Restaurant scene is a triumph of Israel tourism


Editori's note: Through an oversight, a number of restaurants that are not certified as kosher appeared in the original posting of this story contributed by Edwin Black. Those restaurants have been removed from this updated post.

Israel’s adversaries in the BDS movement thought they could starve Israel through economic warfare that included even its food sector. Many remember the furor over SodaStream, Sabra hummus, ordinary fruits and vegetables, as well as Israeli cuisine. But as far as the Israeli restaurant scene is concerned, “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-style roadside eateries offering spiced Moroccan-style salads in drab arrays. Sameness without sophistication were the main flavors. 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 just about everywhere — from hotel rooftops with majestic views to disused warehouses, converted old homes, tight alleys, 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.

“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 blends European, Arabic and Asian traditions in a visual audacity that erases taste borders. Israeli celebrity chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Eyal Shani and Michael Solomonov have burned their stamps on kitchens worldwide.

Almost 200,000 people work in the restaurant industry, about half of them waiters, which has created a teeming industry. 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, today there 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. Moreover, the cost and tribulations of official koshering is steep, and too often simply an unnerving pressure. Many restaurants now forego kosher certification.

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 listed restaurants at present, about 1,400 of which are in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has a full stock of many of the rest.

Jerusalem is packed with must-try places. Atop the Mamilla Hotel with a spectacular view of the Old City is its Rooftop Restaurant. And the dignity and diplomatic history of Jerusalem is reflected in the unparalleled Shabbat lunch every Saturday at the King David Hotel.

Probably the most memorable eating experiences are squeezed together in the Machane Yehuda market. This ramshackle and vivacious convergence of food and all portable things sold in stalls was first established during the Ottoman Empire. You can purchase and often sample every type of exotic spice, olive, vegetable, meat or fish, cheese, bread, halvah, candy or pastry in a crowded atmosphere made electric with the unmasked pulse of Israel. On Friday afternoons, it is jam-packed, and much of the fresh produce is offered at lower prices so that it sells before Shabbat.

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

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.

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust.