Ten Israeli Restaurants, Six Hundred Years in the Kitchen

Visiting eateries that have survived for decades, one can’t help but wonder: Did their owners preserve recipes from native lands or adapt their menus to changing trends?

Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad

A heavy hitter

Sami and Susu, Be'er Sheva

Cafe Batya, Tel Aviv.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Founder: Marcel Lehrer, 1970

In 1970 Marcel Lehrer opened this modest Romanian restaurant, which would eventually be surrounded by the city marketplace. He never imagined he would keep running the place well after reaching the official retirement age. Around him are wooden tables and chairs, and faded wall-hangings that he brought with him when he immigrated to Israel from Romania in 1964. Today, at 74, Lehrer is full of energy and humor; he leans over the cash register and chitchats with the customers.

Specialities from Azura in Lod. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

"A friend who was working with me at the chemical factory said: 'Let's open a restaurant, for sure we'll earn more than what we make here,'" he recalls. "After six months in business, this friend understood that working in a restaurant is hard and demanding. In a panic, he left the partnership, leaving me here alone."

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Cafe Batya, established in Tel Aviv in 1941, is famous for its gefilte fish. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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Marcel Lehrer founded Sami and Susu in Be'er Sheva in 1970. Credit: Ilan Assayag
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Maayan Habira, Haifa, established in 1962. Credit: Hagai Frid

To his hungry customers, Lehrer recommends his slightly sour chorba (soup ), bull testicles, brains, Romanian kebab and beer. He claims that in the 40 years of the restaurant's existence, nothing has changed on the menu - or in the atmosphere of the place. "Only I have gotten old - nothing else happens here. Everything works according to the plan. Maybe we're in the middle of the shuk, but there has never been a robbery or a murder here. This whole time, I've only hoped for peace and quiet, for everybody to be content.

"The only thing that's changed is the money," Lehrer complains. "When I opened, prices were in pounds. And what pounds they were! With four zeroes. Then a kebab cost 50 agorot, now it's NIS 6. Once I would pay NIS 150 to cover a water bill; now it's NIS 600. But okay, we've progressed."

Why did you call the restaurant Sami and Susu?

"It was back in the early days of television [when we opened]. All there was on TV was the news and Westerns - and in Arabic they broadcasted the program 'Sami and Susu.' I wanted to give my restaurant a catchy commercial name, and it fit in perfectly - bingo. After all, I understood I had arrived in the Middle East; I was no longer in Europe."

Aside from his regular Be'er Sheva clients, Lehrer says that media personalities, politicians and army officers come in every so often: politicians Limor Livnat and Amir Peretz, Mayor Ruvik Danilovich and others. Howerver, as a rule he says he does not ask people their names. "Because afterward I forget them, and then they are appalled."

At your age, why are you still coming to work every day?

"My children aren't interested in working in the restaurant. They are doing fine. My son is an engineer, my older daughter a teacher, and my other daughter worked with me for a while, but not any more. For years, I worked here 18 hours a day, but more recently I've been opening at noon and closing at 6 P.M. When all is said and done, I am old. Once I would explain to my old customers that that's how it is. You simply get older. But when old age set in, I realized that there is a big difference between talking about it and living with it."

Do you have any competitors?

"Competitors used to constantly open restaurants around me, but all of them died and only I'm still here. There are a lot of places in Be'er Sheva that I enjoy going to. The new ones are very beautiful; they serve light, healthy food, with lots of vegetables and fruit - as opposed to what we serve. People come here to eat something heavy that is less healthy. But there is still demand for that, too."

How did your restaurant survive for so many years?

"I'm asking myself the same question. And also: Where does the strength to keep working in the same restaurant for 41 years - and to keep a Romanian wife for 45 years - come from?! I deserve a prize for that. Walla! The truth is I have no secret, only perseverance. It is important to maintain a certain way of working and also the quality of the food ... Everything else that people say is just stories. On TV, the chefs only show their final product. It's nice, but I haven't seen a single one keeping a restaurant going for so many years."

On tap for six decades

Maayan Habira, Haifa
Founder: Nahum Meir, 1962

If family restaurants are a common phenomenon, family bars are a slightly rarer breed on the local landscape. Yet that is precisely how the story of Maayan Habira ‏(literally, Fountain of Beer‏) starts: It is a place where three generations drew, draw and will continue to draw cold beer on tap, and where the food serves as a means for lining stomachs.

The veteran public house in the lower city was established by Nahum Meir, a new immigrant from Poland, in 1962. During the 12 previous years, he’d worked on the premises in what was then a butcher shop and sausage factory, where he used to smoke meat. In the early years after the bar opened, the customers were port workers, cart drivers and laborers, who came in to relax after a day’s work. Some of them are still in evidence.

Reuven Meir, son of the late founder, recalls: “In the early years, we allowed customers to bring in food from the outside, because Papa only smoked meat three times a week. So the crowd would arrive with food from home − to drink beer together. When I was 16 we hung up notes on the walls, asking not to bring food in, and we started to operate the restaurant as a serious venture. Our flagship dishes are goulash and smoked meats.”

As a minor, Reuven Meir served food, handled the 50-liter barrels of beer, and served their contents. “In order to open a barrel you had to hit the copper tube on the outside hard. I was small, but accurate. If I missed, all of the beer would spray out. I never missed,” he says, proudly.

Can you name any of the customers who came here?

“[Artists, politicians, media people and chefs like] Boaz Sharabi, Yona Yahav, Emanuel Halperin, Ami Ayalon, Yossi Levy, Nir Kipnis, Tzachi Buchester, Eyal Shani and many others,” he says, adding that one of the attractions of the establishment is the personal treatment given to customers.

“When I was 18, Papa bought me a Susita [car]. There were a lot of people who sat by themselves in the restaurant, and Papa asked me to drive them home in it at the end of the day. I worked in the kitchen for 20 years. I didn’t have a lot of choice. My son works here, too.”

In recent years the place has revived. What did you change, and what did you keep?

“All these years we only had fans, because Papa refused to put in air conditioners. He said that if we installed air conditioners, people wouldn’t drink beer. It would be too comfortable,” he laughs.

“We installed air conditioners and the people are still coming. One day my daughter said patrons were asking if we would open in the evening, as well, so we extended our hours of operation. We are at the point where we have to close down the street at night for our celebrations. We opened an improvised dance floor. We arrange rock’n’roll performances − the 80 year-olds are dancing on the tables here.

“The place remains authentic, but the portions have grown and they are now close to 500 grams [of meat], because my son likes to serve food with all his heart and soul. The food is also a lot more refined ... Nowadays there is a completely different standard.”

Shari Arison on the wall

Al Janina, Nazareth
Founder: Ulala Raouf ‏(Abu Maher‏), 1945

Al Janina opened in 1945, not far from Mary’s Well in Nazareth. In the early years, it consisted of a single small room with tables and chairs, surrounded by a verdant orchard with fruit trees. Back then, Ulla Raouf ‏(Abu Maher‏), the Nazareth native who founded the restaurant, used to feed 50 or so people each evening. Since that time, the restaurant has expanded and the grove has been uprooted, except for one lemon tree and one ancient mulberry tree. Seating under the latter is still preferred by some local patrons.

The sons of the founder, who has since died, run two businesses named after him: The old restaurant expanded, and now has room for 800 diners, and the second was opened seven years ago on the road leading out of Nazareth, toward Afula.

One of Abu Maher’s sons, Ayman Raouf, manages Al Janina today; he enlisted in the family business immediately after graduating high school. Since then, Raouf says he has gained insight into what greases the wheels of the business: “It takes years to build up a good name, but only a minute to ruin it. The restaurant’s reputation is well known. Everyone who comes to Nazareth feels the need to sample our dishes, and it is also written up in the tourist guidebooks. There are customers who come in after 30 years of not being here, who cannot believe the restaurant has remained under the ownership of one family and with the same food − exactly the same kebab.”

Among the clientele he lists Aharon Barak, Moshe Kahlon, Itzik Mordechai and Shari Arison. “Want to see our picture?” he offers, and without further ado points to a small photo of him with the well-known businesswoman.

Where are all the other photos?
“We don’t have any.”

Why did you develop only the one photo with Arison?

“She is a very modest woman,” he says, and proceeds to put the picture back in its place. Although he is proud of his regular clientele, he says he does not discriminate between them and travelers who happen to walk in. “Our kitchen is open to everyone. I let people take a peak into the pots, examine the refrigerators. Other [restaurateurs] say don’t go into the kitchen because it is wet and you’ll slip, or that it is hot and you will burn yourself. But I don’t stop them. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

With a reputation stretching back 70 years, do you still advertise the restaurant?

“Of course I still advertise in the press and on the Internet. Aside from that, I maintain close relationships with the patrons. Every Passover I make 300 telephone calls, wishing people a happy holiday. We have a great deal of competition now. In our immediate vicinity, something like 25 restaurants have opened, but I only eat at mine. All of the items on the menu here are prepared by hand. We have special lamb kebab, stuffed vine leaves, whole lamb if ordered in advance, mansaf ‏(lamb cooked with rice‏) with pine nuts that is simply exquisite, kubbeh ‏(a delicacy made of dough stuffed with meat‏) and small sambusak ‏(savory pastries‏). We specialize in lamb, fish and a kanafeh [traditional dessert] that you simply have to try.”

Still celebrating a victory

Nitzahon, Ashkelon
Founder: Yishayahu Labucheur, 1949

The pedestrian promenade of Ashkelon is not particularly unique; today a layer of dust and neglect hovers around it. At midday it is almost devoid of people. The Mashbir Lazarchan department store, the shop where they sell cloth shoes for NIS 5, the stall where you can get shiny pitchers from China − nothing is as exciting as the kebab that Yishayahu Liebuchur has been selling since 1949 at Nitzahon ‏(which means “victory”‏), whose name refers to the War of Independence.

Liebuchur, 88, still comes in every day and relates that he opened the establishment with a partner in the days when Ashkelon was still called Majdal.

“We received permission to take over a ruin on which a bomb had fallen, a former pharmacy. I started renovating but ran out of money. At the time there was a wave of immigration from Tripoli, so we brought two partners into the business and together built the first coffeehouse in the city.

There was no living to be made from it, so I worked in construction at the same time,” Liebuchur explains.

He describes the dismal history of Nitzahon during the austerity years and up until 1958, when the city began to develop and the restaurant began to prosper. In 1984, his wife developed Alzheimer’s and he asked Yosef Heinich, a regular customer, to come in as a partner. Heinich, who has run the restaurant with his wife Gabriella for 28 years, believes that surviving the difficult times has helped the place attract new patrons.

“During Operation Cast Lead we were open when others had closed their doors, and so it was that all of the television crews would eat here after their broadcasts: Roni Daniel, Yonit Levy and the cameramen,” says Heinich.

How did you endure?

Liebuchur: “The restaurant survived because my wife and I worked as if we were six people. We didn’t hire a lot of people, we scrimped and saved, we stretched ourselves thin, we worked, we kept on going.”

Heinich: “A restaurant isn’t a game; you have more freedom in prison. It’s important to relate to the work and the clientele seriously. Although there are better days and worse days, we have become an institution. The food hasn’t changed over the years, and we try to serve the same menu and maintain the quality.”

With a view to Paris

Edna Bahatzer, Ramat Hasharon
Founder: Edna Ne’eman, 1958

When Edna Ne’eman, a new immigrant from Persia, opened a kiosk in Ramat Hasharon in 1958, “it wasn’t trendy,” says her son Avi. Ne’eman would fry omelets on a kerosene stove and sell flavored soda water and tobacco, but didn’t have a hard time finding clients.

“It is hard to imagine it now, but Ramat Hasharon was the Wild West, the end of the world. No one came here, there were only thorns and snakes here,” he explains. “Most of the work involved bartering with the cart drivers, who would stop at the entrance to the restaurant and give Mama honeycombs, with beeswax and bees, in exchange for omelets. There was no road, no television. Every evening we would light a bonfire with the neighbors and play the harmonica.”

In 1962, a new wing was added to the building, and a workers’ restaurant was opened. Ne’eman cooked day in day out, in her handful of pots, preparing Jewish and Persian food, and also hotdogs for kids in the neighborhood.

Today Edna Bahatzar is a “respectable Ramat-Sharoni culinary institution,” declares her son, who manages the establishment; last year a branch even opened in Tel Aviv. Aside from the classic Persian recipes, the menu now features French-style sauces and desserts.

How do the Persian customers respond to these innovations?

Avi Ne’eman: “Mainly they give me a hard time, because they are traditional Jews and the kitchen is not kosher. Mama is traditional, but she educated us to move ahead, not to be mired in mediocrity. It is simply crazy to make sauces without a cream base, and cheesecake without cheese is disgusting. When I bake a souffle or bread, I am looking to Paris. If it is a culinary delicacy, you have to take it as far as you can.”

The establishment survived due to the changes you made in the kitchen?
“Not only. We have an abiding love for the kitchen, for running a restaurant and for hard work. Nowadays there isn’t a single Persian on the restaurant staff, but you don’t have to be Persian to prepare Persian food. You only need a love of cooking and loyalty to clients.”

The oil is deep the Kinneret is not

Ein Gev Fish Restaurant
Founder: Gershon Cohen, 1941

The Ein Gev Fish Restaurant is an enterprise founded in the spirit of the veteran kibbutz. At lunchtime, dozens of buses are parked outside, unloading hungry tourists by the hundreds, who want more and more fish. The massive interior of the restaurant looks like a kibbutz dining hall, or a beehive humming with activity. The only feature around here that remains tranquil is Lake Kinneret, which can still be seen from the patio outside, but it is shrinking.

“In the early years, gourmands would come from far and wide to eat Gershon Cohen’s fried fish,” recalls Meir Ohayon, 77, who sells soft drinks. “Back in the austerity days, when we ate half a tomato and half an egg, they would sail in boats directly into the Ein Gev harbor so that Gershon could seat them at a table himself.”

In 1941, Cohen, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Gev, built a little kiosk in the shade of the tree that now stands in front of the restaurant. “He would arrive at the seashore each morning. When the fishermen came in and unloaded their scant catch, he would collect a few tilapia ‏(St. Peter’s fish‏) and fry them on a gas ring,” Ohayon recalls. “Over the years, the kiosk expanded and became a little restaurant. From that little restaurant a respectable restaurant grew, with the capacity of feeding 1,200 customers at the same time.”

Israel Ophir, current owner of the eatery, is the most sought-after person there. Dozens of tour guides are trying to catch his attention − and he has room for all of them. Ophir says the place is popular because of its fish.

“The tilapia, which received the name of St. Peter, has significance for pilgrims. Some of the miracles of Jesus were related to this fish,” he explains. “According to one story that I heard from them, Jesus sent Peter to fish for fish, to help pay their taxes. A coin was concealed in the mouth of a fish, and it saved them.”

Over the years, Ein Gev has faced new competition. How do you still manage to draw hundreds of customers a day?

“Until a decade ago, it was the only restaurant on the eastern bank of the Kinneret. Everyone who visited the area came here to eat and drink.

There weren’t even any convenience stores in the gas stations. Now the situation has of course changed, but the tilapia hasn’t. We have been frying it for 70 years in the same simple way, with the same recipe: Veteran customers arrive at the restaurant after decades, and must have it.”

Ohayon offers a slightly different take. “The fish that is fried in the restaurant today is not the same fish,” he maintains. “Today we fry a tilapia of the Jordan species here, which is a hybrid of the Galilee tilapia and the Yaor tilapia. It is grown in pools, and is outstanding.”

Chickpeas and generals

Abu Michel, Lod
Founder: Michel Abu Tabit, 1956

People go to Abu Michel in the Old City of Lod to eat masabacha ‏(a chickpea dish‏) and listen to stories told by Michel Abu Tabit, the founder of the establishment, who was there at major junctures in local history − without stepping foot outside his restaurant.

“It was here that the plan to kidnap Eichmann was put together, and here that the kidnapping of a soldier and the murder of a high-ranking
American political figure were foiled. But it is better to keep a low profile,” he says.

Although the recent renovations conceal its age, the restaurant’s history began in 1956. Back then the Abu Tabit family was living in Ramle, where there was only one restaurant, belonging to Abu Zakaria. Abu Tabit recalls that a group of new immigrants from Iraq tried to buy the restaurant from Abu Zakaria, but he would not agree.

“At the time there were no refrigerators. Abu Zakaria would slaughter a lamb, hang it up, and cut chunks off it whenever a customer came in, and would then fry it,” he says. “One of the Iraqis came in, asked him for a cut of lamb, and when he turned around, the man stabbed him. Abu Zakaria was a tough bull of a man, but he died on the way to hospital.
“We had a coffee shop in Ramle, not far from the Terra Santa school,” he continues. “After the Iraqis bought Abu Zakaria’s place, they started to come to us. For three straight evenings, every evening, they came to the coffeehouse, drank and ate, threw the plates on the floor, knocked over the table, and refused to pay. I asked my father why they were behaving like this. He said they wanted to buy the coffee shop and that if we refused, they would murder him.

“The next evening I walked up to them and said we were interested in selling the business to them for 15,000 pounds. They pulled out the money, I put it in my pocket, brought them the keys and then we left. When I got home and told Mama that I’d sold the coffeehouse, she was really happy and yelled: ‘Kululululululu!’”

A few months later, when he was 14, Abu Tabit’s family bought a coffeehouse belonging to a man named Menachem Spiegler in Lod, following negotiations that lasted eight minutes. The location never changed. In the early years of operation, the clientele still remained from the Spiegler days and included gamblers and card players from all of the ethnic communities and religions.

Abu Tabit: “Every month there would be a brawl here, with 20 or 30 people breaking tables over one another’s head. The noise was just crazy. On the evening we bought the place, I stood four plastic crates one atop another so that I could look tall. I slammed my hand against the refrigerator, and everyone got quiet and looked at me. I said,
‘Gentlemen, my name is Michel Abu Tabit from Ramle, and I am the new owner.’ After a period of time when the place operated according to its previous format, I suggested to my father that we turn it into a restaurant.”

The energetic son assigned the various duties among the members of his family: “’Papa, you will make hummus, and Mama, you will pickle cucumbers. We will bring in meat and we will fry it.’ Papa agreed − mainly so that we could bring in a different type of clientele, and put an end to the brawls.”

The restaurant opened, diners arrived, but the son was not content with his father’s pace of work. “I invented masabacha because Papa prepared the hummus in a pot every day, and ground everything by hand. It took him a lot of time. I told him, ‘Papa, the customers are waiting, let’s serve them a different dish that will look like the traditional worry beads; masabacha looks like a necklace of fresh chickpeas. We’ll take a few chickpeas out, we’ll sprinkle tahini, olive oil and lemon over them, and we’ll serve it, without the whole hummus-making process.’”
Just a second. Are you claiming that you invented masabacha?

“Yes, it’s been the same recipe ever since. Before that, there was no such dish.”

So this dish was not served previously in restaurants in Syria and Lebanon?

“Maybe people don’t know it, but I invented it. After that, people started coming here from all over the country. I’m not surprised that other places serve it. After all, what is masabacha? It isn’t a military secret.”

Lod was a difficult place to survive. How did you manage to hold onto your customers?

“I always preferred the golden mean − to treat everyone the same way, without discriminating, and to show respect. All of the pilots and stewardesses of El Al were regular customers. Also [former Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan, for whom I gathered fragments of jugs and stones from the area. Who else ate here? [Politicians like] Haim Laskov, Golda Meir, Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter, Shimon Peres, [TV personality] Dan Shilon − and lots of generals. Back then it was not the custom to be photographed with the patrons and to hang up their pictures, such as is done now. Everyone receives the same portion as the residents of Lod.”

Only the air conditioners are new

Beit Lishansky, Metula
Founder: Mela Lishansky, 1936

Beit Lishansky was founded in 1936 in Metula by Mela ‏(Miriam‏) Lishansky. Throughout most years of its operation, the Modernist structure, designed by architect Moshe Gerstel, was called Villa Lishansky Camp and served as a guesthouse. Aside from the warm hospitality, the place was apparently known mainly for Lishansky’s marvelous cooking. In the 75 years that have passed since it opened, the establishment has undergone numerous incarnations, and also experienced a decade-long coma. It seems that the latest efforts by the Lishansky offspring to preserve the place’s heritage are making guests feel that these days are like the old days, that the spirit is the same old spirit.

All of this is mainly due to Clary Lishansky, the Haifa-born cook who married Yosef Lishansky, a scion of the pioneer family. The memories still simmer here, framed on the wall and spilling out of the antique tin pitchers. “The only thing that’s been added is the air conditioners. What can you do? We’ve become pampered,” she says.

Israel Lishansky, Clary’s son, who persuaded her to reopen the establishment, pulls out a yellowing guest book with the names and professions of guests; the date alongside the names is 1940. The professions: laborer, physician, teacher, engineer. And then come the photographs, in black and white or hand-colored, of workers who arrived from Sidon and chiseled the stones of the building, and of the first pioneers of Metula. A little history of a little place.

The Lishanskys sit with their customers and tell them how, back in those days, they would seat guests at a long table with benches on either side. Among the patrons were clerks and officers who ate along with visiting dignitaries like Haifa Mayor Abba Hushi, or actress Hanna Rovina. Now, regular clients from the north and the occasional tourist eat there.
Didn’t the austerity period stop Mela Lishansky?

Clary Lishansky: “Actually, tons of people came here during the austerity period, because the Lishanskys had sour cream, eggs, apples, meat, olives, cheeses and vegetables − all from our own farm.”

And during wars and attacks on the north?

“Damage was caused to the building in some of the wars. In the War of Independence, a piece of shrapnel damaged the wooden shutters. And on the day of the army’s withdrawal from Lebanon, you could smell the gunpowder. The stained glass in the stairwells sustained damage. I thought I would go crazy. On one porch, all of the cornices collapsed, but the building was never abandoned.”

History seems to serve the restaurant well. What else has helped keep it going?

“There is a certain mix you can’t find in other places: a story, a house, a heritage, special dishes − and outstanding music from those days. It’s only a shame that the Israeli public doesn’t know Metula so well. There is good tourism here only during the brief ski season. Once upon a time, we didn’t have competition and everyone came here, but in the past few years countless restaurants have opened in the north that pretend to serve Galileean food, and there is a struggle to capture the small local market.”

Always a line outside

Azura, Jerusalem
Founder: Ezra Sherfler, 1952

The legendary Azura from the Yossi Banai song of the same name was opened by Ezra Sherfler in 1952. Nearly 60 years later Sherfler still comes in every morning in a wheelchair to have a bowl of bean soup, to make the financial decisions − and to spend time with his children. He has nine, seven of whom work here, “because that’s how I taught them,” he says.

His youngest son Elran, 30, is now the main cook; the other children are also expert in the dishes of the Turkish kitchen, and work in the bustling kitchen. Two of his daughters are entrusted with preparing the stuffed vegetables.

When he was 14, Sherfler was a dishwasher in a Turkish restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market. The inquisitive boy would stand right behind the chef, until the latter finally threw him out of the kitchen.

“I cried all day long, I didn’t know what to do,” he recalls, smiling. When he informed the restaurant owner that he wanted to leave, the man said, “Watch quietly and learn − just don’t get too close to the cook.”

Within a few months Sherfler learned the secrets of the kitchen, and replaced the veteran cook. Subsequently, he worked at several different restaurants. He even worked at Rahmo, where he was entrusted with preparing its trademark hummus.

“I was Rahmo’s teacher. All of the dishes prepared at the restaurant were mine. He made his reputation thanks to me. But working for him was exhausting. I still have blisters. I prepared a 1,000 portions of hummus, eight hours straight, every day,” he relates, and shows off his calloused hands.

When Sherfler enlisted in the army, he asked to be sent to a chef’s course, but was instead sent to be a driver. Only in the reserves, after his reputation was known far and wide, was he called up to cook for a battalion. After his release from regular army service, he had opened a little place of his own. It changed location a few times, and slowly gathered a clientele. At first, it was in the old Mamilla quarter, then a booth in the market, then in downtown Jerusalem and finally it settled in its current location, in Mahane Yehuda.

“It doesn’t matter where you go − Jerusalemites always know how to find you,” testifies his son Shabtai.

Aside from Banai, who wrote about the local institution (“For me, Azura is like a distant dream, like a story that doesn’t end”), musicians, artists and politicians frequent the restaurant, ostensibly after becoming addicted to its kubbeh soup, moussaka and majadera ‏(rice and lentil dish‏). Sherfler’s children mention Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister Yisrael Katz and also Aviva Shalit.

“But I treat everyone the same, there’s no discrimination. Hard-up folks also come here daily. Anyone who wants to eat, eats,” says Shabtai.

Much has happened to Jerusalem since the restaurant opened. How did you deal with the wars and the terrorist attacks?

Shabtai Sherfler: “When there were wars we did not close the restaurant. After all, a person has to eat; he cannot exist with an empty stomach. We managed to sell between seven and 10 portions a day, and we got by. During the austerity period we bought everything on the black market. We would pay seven times the real price of the product. During the period of terrorist attacks, there were two terrible explosions in this area. I saw the bodies and the wounded, and I was in a bad state. I closed up and went home. In the evening I came back on my own, washed down the place and threw out all the food, which had a layer of ash on it. It was food that could have fed 500 people.”

Do you have competitors?

“A coffee shop opened up across from us a few years ago. Just before the opening, the owner warned me that he was going to sell food at low prices, and asked me not to be angry. I told him, ‘You sit in your corner and you will see how there will always be a line outside my restaurant, and no one will come to yours.’ He waited for a year and a half for someone to rent his place, until he finally converted it into an apartment.

Even if they hand out food for free, people will still be standing in line for Azura.”clients.”

Gefilte fish a la maison

Cafe Batya, Tel Aviv
Founder: Batya Yom Tov, 1941

Batya Yom Tov owes her career to an elderly couple with whom she lived when she first arrived in Israel. It was back in the 1930s, and they urged her: “You’d better start cooking, because you’re going to be marrying soon. And as long as you’re cooking, you should prepare large amounts. Maybe someone will come over and want to eat.”

She was born in 1918, in the Polish city of Kolaczyce, on the border with Russia, and loved to watch her mother cooking. Hanging on the walls of her home in Tel Aviv are photos from the farewell party her family held, just before she left for Israel.

“We were seven children. Hitler killed the entire family,” she says, gazing sadly at the picture.

Yom Tov opened a restaurant that featured her mother’s Old World recipes on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv in 1941. She was 22, and newly married. “Due to the events in Jaffa, the Tel Aviv port had been opened.

At the start, the place wasn’t called Cafe Batya. People would simply say, ‘Let’s go to Batya’s and get a bite to eat.’ The sign only came later,” she says.

Who were your favorite customers in the early years of the restaurant?

“I was friends with everyone. [Poet] Alexander Penn lived not far away; he’d come in to eat and celebrated a lot of birthdays here. Boy, did Hanna Rovina love him. Who didn’t? He was so handsome. Among the regulars were [poet Nathan] Alterman, [actor Aharon] Meskin and Rovina. I also had one client whose name was Haim’ke, a lonely cart driver who didn’t have anyone, didn’t have a place to live, who used to sleep in the cart. The artists would invite him to sit with them and he would buy rounds of drinks for everyone.

“I had one customer who worked at the electric company, who liked to drink,” she adds. “One day he asked for a shot of vodka. My husband served him, and he looked at it and said, ‘Areh’leh, you call this a shot?’ Areh’leh brought him a bigger glass. And then he said again, ‘Areh’leh, you call this a shot?’ Areh’leh asked, ‘What are you really asking me for, a tea cup?’ − and the fellow nodded. I served him a cup filled with vodka, he drank it down to the last drop, and then climbed up some electricity pole ... The world has changed since then.”

Until recently you used to regularly visit the restaurant. Why have you stopped?

“I’m 93 years-old. If I said I was 80, people would say, ‘Oh God, she looks like a total wreck!’ But if I tell the truth, they are understanding. I used to come in and sample the food in all of the pots, and without my say-so, the food would not leave the kitchen. Now they get along just fine without me. My daughter works there with my granddaughters and with a partner, Kobi Yizraelovich.”

How did the restaurant manage to survive so long?

“We stayed in the same place and followed our motto: ‘Whatever we don’t want to eat, we won’t be able to sell, either.’ I also survived pretty well. Some people are envious of me, that I am able to manage so well with the walker,” she boasts. “During the austerity period, there was no meat or anything else, so I whipped up vegetable cutlets. When there is no other choice, you try to make something from nothing. When there is too much, the food is wasted, thrown out.”

Yizraelovich, who became a partner of Batya Yom Tov’s in 1960, claims that the restaurant is in fact now in its finest hour, at least in culinary terms. “For the past 30 years, the food was not like it used to be,” he says. “Until 1967, the menu included only 10 percent of the dishes we now serve; back then there were no kneidelach, kreplach or gefilte fish; there was a kitchen of nine square meters. Now we have 60. Once there was a single refrigerator; now we have six. Once there was no freezer; now there are three. Once we didn’t sell gefilte fish as a take-out item; in the past few years I’ve been selling 4,000-5,000 gefiltes every holiday. It is only thanks to that that we survive, because we’ve been able to adapt the taste to the changing world.”