maharaja ramle
Maharaja in Ramle Photo by Tali Meir
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Outdoor markets around the country are getting a face-lift. With spruced up alleyways and new gourmet eateries, it seems the global consumer trend favoring fresh food and farmers' markets is starting to catch on. Municipalities and local councils in Israel are rediscovering their open markets, which they're now working to expand and repair. In the next two years, most outdoor markets here will undergo massive upgrades, with millions of dollars allocated to the markets' maintenance and expansion. Suddenly Israeli cities want to see their shuks meet the standards of well-known international markets, such as Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, or the Rungis market outside Paris.

Alongside increased municipal investment, private entrepreneurs are opening a growing number of restaurants along the outskirts of these marketplaces. They are particularly lured by the ability to easily purchase a daily bundle of fresh produce and food, often of the highest quality, which is set aside for them. Alongside Jerusalem's thronged Mahane Yehuda Market, for example, are new coffee houses like Cafe Mizrahi, and restaurants like Mahneyuda, which attract patrons from Tel Aviv.

Popular trend

The trend is catching on all over the country. In another two years, an ambitious plan for Tel Aviv's Shuk Hacarmel should be in full swing. According to Orly Arel, director of the city's planning department, Shuk Hacarmel will finally be transformed into a well-kept open space, after years of neglect. In the 1920s then-mayor Meir Dizengoff allowed a group of Russian immigrant merchants to set up a small stand for the sale of fruits and vegetables along Hacarmel Street. The market has since expanded, but without a cohesive plan, making it difficult to change it.

"The city's building plans have to be changed, and we will do that," explains Arel. The project, whose implementation is slated for December 2011, will be aimed at properly designating, expanding and developing the market. "Tel Aviv deserves an organized open market. We want to create an urban link between Magen David Square, Neve Tzedek and Hacarmel Street."

More restaurateurs are also expected to invest in the area. Hacarmel Market will be covered and more organized, with chairs, umbrellas, food stands and restaurants scattered around Magen David Square. Eateries already operating in the area include HaBasta, which opened three years ago, and Carmela B'Nahala, which opened seven years ago.

HaBasta's Maoz Alonim says he chose the location because of its proximity to fresh produce, consistent with the model developed in Europe.

"Because of the short distance between Hacarmel Market and the Yeminite Quarter, the area's most common food staple has been hummus for 30 shekels," Alonim explains. "We came to offer high-quality fare, made from food that comes straight from the market. The area around the market is more attractive today than it was in the past, and its energy level is amazing. But the alleys remain neglected, and the amount of repair work they need is likely to deter entrepreneurs."

Daniel Zach, chef and co-owner of Carmela B'Nahala, says that when he set out to open the restaurant many of his colleagues and investors turned their backs. "The area was not very well developed, but we wanted to be near basic food items," he recalls. "I buy fruits, vegetables, fish and spices in the market. The shop-owners tell me what's new every day, and I love that."

Noshing in Nazareth

Today investors and chefs looking to open restaurants near an open market can receive support from the municipalities. The market in Nazareth, for instance, was renovated thanks to a NIS 80 million investment (though was stalled due to complications with contractors ). Meanwhile, neighboring Nazareth Illit opened a thriving shopping mall, which draws potential customers from the open market.

Nazareth's market still faces challenges, but the proliferation of restaurants in the area provides hope. Tareq Shehada, director general of the Nazareth Association for Culture and Tourism, is optimistic. The association and the municipality co-sponsor incentives to encourage investors and entrepreneurs: a property owner in the area willing to rent his residence and designate it for tourist purposes, as a bed-and-breakfast, hostel or restaurant, will receive a discount on city taxes.

Alongside well-known establishments like Diana and Tashrin, a string of new restaurants have opened around the market, including a kosher restaurant, Abu Said. Most feature authentic Arabic cuisine, along with gourmet dishes such as carpaccio veal and shrimp. And Shehada is convinced that Nazareth's finest culinary days are still ahead, as long as the region remains undisturbed by violence.

Beyond the neon lights

Open markets are characterized by more than authentic Arab cuisine, and local, fresh produce. The Ramle market, where renovations began two weeks ago, offers imported items in high demand, especially those found at its Turkish and Indian stores. Established at the end of the British Mandate period, it stretches along Jabotinsky Street and is 5,000 square meters in size. The market attracts groups from cooking workshops, along with regular patrons looking to purchase food away from supermarkets' neon lights.

Some NIS 20 million is slated for its renovation. Lighting, electricity and sewage grids and other improvements will be undertaken, in the hope of attracting Israeli and foreign tourists. Ramle is eager for everyone to become acquainted with some of the market's fixtures: Shlomi Musari's special cheese stand, the Maharaja restaurant-store that imports sweets from India, and various Bukharin restaurants. Ramle's eateries have attracted food lovers for years, and it's reasonable to assume the renovations will entice entrepreneurs to open new establishments in the area.