The Definitive Demise of Tel Aviv's 'West Village'

The closing of an iconic cafe is a nail in the coffin of the bohemian haven that was Sheinkin Street.

Pavel Wolberg

“The first conceptual kitchen in Israel,” Cafe Ke’ilu – loosely translated as “Cafe Make Believe” or "Cafe As If" – opened with great fanfare on April 3, 1998. It proved that those who habitually visited Sheinkin Street at the time did not infest its trendy restaurants solely in order to dine. They made do with invisible food and drink; their plates and cups were empty.

The restaurant, which opened partly as an artistic response to the successful Sheinkin coffee house Cafe Kazeh, was especially punctilious: The waiters, who were design students, handed fictitious menus to customers (featuring dishes such as river eel mousse with nigella, fennel soup in wasabi, ham and citrus fruit salad) alongside position papers on various topics. The staff set tables and cleaned them, and served people who were willing to pay real money for the “show” – the atmosphere, the concept, the sensory stimula, the conversation and the feeling of being “in,” via a mental exercise of eating with gusto. They would even leave a tip. The place into a prosperous business that drew international media attention, accompanied by a flurry of letters-to-the-editor.

Neighborhood old-timers smirk when they remember the place, which closed after two years, saying it was empty most of the time, and adding that the student waiters always had apologetic, sad smiles and today probably market tampons for advertising agencies.

When it closed, Haaretz’s restaurant critic Daniel Rogov wrote in this newspaper that Cafe Ke'ilu, “in all its culinary glory and with a script that could have fitted in easily into an Umberto Eco novel, was nothing but a post-modern attempt at hyper-realism.”

Now locals and visitors to the trendy street are witnessing the opening of yet another branch of the cut-price Coffix chain and the closing of Cafe Tamar – and the latters grandchildren, Cafe Luntz, Ahat Ha’am, Cafe Noah and Cafe Nahmani – as evidence of the demise of the “State of Sheinkin.”

Dani Dothan, from the rock group The Clique, coined that term in the 1980s to denote something that was above and beyond the street itself, with its Sheink-In Gallery, unique book stores, sandwich places, mediocre fanzines and dark makeup.

To tell the truth, we do not need to declare Sheinkin dead. The actual body of the Israeli Village turned into a renovated outdoor mall – going nowhere – a long time ago. On weekdays it is one of the quietist streets in the city now, whose coolness has seeped into much cheaper and dirtier areas of Tel Aviv. But there are still a few remnants that maintain the spirit, such as the Orna and Ella bistro, alongside tattoo parlors and grocery stores, but the shoe store chains and supermarkets are constantly and mercilessly on the attack.

The last remnant of the historic Sheinkin is the ultimate sandwich den “Itzik and Ruti,” which opened in 1957 and late night revelers, early-morning shift workers, chefs and children of the street still visit for its finger rolls with zucchini salad and genuine soda pop. The rumors it was expanding made the heirs of the shop laugh a year ago, who say they will open the place in the middle of the night, every night, even if the street is swallowed by a sinkhole.

And then comes Friday and the street rustles with noise, Israeli tourists, cash, prams and long lines for businesses; and another young person is convinced to open his first business there. It is hard for the residents of Sheinkin Street to keep track of what they are selling in front of their homes, whether second-hand clothes in pastels, a magnet stand, a bakery of empty carbohydrates or an ice bar with tapioca bubbles. What is certain is that the business is temporary.

The Coffix branch, which opened at the end of the street a few months ago – and since then there is always a long line of satisfied customers outside – proves that what the visitors to Sheinkin really want these days is a modest cup of coffee without any pretensions of atmosphere, in a chain that targets the sensitive spot of the customers’ wallets and not just their intellect. The new “Sheinkinites” are willing to give up the cultural habit of spending hours lounging among their friends and the bohemia, along with the literary debates and staring at passersby, in order to quench their thirst quickly, efficiently and cheaply.

Ido ShenZur, a musician, actor and the owner of a juice bar that preserves some of the groove the street once had, sums it up: “Cafe Tamar closed and that’s sad, but that is where the world is heading – to hell.”

He admits the street has no longer had its effect on him for years. “I end my shift, get on my bike and beat it out of here. I think city hall is [directing it], the population is changing, the street is under blockade and they closed all the entrances to it. Business owners are going bankrupt and leaving, each with their own sad story. Anyone who comes is a sucker who doesn’t know that in a minute he is going to cry.”

But ShenZur is determined to remain as optimistic as a duck, and squeezes a bit more lemon for the mint lemonade.