fewer restaurants in Israel today than a few years ago. The high cost of doing business and the compulsion to achieve excellence has squeezed many restaurants out of business. The cost and tribulations of official koshering is steep and, too often, simply an unnerving pressure. Unthinkable a decade ago, many restaurants now forego kosher certification and even ignore kosher food guidelines regarding pork and shrimp. Most impacting, recent tax rulings on employee pensions and tips have squeezed the entire industry. About one-third of restaurants close within their first year. Margins are carpaccio-thin. Asaf Lees, co-owner of Sucre Ltd. restaurant group, quips, “Opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv today is almost impossible without the power of suppliers.”

Nonetheless, Israel still offers more than 6,200 eateries — about 1,400 of which are in Tel Aviv.

Any short list of recommended restaurants will be immediately assailed for leaving out 100 other recommended restaurants. But… three of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants are operated by one company, Sucre Ltd., which combines celebrity chef flamboyance and leveraged buying power to succeed. All three require two to three weeks to secure a table. At the top is Kitchen Market, housed above a farmer’s market at Tel Aviv’s north port. Noisy and crowded, the establishment is overseen by celebrity chef Yossi Shitrit, who appears on his own popular culinary TV show.

kitchen market 1

Kitchen Market

Less cacophonous is the restaurant Mashya, located in a small hotel near the beach. Also under Chef Yossi’s baton, yet offering a more distilled environment, Mashya’s presentations are just as style-revising. The third Sucre eatery is Onza, a raucous inside-outside Turkish eatery dropped into an alley in Jaffa’s flea market area. Here, the platters are sumptuous, and the music is loud and rhythmic.

Jerusalem is also packed with must-try restaurants. Atop the Mamilla Hotel with an unparalleled view of the Old City is its Rooftop Restaurant. The dignity and diplomatic history of Jerusalem is reflected in the unparalleled Shabbat lunch every Saturday at the King David Hotel. Little-known Talbiye crafts pork and shrimp dishes among its offerings. Culinary Workshop, secreted in a warehouse off the beaten path, also serves numerous incarnations of pork and bacon, as well as shrimp; this place is in such demand, the hostess shocked us with this greeting: “Please finish your meal within an hour and fifteen minutes as your table is reserved for someone else.”

Probably the most memorable eating experiences are squeezed together in the Machane Yehuda market. Affectionately known as the shuk, this ramshackle and vivacious convergence of food and all portable things sold in stalls was first established during the Ottoman Empire. Here, you can purchase and often sample every type of exotic spice, olive, halva desert, meat, fish, cheese, bread, specialty, or pastry in a crowded atmosphere made electric with the unmasked pulse of Israel.

One of Machane Yehuda’s best eateries is Azura — breakfast and lunch only — which serves supremely sumptuous Turkish and Oriental dishes in basic surroundings.

Nearby, behold Machenyuda, Israel’s wildest, most in-crowded and sought-after restaurant, which requires five to eight weeks for a table — that is, if they answer the phone and don’t lose the reservation. Culinary mastery and innovation combine with loud music and an edge-of-the-world canteen atmosphere. If you order the insane dessert thing, prepare for shock sweets. See it here —no here… okay, try here.

Finally, there are many emirs in Israel’s restaurant scene. But only one sultan — Uri Buri, a simple café hidden on a dark corner at the far northern Akko coast. It is acclaimed as Israel’s culinary mecca, recognized by gourmands everywhere. Guru founder Chef Uri Jeremias, sporting a massive white beard cascading down to mid-belly, is worshipped for the purity, simplicity, freshness, and inherent power of his seafood creations. Celebrity chefs and food aficionados alike make the 90-minute pilgrimage north of Tel Aviv to this tiny stone structure to be reminded that where food meets the soul, the elusive human quintessence can be faintly — if fleetingly — discerned.

Whether one dines at the simplistic hummus cafes of Haifa or the exquisite Michelin-endowed concept restaurants of Herzliya, an inescapable conclusion accompanies the fare: Food is good for peace. Peace is good for food. No one makes war while enjoying a good meal.

[Photos: Anatoly Michaelo / courtesy Edwin Black]