Bard’s Eye View of Israeli Restaurants and Hotels
I’d like to give you some background to serve as a caveat before reading my reviews as well as some remarks about Israeli restaurants in general. If you’re looking for the typical snooty wine and connoisseur review, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t drink alcohol so I can’t offer any commentary on wine lists or other drinks. I’m a carnivore who hates most veggies other than potatoes. I like seafood, but not most fish and about the only deserts I eat are chocolate and vanilla ice cream, milk shakes and chocolate cake. If you’re still interested in what I have to say, read on.
Here are a few observations I’ve made during more than 30 years of visits to Israel.
It's usually a good idea to make a reservation for lunch and dinner. They'll typically ask even if the restaurant is empty. You also need to specify if you want eat outdoors/indoors or you may not have a choice when you arrive. I also find it amusing that you are often told that you have a time limit for your reservation, usually an ample two-hour window, which I've never exceeded, but I always wonder if they try to throw you out when the time is up.
Most Israeli hotels offer breakfast as part of the nightly rate, although sometimes you have to pay more. Some are more or less elaborate, but they typically consist of various breads and salads. Israelis have a million ways to combine, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions and that is a staple of breakfast. Hotels will also often have cereals and the nicer ones have someone to make omelettes and eggs.
Tourists tend to eat smaller lunches because they’re on the go. For me the best meal of all in Israel is a schwarma from a small falafel and schwarma stand. It’s usually lamb or sometimes chicken, sliced from a large piece of meat on a rotating spit and put in pita with your choice of toppings and sauces. In the U.S., gyros are similar. Typically, the pita is a small half-moon but sometimes you can get a laffa which is a giant size pita. For less than $10 you can stuff yourself on one of these sandwiches.
Dinner is my big meal so I like to find the best meat and seafood around. As you can guess, this means I rarely frequent kosher restaurants unless I’m with someone who has stricter dietary habits. Unless I mention that it is kosher, the restaurants I’m reviewing are not (the meat may be kosher but the restaurant will not be if it is open, for example, on Shabbat).
Most Israelis speak English and unless you go somewhere out of the way chances are someone on staff will be able to communicate with you and a menu is probably available in English, albeit often with some creative spelling. As in most foreign countries, you are taking a risk if you try to modify what is on the menu. In America, diners have grown used to making elaborate changes in the dishes presented on the menu, but your chances of getting what you want get smaller the more complicated you make your order in Israel.
The wait staff in most restaurants tends to be very good looking, but not terribly friendly, at least to Americans. They are not likely to spend time chatting at your table the way many Americans do. Service is rarely included and they do not put the tip on credit cards unless you specifically tell them when you give them your card to add a tip. Even then, some restaurants won't want to do it. Israelis these days tip 12-15%, but most restaurants are not noted for their service.
There are a handful of franchises such as Aroma coffee houses, and American imports such as McDonald’s, but it’s less common than in the U.S. One disadvantage of this is that restaurants have short life spans and the favorite you discovered on one trip may be gone the next time you visit.
At dinner, bread is usually extra and can be more expensive than you expect. Israelis make great bread so it is usually worth the cost. Some restaurants offer tiny salad dishes of different sorts, but the American-style house salad is uncommon. A dinner salad is typically just that, big enough for dinner.
Food often comes by the gram and for Americans that’s pretty meaningless so it’s hard to know what you’re getting, though waiters can give you an idea. When it comes to steaks, I usually go for whatever is the mid range size. Also meat is cooked on the rare side. I like my steaks medium rare but in Israel that is closer to rare. The problem is medium is still closer to medium than medium rare so I usually just live with having the meat slightly undercooked as I prefer that to overcooked and sending something back typically ends in disaster. I am a filet mignon man because I hate fat, but Israelis like entrecotes and while fatty, they are tasty.
You can eat inexpensively in Israel, but the places I go for dinner tend to be in the $30-$50 range depending on the number of appetizers I order and whether I have desert. Even at these restaurants, you can get out for less money if you don't order steaks or seafood.
One of the minor annoyances of Israeli restaurants for me is their penchant for playing American music. You have to seek out places that have music of the natives. Perhaps the best innovation in recent years has been the outlawing of smoking in restaurants. For years, the only thing worse than patrons chattering away on cell phones was the Israeli penchant for smoking. Alas, cell phones remain an annoyance.
Assuming you still care, here are a few brief observations about some of the restaurants I’ve frequented.
Right on the beach of Tel Aviv, at the end closest to Jaffa, this mainstay is isolated from the crowds but popular with locals. You can eat inside in a comfortable, air-conditioned room that still looks directly onto the sea or outside where even the shady tables can be broiling during summer months. It is good to make reservations since they frequently ask even if the restaurant is empty and it is otherwise difficult to get a seat outside at peak times. This is a place that serves small appetizers, but I skip them and order the bread. It’s fresh-baked focacia served with olive oil and salt and delicious. I always order the mussels. They used to be served with chorizo, which I didn’t eat, but they refused to leave out, and now serve it with artichoke hearts. Once I ordered their seafood pot, which has a variety of shelfish as well as crabs. Coming from Maryland I’m spoiled when it comes to crabs and the ones available in Israel are pretty lousy, usually small with little meat and what is there is mushy. The ambiance is great; I could sit staring out at the sea for hours and you may be sitting for a long time because the service is usually not very good. When I’m staying down at that end of the beach at the Dan Panorama or David Intercontinental, Manta Ray is where I go for lunch. Prices are moderate though shellfish is typically $20-$30.
July 2012 Update - For unknown reasons, Manta stopped serving my favorite dish - mussels. They continue to serve mussels in combination with other seafood.
This is my current favorite restaurant in Israel. Apparently it is the favorite of many Israelis because it is typically packed for dinner and so popular a second location was opened on Ibn Gavirol Street. They both originally had the same menu, but the newer restaurant changed to a completely different menu that I wasn't interested in trying. The original is on the popular pedestrian area on Dizengoff and is a cauldron with people eating inside and outside, at the bar and counters. The wait staff is rushing about and there is more of a frenzied pace. Wait staff is friendly but too rushed to linger. They occasionally get something wrong, but are quick to make amends and often comp a drink or desert. Though they have meat and pasta and other things on the menu, this is the place to go for seafood. I made the mistake of ordering the ceasar salad as an appetizer the first time and got one of those Cheesecake Factory size meals for two. They serve a few slices of grain bread which is good but not as good as the fresh baked breads you get at some other restaurants. On my last visit I tried their crab bisque for the first time, huge bowl and very tasty broth. I've had very good shrimp in cream sauce, but usually just go for a big pot of mussels marniere with thin, crispy french fries. They have kilo or half-kilo portions that have never failed to satisfy me. Whatever you order, however, make sure to save room for the chocolate cake. This flourless cake in chocolate sauce is the best cake I've eaten in my life. The tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream I get with it is usually frozen with ice chips that drive me crazy, but not even this minor annoyance can spoil that cake. In fact, if you just want desert, go to Goo Cha. Be sure to make a reservation and you may want to specify a table inside or outside otherwise you could get stuck at the bar or counters, which is okay for most people but the seats are too small and uncomfortable for me.
Open: Sun-Sat 12:00-2:00
I can’t think of a better named place for someone like me to eat. Located on a small, quiet street in Neve Tzedek behind the Dan Panaroma and David Intercontintal hotels, this intimate bistro has maybe the best caeser salad I’ve ever eaten (35 NIS) and close to the best onion rings (a side comes with the meal or is 14-18 NIS as extra). On my last visit, I had delicious calamari, lightly fried with aioli sauce (22/44 NIS depending on appetizer or dinner portion). They serve some nice big, juicy steaks - 200/250/500 gram for 105/135/155 NIS. I go for the 250 gram filet with beef or mustard sauce and it is good and filling. I don’t like chocolate mousse, but I tried my companion’s and it was fabulous. This has become one of my new favorite restaurants. Moderate to expensive depending on how big a steak you order. Closed Sunday.
On the boardwalk next to the Sheraton Hotel you’ll find several restaurants next to each other. I chose Cafe London, in between On the Beach and Fish Bone. My waiter told me they are all basically one restaurant and this was apparent from the menu, which featured everything - burgers, pizza, pasta, salads, meat, seafood. I'm usually leery of places that serve too many types of food as I find the quality tends to be inversely related to the number of different food types. I asked for bread and waiter asked if I wanted garlic bread. He came back with a large plate of tasty garlic bread surrounding a small salad. I ordered shrimp in cream with mushrooms and it was delicious. It also came with an American-style side salad, something of a rarity in Israel where salads are typically extra and come in meal size portions. Didn't really need the salad after the one that came with the garlic bread, but it had a tasty dressing and I managed to eat both. For a beachfront, Cafe London had reasonable prices and huge portions. This is a great place to hang out near the beach and look at the sea as well as to check out the action on the boardwalk.
I told you at the outset I'm a carnivore and this is paradise. The restaurant is in Jaffa, not too far from the beach front, but a little off the beaten path directly across from police headquarters. Inside the restaurant is a bit like a ratskeller, vaulted ceilings, dark and noisy. Outisde is garden seating, which is quieter, but not very comfortable as you sit at picnic tables by candlelight. To choose your meat you go to a display case and point out the type of meat and then indicate the size of the cut you'd like. The price depends on both and ranges from about 19 NIS per 100 grams for churasco to 33.50 NIS for a filet. A diagram of the various parts of the cow didn't help me much and I wasn't exactly sure what cut I ordered since the cooks didn't speak English. I did feel pretty good knowing they were Argentine given Argentina's reputation for beef. The meat is served on a small tabletop grill. The filet I ordered was very good though not as good as A Place for Meat of Gilley's. Was also served a basic American-style salad that was not too big (unlike most Israeli salads). The rolls were only so-so by Israeli standards. I did like the empanadas, which were large and stuffed with meat. You get three for an appetizer, but it's enough for a meal in itself. They also have special deals on house wine that my companion said was very good. They also had an all you could drink beer deal.
There's nothing else in the immediate area so it's a cab ride from most hotels. Unlike most Tel Aviv restaurants, parking is readily available.
19 Salame Street
This is one of several seafood restaurants right on the beach in Tel Aviv. This one is on the promenade just before reaching Jaffa. As far as ambiance, it doesn’t get much better than a courtyard overlooking the sea. The menu is extensive with different types of bass, fisherman’s stew, seafood fettuccine, veal, and more.
The lunch menu had a choice of salads, an entree and a side dish for 78 NIS. A choice of five small salads was 48 NIS. Israelis really like these small plates, but I’m partial to American-style salads and this was one of the few restaurants where they served one that was appetizer size. For my entree, I chose the seafood paella with crab, mussels, rock bass, calamari, shrimp and rice. It was a bit salty, but otherwise very good. Like most seafood entrees, a bit pricey at 92 NIS, but the portion was healthy. Other entrees, fisherman stew and veal medallions, topped the price list at 125 NIS.
If you like seafood by the sea, Goldman’s a good choice.
6 Nachum Goldman
Yoetzer apparently is a fairly well known and popular meat restaurant. It was a huge disappointment. Located in an alley off the main drag opposite the clock tower in the center of Jaffa, the restaurant is in a dark celler that has an old-European feel. Very different from the open air eateries along the beach of the sidewalk bistros on the major streets of Tel Aviv.
When I heard it was a meat restaurant, I immediately thought of filet mignon and other prime cuts of beef, but they had only entrecotes, along with schnitzels and lots of sausage dishes. Some people may like the entrecote, but I find it usually tough and fatty. For me, a meat restaurant without a filet is like a Chinese restaurant without soy sauce. Worse, the entrees were terribly overpriced. A schnitzel was 88 NIS and the entrecote was a whopping 199 NIS. Deserts such as Belgian chocolate cake, truffles and creme caramel were 38 NIS.
I found nothing to my liking on the menu except steak so I ordered the entrecote knowing I wasn’t likely to enjoy it. As is often the case in Israeli restaurants, ordering the meat medium rare resulted in a nearly rare piece of steak being delivered. I sent it back and it came out a better temperature, but was tough. The menu said it came with a baked potato, but they were actually oven roasted. The steak was tasty, the potatoes were fine and I liked the vegetable medley of broccoli and beans. My colleague also ordered an entrecote and his was even tougher.
Since it’s a wine bar, perhaps the wine makes up for the food, but since neither of us drink, we can’t comment on the selections. I can tell you that without wine, the meal was $120. If you want a good steak, this isn’t the restaurant for you.
2 Yoezer Aish Habira St.
One of the newer “in” places to go in Tel Aviv is “The Station,” an old railroad station in Neve Tzedek, across the street from the promenade and next to the IDF Museum. The station has been turned into shops and restaurants and become a popular night spot. A five-minute walk from the Dan Panorama, my colleague and I went there for lunch at Italiana nella Stazione. I’ve never been especially impressed with the Italian food in Israel, but decided to give it a try on the recommendation of the concierge. For lunch, they offered a big lunch – starter and entre or desert – at a reasonable fixed price (68 NIS), but most of the options had surcharges. For example, pasta and seafood was an additional 20 NIS. Ordinarily, they don’t let you order soup and salad, but that’s all we wanted, so they let us substitute salad for the main course. They charged us the same price as if we’d ordered an entree. I ordered seafood soup, a tasty tomato-based broth with mussels and shrimp for an additional 7 NIS. The large salad, however, was a tasteless caeser with limp lettuce that seemed like it had been sitting in dressing for a long time. Oddly, we were given paper napkins even though others had cloth ones. I did like the bread. It was a quaint place with indoor and outdoor seating and I might give it another chance for dinner.
Old Train Station
When I heard that the owners of one of my favorite restaurants, Manta Ray, had opened a new restaurant in the restored part of Jaffa port I was excited. Located in the new and pretty ugly building between the water and the old city, Yona looked like a great place to watch people from outside tables. In addition to a parade of tourists and locals walking to the port and other restaurants and shops, tour boats regularly loaded in front of us that sometimes brought noisy teenagers on board for parties. If you prefer quiet, Yona has indoor seating in a tastefully acquainted, high-ceilinged room with an open kitchen and shelves of their signature pickled foods.
I have to admit to being a bit worried when I first glanced at the menu and saw a lot of things that I didn’t recognize, especially among the first courses. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of serving pickled food in jars, but the only thing I’m interested in eating that is pickled in a jar is a pickle. Choosing from shrimp, calamari and other selections that might have caught my fancy outside a jar, my companion took a chance on the pickled smoked salmon in a jar and did not like it. At 29-35 NIS, you might expect to keep the little jar as a keepsake but they are apparently recycled.
Another signature appetizer are terra cotta dishes. I was not too clear about what this would look or taste like, and most of the options, such as spinach and mushroom or sardines, didn’t appeal to me. Still, I took a rare chance and ordered shrimp with artichoke and macadamia nuts. As the snobby food critics might say, it was a revelation. The dish came out sizzling in a basket and while I set aside the artichokes, I scarfed down the shrimp which had a slight kick and a delightful macadamia flavor. Considering the normally high cost of shrimp, this was a good value at less than 40 NIS.
Yona had a variety of interesting main courses, including Bouillabaisse (105 NIS), sea bream (99 NIS) and grouper (99 NIS), as well as a whole fish in rosemary and garlic (95 NIS) and a filet (110 NIS). Slightly more exotic were the lamb cube (79 NIS), Oxtail (89 NIS) and Spatchcock (apparently a small chicken - 79 NIS).
My companion went for the lamb cube. Once again, this violated my own sense of food propriety, as I do not typically like food that comes in a cube format unless it is the type of cubes of meat on a shish kebab skewer. This dish looked like a piece of meat loaf and reinforced my aversion to cubes. I did not taste it but my friend said that it was good, but was not especially enthused.
I once again stumbled into a marvelous dish, the Sababa 5, which was a bowl of shrimp, calamari and mussels in a fabulous saffron sauce. My only complaint was that it was not served with rice, which would have tasted great in that sauce.
The delicious black bread (19 NIS) came with yogurt and the juice of an orange pepper but I preferred to dip it into the terra cotta and saffron sauces.
We skipped desert, opting for the gelato shop next door.
I enjoyed my meal so much I came back a few days later and ate the exact same thing for lunch. I expect to make many return visits and won’t be surprised if others discover this gem as well, so I suspect it’s going to be a place you’ll need a reservation.
Hanger 1 inside the Yaffo Port
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