Israel's tourism triumph: The feisty restaurant scene

As far as the Israeli restaurant scene is considered, “BDS” stands for only one thing: “Breakfast, Dinner, and Sweets.”

Edwin Black, | updated: 23:54

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Israel’s adversaries in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement [BDS] thought they could starve Israel through economic warfare that included even its food sector.

Many remember the BDS furor overSodaStream, Sabra hummus, 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, 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-style 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 re-imagine 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.

Not all restaurants are kosher, so be sure to check for a Chief Rabbinate kosher certification before choosing.

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 often a must.

Almost 200,000 people work in the restaurant industry, about half of them waiters, which has created a teeming industry touching all. Restaurants mean employment to immigrant workers, average Israelis, and Palestinian Arabs 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. The cost and tribulations of official koshering is steep, and too often simply an unnerving pressure.  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.

Jerusalem, however, 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

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 or fish, cheese, bread, specialty, or pastry in a crowded atmosphere made electric with the unmasked pulse of Israel.

Whether one dines at the simplistic hummus cafes of Haifa, the Jerusalem shuk 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, and a syndicated columnist who travels extensively, frequently reviewing the hotels he stays in. He personally and independently paid for all aspects of travel mentioned in this series. The author can be found at www.edwinblack.com




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