The Israeli Restaurateurs Taking Berlin by Storm

Trendy Israeli chains featuring eclectic menus are joining more typical - and already-entrenched - hummus and falafel places.

The Berlin branch of the Israeli Benedict all-day breakfast restaurant chain, January 2017.
Steve Harud

Anyone who thought that the wave of Israelis moving to Berlin would cut them off from the food in their native country was wrong. Israelis might not be happy with the situation back home, but apparently it's pretty hard for them to break away from hummus and Israeli-style breakfasts. In fact, with increased immigration to Berlin, more and more Israeli-owned restaurants have opened up there.

Initially, as in other places in the world where Israelis have moved, most of the restaurants in Berlin constituted a culinary bubble seeking to bring "Israeliana" to the heart of that city. But the places serving hummus, shakshuka, falafel, stuffed vegetables and cholent that have opened throughout Berlin may have blurred the fact that there is, for example, a branch of the Israeli café Aroma near Checkpoint Charlie. And all this is happening as shops have sprung up that specialize in applications that provide Israeli-made favorites that are hard to come by in Germany, like Bamba peanut snacks, instant coffee and short-cut macaroni.

The next stage in Berlin has involved the advent of Israeli-owned restaurants that aren’t necessarily featuring familiar delicacies from home, but rather seek to make interesting, eclectic "citizen of the world" food. In this category, and now ensconced in the German capital, is chef Gal Ben-Moshe’s well-received Glass Berlin; the Koriat café, where Aviv Koriat makes wonderful cakes and colorful tarts – which is almost like selling ice to the Eskimos; Lia’s Kitchen, which opened in November and is a hit thanks to its vegan fast-food menu, including hamburgers, giant salads and original shakes; Guy Balassiano’s innovative Café Mugrabi; and the Yafo bar-restaurant.

In the past two months alone, a number of Israeli brands and well-established restaurants have set down roots in Berlin. Among the most talked-about right now are the breakfast restaurant Benedict; the BBB hamburger chain; and, soon to join them, Nithan Thai from Ha’Arba'a Street in Tel Aviv.

To figure out why Berlin, why now, and what one has to do to understand German taste (whatever that is), Haaretz met with some of those involved in the scene.

The Berlin branch of the Israeli BBB hamburger restaurant chain, January 2017.
David Alhadeff

In December, the first branch of the Israeli hamburger chain BBB opened in Berlin. Israeli diners there say that as opposed to the BBBs back home, the Berlin menu has plenty of pork dishes and offers delicacies like herring with potatoes, purple onion in yogurt-mayonnaise sauce and spicy chicken wings; the signature BBB hamburger comes with bacon, St. Moret cheese and fig comfiture. First courses run around 6 euros and main courses, 12 euros, quite similar to the prices in Israel.

“To open a new place, you have to learn the culture,” says Ahuva Turgeman, CEO of the chain. But why Berlin, of all places? Apparently the answer to that is not as obvious.

“I can’t explain why Berlin," she says, "but it seems to me that in retrospect it’s because the Germans are very, very open to new cuisines. The city is developing all the time, opening up, new things are happening and people are eager to try things. And, yes, you can’t deny that everybody’s streaming in and it seems like there’s something easier and friendlier there."

“Easy” seems like a relative term, because Turgeman and her staff report that it's not easy to open a restaurant in a foreign country; back in Israel, BBB has some 16 branches and is expanding.

Did you look to open in an Israeli neighborhood?

Turgeman: “Not at all. The branch didn’t open in an Israeli area and we didn’t come to Berlin as Israelis per se, rather as an international chain looking to expand. We opened the branch in a young neighborhood, something like Florentin” – the hip, gentrifying Tel Aviv neighborhood.

Responses have been very good, she says, explaining that the idea was to create some sort of "added value" for people who are already surrounded by quite a bit of meat. “The chain’s chef studied German taste," she explains, "and created meat dishes that combine sweet and savory, offering something new, original, less ordinary."

The Benedict eatery in Berlin. 'Israelis of course are always welcome but by definition we’re international.'
Steve Harud

En route to New York

In November, Benedict, Israel's all-day breakfast eatery, launched its first foreign branch – in Berlin. “It was an opportunity that arose about a year-and-a-half ago, right when we were on our way to New York,” says Itai Pshigoda, one of the partners. He is quick to emphasize, even before being asked, that he thinks it’s easier to deal with a branch in Berlin than in Tel Aviv, and says he’s not ashamed to be dreaming of other branches abroad.

Like Turgeman and her hamburger chain, Benedict and its owners are apparently not in a hurry to identify themselves in Berlin as Israeli.

Says Pshigoda, “We opened in Charlottenburg, which is a neighborhood of locals, and we’re really not Israeli by definition. Israelis of course are always welcome but by definition we’re international.”

What is the local taste?

Pshigoda: “In general I think that taste today is global and so the menu in Berlin is almost the same as the Israeli menu. Only a few dishes were added in response to local, authentic German tastes, including a classic meal with sausage and cheeses, and a fruit plate, which is what they’re used to eating in the morning."

He adds that Benedict has created a particular dish that’s a “kind of homage to the East German breakfast, with a large rye bruschetta with pickled cabbage that we make on site, pulled pork cooked for hours until it falls apart, poached eggs and mustard. Israelis order it a lot, but more for lunch or dinner,” Pshigoda continues.

“And because there are a lot of Russians around, we also created a Russian dish called in German 'a czar’s breakfast,' including Russian cheese fritters, smoked salmon and caviar, pickled cucumbers, purple onion, and of course it's served with alcohol," he says.

How did Berlin take to the Israeli breakfast?

“We see a lot of enthusiasm around this concept.”

Next month, the first German branch of the Thai restaurant Nithan Thai owned by Naomi Horowitz will make its debut. Chef Shahaf Shabtay, who returned to Israel after opening a number of Asian restaurants abroad, came on board at Nithan Thai just a few months ago, replacing the original chef – a native of Thailand – after venomous reviews that necessitated an immediate face-lift. Now Shabtay is in for a new adventure.

Nithan Thai.
Amit Geron

As in the two Israeli enterprises mentioned above, Nithan Thai staff also praises the Berliners who smoothed the way and generally helped in the transition from Israeli to German.

To the question we asked everyone, “why Berlin,” Shabtay says that he has long considered the city a rising culinary destination that he wanted to be part of – and this was the time to do it.

“On the way back from New York I told Naomi about Berlin and said I believed that a presence was needed there because it’s a desirable culinary venue. Sometime later I got a call that a Chinese store had moved out of a place I'd had my eye on as a bar for a long time," Shabtay explains. "That’s a rare coinciding of opportunity and belief in the product.”

Nithan Thai is in no hurry to conform to local tastes, he notes, and the future Berlin menu meanwhile is fairly similar to the one in Israel. But, he notes, “Time in Berlin is different. In Europe people eat more leisurely, the meal lasts longer, people talk much more between courses. So we have to find a way to keep the dish hotter longer. Customs involving eating different courses are different, there’s less sharing of courses than in Israel. Only now they’re beginning slowly to discover this possibility.”

In the coming months, Nithan Thai’s bakery, the Back Door, will also open a branch in Berlin, under the direction of the pastry chef Sunny Deri.

“The Germans will start to taste and get to know the tastes and the products of our Back Door. I think they’ll be very surprised,” says Shabtay.