Every time Noa and her husband go out to eat, they’re taken aback by the cost, even if they didn’t wolf down a full meal. “Sometimes all we have is a salad and dessert with a hot drink at one of the chain coffee shops, and it costs NIS 150,” she says. “If it’s a special occasion and we go to a classier restaurant, the bill can easily be hundreds of shekels.”

The impression that restaurants are costing a lot, and a lot more than they used to, is not unfounded. A survey by Business Data Israel found that in the first quarter of 2011, the average price of a restaurant meal increased 4% versus the first quarter of 2010, in keeping with the increase in the consumer price index as a whole.

Since the beginning of 2007, the price of an average beef entree with side dishes rose from NIS 52.90 to NIS 65.50, a 24% increase. In the first quarter of 2011, the average price of this order increased 7% versus the parallel quarter in 2010.

“Israel’s top restaurants are expensive versus their counterparts around the world, and are priced disproportionately to wages,” says an expert from the website Mapa, which has ranked restaurants in Israel for the past decade. “For example, a business lunch at Tel Aviv’s Catit costs NIS 140, and a meal for two ultimately costs NIS 600 once you add dessert, which costs NIS 65, and a bottle of wine, which costs a minimum of NIS 170.”

Indeed, a review of Mapa’s top 10 recommended restaurants indicates that dinner, including an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert − and not the most expensive items on the menu − costs NIS 160 to NIS 370 per diner. That’s not including wine, which averages NIS 30 per glass, soft drinks ‏(NIS 10 each‏) or tip.

All told, a couple can spend NIS 450 to NIS 900 on a high-class dinner.
The problem isn’t confined to the country’s top restaurants. Some of the less exclusive places, including chains and coffee shops, charge relatively high prices compared to their superiors, which means their prices aren’t far below the high-class restaurants. For example, TheMarker found that a meal including an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert at Moses, a mid-range hamburger chain, costs around NIS 130 per person, not including drinks and tip. At the new Tel Aviv diner launched by seafood restaurant Goocha, customers would pay NIS 143.

“The price gaps between restaurants of different quality are too wide,” avers Avital Inbar, an expert on culture and food. “There are good restaurants that offer business lunches for NIS 60, and there are coffee shops and restaurants that charge nearly NIS 50 for a salad. Aside from Israel’s top restaurants, where you receive dishes of excellent quality, the prices at other restaurants in Israel are not justified.”

Missing out on the experience

What do things look like in other countries? Restaurants aren’t a cheap pleasure anywhere and the sky-high prices at some can put Israeli bills of fare to shame. But you can still have a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant for less than a meal at Israel’s top restaurants.

For the record, Israel does not have any Michelin-starred restaurants.
A review of prices at Michelin-starred restaurants found, for example, that at Paris’ Le Chiquito restaurant, which has a single star, you can pay the equivalent of NIS 290 for an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. At Tulsi, an Indian restaurant in New York that also has one Michelin star, a similar meal will cost NIS 160.

This is significantly less than what you’d pay at some of Israel’s top-ranked restaurants, including Tel Aviv’s Mul Yam, where this selection of dishes ‏(drinks not included‏) would cost NIS 375 per person, or at Catit, where you’d pay NIS 334.

“Europe and the United States aren’t cheap, but they have some excellent-quality bistros that don’t have Michelin stars and that offer full meals for 30 euros, which is NIS 150,” says Inbar.

The differences aren’t just in the prices, but also in the experience.
“There’s no question that the quality of food in Israel has improved in the past few years, but eating out is expensive given what you get,” says Raanan Rogel, editor of the website Achul Ve’Chateau − Food and Beverage Israel.

The Israeli prices don’t match the experience, he says.

“It’s hard to add up an experience, but for example, at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, I had a business lunch for 48 euros, exactly what it charged five years ago, before the restaurant received its star. That’s NIS 250, not including drinks, but in Paris, as opposed to in Israel, that price includes service. In comparison, a business meal at Mul Yam costs NIS 170, close to what that Michelin-starred Paris restaurant charges. But at the Paris restaurant, they serve you appetizers before the first course, and they give you little amuse-bouches between the courses. All this turns the meal into an experience,” he says.

He adds that European waiters are professionals and add to the experience. “They explain the dishes, and there’s a ceremoniousness when you enter the restaurant, when they serve the bread, in how they check up on customers. You never have to search for a waiter,” he says. “This experience is definitely lacking in Israel. Here they simply serve you your dish and that’s it.”

Expensive relative to wages

Why are Israeli restaurants more expensive? Industry sources say the cost of quality raw ingredients drives the prices up.

“Some of Israel’s top restaurants serve the chef’s traditional family food,” says Rogel. “This is a chef’s take on dishes served at simple restaurants, but with better raw ingredients. They generally import their ingredients, and sometimes do so by plane, which makes the import process even costlier. The interior design and the staff are expensive, rent is high, and all of this is passed on to the diner.”

A source with knowledge of the dining world says that the country’s top restaurants aren’t expensive compared to their international counterparts, and that tourists consider Israel to be a culinary destination that’s not particularly expensive. But, as Inbar says, even if the prices in Israel are on par with those around the world, they’re not on par with average local salaries.

“As long as people are willing to pay these prices, they won’t decrease, but business lunches cost too much for the middle class. Chefs will tell you that they’re losing money on the food and profiting from the drinks, but I don’t think they’re losing on food. If they were losing, they wouldn’t be doing it,” Inbar says.

Some experts say Paris is much more expensive than Israel and diners get more for their money in Tel Aviv.

Celebrity chef Haim Cohen agrees with this viewpoint, and says that restaurants in central Israel are expensive because they pay high rent.
“Renting 300 to 400 meters on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv, for example, costs a ton, and municipal taxes are also high,” Cohen says. “Clearly if you’re importing ingredients, you have to pay taxes, too. For example, I import mozzarella balls filled with mozzarella cream from Italy, something they don’t make in Israel. It costs hundreds of shekels per kilo to import, despite being significantly cheaper in Italy.”

BDI executive Tehila Yanai says many restaurateurs face a lose-lose situation. “The prices at coffee shops and restaurants are directly influenced by the increased cost of raw ingredients over the past several years,” she says. “This forces industry players to choose between absorbing the costs and raising prices. Absorbing costs means lower profits. On the other hand, raising prices may mean fewer customers and less work.”

BDI’s data indicates that opening a coffee shop and restaurant is still riskier than the average business.

“We have been seeing a rising number of chains in financial difficulty during the last two years because of the financial crisis, and tough competition as new players open up,” she says.

Dana Melamed, editor of City Mouse’s food section, says that despite the impression, famous chefs are not all enjoying the good life.

“I know no small number of top-ranking chefs who can’t cover their expenses, despite the high prices they charge,” she says.

The source at Mapa agrees that the problem isn’t specific to restaurants.
“In the restaurateurs’ defense, the problem is that Israel is very expensive. An apartment in Tel Aviv costs as much as an estate in Tuscany, and ingredients at the market are expensive, too,” says the source. “People think it’s price-gouging, but you can’t say they’re ripping off customers. You can’t eat gourmet food for cheap. If it’s cheap, then that means the ingredients aren’t high quality, or that the chef has several restaurants that are turning profits.”

Cohen says local eateries shouldn’t be faulted for not offering the height of the Parisian dining experience.

“We’re a young country, and the food and hospitality culture is still being created. There’s no culture of hospitality like what’s taught at schools in Europe,” he says. “Most waiters are students, and I think it’s more pleasant and suited to Israel. That doesn’t mean service shouldn’t be professional, but it’s fine that it’s more relaxed. You need to remember that in Europe, the wait staff is paid well, and I’m not sure you could introduce such a cost into the Israeli market.”

Cohen says that at his new restaurant, Yafo Tel Aviv, which he launched in November, he intentionally set prices lower than at comparable restaurants. “I want to be accessible to a larger audience,” he says. “At one point, the people opening restaurants were chefs with dreams, but now it’s mostly businessmen,” he says. “Businessmen look at the numbers differently − they use equations, and some want to return the investment within a set number of years. This also affects price decisions.”

Star search

Michelin stars are one scale that purports to rank some of the best restaurants around the world. Michelin does not rank Israeli restaurants, so the country has yet to earn its first star.

Avital Inbar, who authored “Taanugot Provence” ‏(The Pleasures of Provence‏) and other books on France’s food culture, and launched Israel’s version of the international Gault Millau restaurant guide which competes with the Michelin guide, says that in the mid-1990s he contacted Michelin. It complained that “there aren’t enough gourmet restaurants in Israel.” Things have changed and many excellent restaurants have opened, but an industry source says many believe that Israel’s international unpopularity means there won’t be a Michelin guide here anytime soon.

Gault Millau published a guide to Israel between the years 1996 and 2003, and employed a team of 20 to do so. “We shuttered Gault Millau in 2003 due to the second intifada,” says Inbar, adding: “It’s hard to compile a ranking of Israeli restaurants because there’s no base of established restaurants. In Tel Aviv, for instance, when you talk about an established restaurant, that means 15 years for Mul Yam or 10 years for Chloelys. An established restaurant in France could be 30 years old,” he says.

In addition, Israel doesn’t have any restaurants on a high enough level. “Maybe there’s a handful that are Michelin-star worthy. But in Israel, it’s not the same kind of quality. You can’t compare, even if the food itself is excellent.”

In order to merit stars, a restaurant needs to spend a lot of money on items including good wines and additional manpower, he says. “They need to maintain a high quality of meat and sometimes even have fish fished especially for them,” he says. “Michelin stars mean very strict standards.”