Tel Aviv Turns Into Gourmet Burger Battleground

Competition heats up city's night life, with new eateries opening in 2013.

The hamburger landed in Tel Aviv at the end of the 1950’s, but never really caught on. Years later, restaurateur Rafi Shauli reinstated the hamburger to the menu of his Tel Aviv diner, and it was a hit for a while, but as the diner disappeared so did the burgers. In the 1970’s, fast food chains tried to make leeway Wimpy, Burger Ranch, McDavid, and, as of 1993, Mcdonald’s. Still, it took 40 years from the moment the first hamburger made aliyah, until restaurateur Eitan Trabelus understood what already was common knowledge in the western world: a hamburger is a fine dish to end the night, as well as the opener for a night of fun and alcohol.

This week, 15 years ago, Trabelus, then only 27 but already a Tel Aviv night life veteran, opened a bar at Nahalat Binyamin with an open kitchen so you could hear the frying “in” music, and opening hours that attract those with nowhere else left to go. Recalling the birth of Agadir Bar Burger, Trabelus explains: “There was nowhere in the center of town where you could sit and eat after midnight. I thought ‘what would I like to eat with the Whiskey,’ so I served hamburgers. I would grind the meat in the little kitchen, and people would peep in, but wouldn’t sit down. It wasn’t an immediate success; it took maybe three or four months, until the place began to catch on. It took people some time to understand my vision. They would ask me to lower the volume of the music, saying ‘who can eat with all this noise?’”

Trabelus believed that his new project needed sex appeal, and created provocative ads and a party hype. By 1998, Agadir became the home of night birds. “All the town came down to Nahalat Binyamin, and the area became crowded,” Trabelus recalls. Soon enough Burger Bar became a Trabelus trademark, and developed into a nine-restaurant chain throughout Israel. “Many others thought they could establish similar places but failed, until professionals like the Moses chain turned up, and gave us a good fight,” says Trabelus.

The first Moses chain restaurant was established by the brothers Ari and Yoram Yerezin in 2003, on Rothschild Boulevard, where another chain restaurant, Birenbaum & Mendelbaum had operated and gained prestige as one of the best and most expensive meat restaurants in Tel Aviv, until it was liquidated by the recession of the early 2000’s. “We received a permit to enlarge the restaurant, and we wanted to make a change,” says Yuval Sela, a partner and CEO of Moses. “We wanted a place that would appeal to wider denominator, a modern American style restaurant, based on a high quality hamburger.”

Tel Aviv night birds were now offered the Moses “late night” deal, which basically caught on in Tel Aviv. The concept that offered a late night deal including a dirt-cheap hamburger and a beer was highly successful, and practically turned the tables on Agadir. Moreover, since Moses appealed to the family market, the hamburger transformed from a trend to a legitimate part of the daily menu. Asked about his Tel Aviv competitors, Sela doesn’t point to Agadir, but rather to the Wolfnights chain.

Wolfnights have a rather different background. Its owners worked at Sargos or graduated from the Brasserie and Coffee Bar, and decided to make it on their own, quickly establishing themselves as the third largest chain in the city, conceived as more Tel Avivian than the other chains. Wolfnights, originally established under the name Wolfgang in 2005, presented a new concept in the race for Tel Aviv’s best hamburger. “Everybody fries burgers, but it’s not the only thing they do,” says Guy Adler, one of the owners. “Wolfnights did, and still do only one thing burgers and that’s our speciality. Our object was to prepare a quality burger but at a decent price. Quick self-service gourmet, without neglecting any detail.” The fact that Wolfnights only has three branches all located on central axis in Tel Aviv is part of the chain’s branding, in its struggle with its competitors.

Asked about these, Adler points to Eyal Shani’s Miznon, and Aviv Moshe’s Yerushalmit. “They too deal with fast food gourmet. In every sphere there are those who try to reinvent the wheel. We don’t believe in that. We’re a classic hamburger cuisine, without embellishments and stuff.”

It seems that 2013 will be the crowning year of the hamburger, as the ideal dish to break the hunger without breaking the bank account. This will happen with the opening of Ad HaEtzem Express and a new Agadir restaurant, as well as new Moses express branches in the city. Ad HaEtzem was also established by the Yerezin brothers, together with Effi Shemesh in 1988, as a meat restaurant with huge American burgers. At Ad HaEtzem Express the diner’s choice will be limited to only three sizes, and the only other items on the menu will be fries and ice cream. “The social protest showed us the way forward, “Shemesh explains, “Why shouldn’t we eat hamburgers as we eat shawarma, and at the same price?”