Nearly a month since it became kosher, the venerable Fink's restaurant bar in Jerusalem has managed to retain its old customer base, despite the changed menu.
"I was upset when I heard that it became kosher, because for me, it was the one secular escape in Jerusalem," said Lisa Sand, who has been frequenting Fink's since she immigrated to Israel in 1986. "But of course I'll still come here. It's become an institution in Israel, and the dining experience won't change."
Sand, like some other long-time customers, says she won't miss Fink's non-kosher entrees. "I never even noticed the bacon or shrimp on the menu. I always ordered the goulash and schnitzel," she said.
Muli Azrieli, who has owned and managed Fink's for 25 years, and whose late father-in-law, David Rothschild, bought the restaurant from Moshe Fink in 1946, says that since his decision to overhaul the kitchen and apply for a kosher certificate through the Jerusalem rabbinate, his customer base has become wider and business has slowly begun to pick up. "We got to a point where we were secluding ourselves," he says. "I'm excluding less people now than I ever was before."
A large number of religious Anglos have begun frequenting Fink's, Azrieli reports, nodding to a bearded man who entered the restaurant and glanced around for a few moments before asking, in heavily accented Hebrew, to see a menu. The community of "modern religious" English-speakers in Jerusalem is attracted to Fink's because of the restaurant's European cuisine, he says. "In New York, they grew up on goulash and schnitzel, not on hummus, kabab and shislik."
Dan Marriott, who immigrated to Israel from London eight years ago, says that he heard about the Fink's news through eLuna, a Web site for religious Anglos in Israel. "I used to come here before it became kosher just to get a drink with some friends," he said.
Marriott, who got married earlier this month in Jerusalem, had his bachelor party in Fink's, and then returned again with his parents, who were visiting from London. "I'm attracted to this sort of place because it reminds me of the culture in which I grew up," he says. "It's quiet, gentle and authentic."
The wood paneling, subdued ambiance, and attentive service remind other Anglos of home as well. American-born Rachel Weiner says that dining in Fink's takes her back to New York. "There aren't too many lights and the music is quiet," she says. "I just don't feel like I am in an Israeli restaurant." Adds her husband, Meir: "Israeli restaurants give up intimacy for space and so they have the effect of a conveyor belt ... This is a great place for Americans, who have a culture of eating out, and who have a few extra dollars to spend." Like other religious Jerusalemites, the Weiners wouldn't have dared enter Fink's until four weeks ago.
But despite the new customer increase, Azrieli admits that he has suffered, albeit slightly, as a result of the decision that some die-hard Fink's patrons are calling revolutionary. Pointing to a clock that's been fixed on the wall at Fink's since 1942, Azrieli said: "If I decided one day to take that off the wall, someone would notice. If that throws people off, imagine what a stir it caused when I decided to make Fink's kosher."
A few Fink's former-loyalists were insulted by the decision and a handful of customers have called Azrieli a traitor. "People look at this as just another victory for the religious," he says, and Fink's was always seen as a secular stronghold, even despite Jerusalem's changing religious demographic.
The decision to become kosher was not easy, Azrieli admits. In years past, people had to reserve tables weeks, and sometimes months in advance. Azrieli proudly talks of the days when Isaac Stern called from an airplane to make a reservation and Henry Kissinger was refused a table, simply because there was no room. "I sat for a few nights in the restaurant by myself before I finally decided," he said. "The last few years have been a catastrophe in our 73-year history ... Our regular customers from overseas stopped coming and foreign journalists were afraid of visiting West Jerusalem. We just couldn't sustain it."
Azrieli realizes he may have to forfeit customers, but shrugging, he says, "What else could I do ... the restaurant is my livelihood."
Pointing to another yarmulke-wearing customer, Azrieli says, "If I look to the future, I don't see the politicians, journalists and diplomats coming back ... Jerusalem now belongs to the people who've stood by it."