Food without culture
Many of Israel's cultural establishments offer cafeterias that could be described as mediocre at best. Can we expect a change?
Last month, world renowned violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman performed at Tel Aviv's Heichal Hatarbut. Both concerts were packed, drawing many people who do not often frequent the auditorium. During the intermission, many sought a coffee or a snack at the auditorium's concession stand, and were shocked by what they saw: The snack bar, on the second floor, is indeed spacious, but more resembles a cafeteria in a party headquarters 30 years ago. It has neon lighting and plastic plants, and offerings include dry toasted sandwiches, sliced vegetable plates and filtered coffee that is always too cold.
It is hard to imagine a larger gap between culture and food. A single sandwich and two cups of coffee, incidentally, cost NIS 70, the same as a deluxe business lunch at a restaurant.
This problem is not limited to Heichal Hatarbut, unfortunately. Many of Israel's cultural institutions offer poor food concessions. Do auditorium managers think food is unimportant?
"Every time visitors come from abroad, I'm embarrassed," says a senior employee at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. "If I invite them to the bar, I get a sandwich with a piece of lettuce and a tomato slice. I almost always prefer places outside, but sometimes there is no choice, there are rehearsals, the actors are eating and everyone orders from the snack bar. What you receive is pathetic."
The snack bars at many of Israel's important cultural institutions, such as museums, theaters and auditoriums, serve stale pretzels, industrial croissants and creme cakes that have spent hours in glass cases. The Heichal Hatarbut snack bar operator has been there for more than 20 years. The Performing Arts Center's food concession has been there for several years, too, and while some effort is apparent, the results are still mediocre sandwiches and cakes that play on a captive audience.
The situation looks even more stark once international comparisons are made. Around the West, cultural institutions have been bringing in fine restaurants and bars, such as those at the Tate Modern museum in London, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum. The Jewish Museum in London has a permanent exhibition about food (the consultant: chef Nigella Lawson), and at the MoMA, the exhibition space was actually extended into the restaurant. There, you'd be hard-pressed to find the stale soft pretzels that are Israel's snack bar staples.
However, Israel can hope for improvement: Three major venues are incorporating food concessions into their renovation process. The Israel Museum will get three new restaurants; The Tel Aviv Museum will get a new building, doubling its size, and including a restaurant; and Habima is getting a new restaurant and Arcaffe. Will this impact the rest of Israel's snack bars?
Tel Aviv: Stale tortillas, tough croissants
The Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center (the Cameri Theater and the Israel Opera). The dairy snack bars serve Lavazza French press coffee, past-their-peak sandwiches with cheeses and smoked salmon, stale tortillas, tough croissants and prepackaged fruit salads. Zev Kochman, the manager of Gourmet Line, which operates the snack bars, says he insisted on selling alcohol even though many said it would put the audience to sleep.
"At the National Theater in London, the bars make most of their money from alcohol. People in Israel didn't know about that, but we kept carrying alcohol, and little by little it sunk in," he says.
Heichal Hatarbut. Visiting the snack par is like going back in time. Yitzhak Ben Yaakov, who has operated and managed the bar for more than 20 years, says, "It's a limited kitchen. People don't come here to eat; they come to snack: soups, salads, bagels and lox, coffee, tea, mint candies and wafers." The prices are reasonable (although not cheap), because they are supervised by the Heichal Hatarbut management.
Could Itzhak Perlman get a slightly stale bagel alongside some thin cucumber slices, too?
"Orchestra members get a discount, but everyone pays," says Ben Yaakov - or in other words, even international stars can expect the same culinary fate there.
"The Heichal Hatarbut snack bar has poor conditions," says manager Aharon Sofer. "There is no room to warm up food, serve or cook, and it's cramped. We don't have even a single item we need to provide the quality service we would like to offer. During the renovations scheduled for next year, the cafe will be relocated to another site, and there will be room to cook and heat things."
The Tel Aviv Museum. The cafeteria is rather limited, with boiling hot coffee that is too weak, and croissants with cheap filling undeserving of the name. It is a cellar, reminiscent of a military canteen. The cafeteria will close in a year or so when the new museum building opens, which will include a restaurant with seating for 100. The building is being designed by Preston Scott Cohen, and will have three large galleries and an auditorium.
Gesher Theater. Where else can you find sliced herring on hearty bread served with pickles, Stolichnaya Vodka and matjes herring? The snack bar operator, Alon Shmuel, says he can easily distinguish between evenings with Israeli productions and those with visiting Russian productions, "based on the orderliness and manners of the audience. The Russian audience eats more, drinks more and waits more patiently in line and doesn't push." The bar serves coffee ground on the spot and very basic cakes from nearby bakeries. A cup of vodka sells for NIS 35, and a cup of Chilean red or white wine sells for about NIS 20.
Jerusalem: A pleasant surprise
It is hard to believe, but Jerusalem knows how to integrate food and culture. Some of the city's restaurants are next to cultural institutions, such as Shmil Bamaabada in the Hamaabada animation and performance complex, and the Lavan restaurant in the Cinematheque.
The Jerusalem Theater - who would have believed? - has a restaurant, Cafe in the Theater, run by Meir Ben Harush. The place has a strong 1980s feel (an emphasis on sweet potato), but it also has room for 180 people, some arrogance and a rich menu: The pastas are prepared on site, and there is also a variety of salads, breakfasts and desserts. Ben Harush says the lunchtime crowd includes people from nearby offices.
The Lavan restaurant at the Cinematheque, which has been operating in its current format for years now, is run by the group that runs the local restaurants Red and Culinary. Anyone who has been to the Jerusalem Film Festival will recall the long lines. Indeed, during the festival, Lavan hosts around 1,200 diners a day. The chief chef is Michael Katz (formerly of Michael Andrew). On an average day, the restaurant sees 250 diners. The menu is dairy, and breakfast and brunch include fish dishes and offerings that have become associated with restaurant, including a red-corn hamburger and tahina ice cream.
Haifa: Just like home
The Haifa Museum of Art and the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art are at the forefront of the home-style cafe movement. The cute Me'ever Lacafe bar is run by Noa Greenblum, who brings homemade cakes, sandwiches with roasted eggplant and pesto, and coffee that she roasts herself and serves in clay mugs. The highlight: a baked cheesecake with what Greenblum describes as a "thin, thin" layer of dough (NIS 17). The fine coffee comes from Ava Cafe (NIS 11).
The Habima Theater in Tel Aviv. The new theater is scheduled to open next January. The complex will include a restaurant facing the plaza, while the entire entrance will be taken up by a coffee bar and restaurant with an extensive menu. Adjacent to the auditoriums will be stands, run by Arcaffe. Habima's spokesman, the late Yaakov Cohen, said a few days before he died, "The dairy restaurant and the coffee bars will also host performances. People will no longer show up at 8:29 P.M. for plays, but instead will come early to sit in the restaurant or cafe."
Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The Israel Museum is undergoing massive renovation under the auspices of the architectural firms Efrat-Kowalsky, James Carpenter (New York) and Assaf Lerman. When it opens in late July, it will have a meat restaurant and two dairy cafeterias, one of which will also be a cafe. The meat restaurant will seat 100 inside and 150 outside. Nava Bibi will manage the dairy places, and Chef Avner Niv, a graduate of cooking school in New York and one of the leaders of the Slow Food movement in Israel, will head the establishment. The cafeterias will be self-service, offering baked goods, sandwiches, salads and dishes including lasagna, cannelloni and couscous, said Bibi. The meat restaurant will be run by the Cassiopeia chain, one of the owners of the Papagaio restaurant. The restaurant will be called Modern Jerusalem because the modernist design of the inner space, said David Lin.
The Holon Museum of Design. The new building, designed by designer and architect Ron Arad, is getting a branch of the cafe and bakery Idelson 10, which opens this week. Owner Ziona Hershkowitz said the cafe will offer sandwiches, salads, cakes and cookies. Designed by Gabi Yair, the space will have room for 50.