Until recently, if you told someone you were going to visit Acre (known by most Israelis as Akko), you would probably have been asked, “What happened, did you lose something there?” or would have received a recommendation to try the delicious hummus at the Hummus Said restaurant.
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The northern coast city was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Crusader regime that was established with the European conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099, and which extended over a large part of Palestine and Lebanon. Throughout history, it has always been a magnet, having been captured, abandoned and resettled many times since its founding. However, after Israel became independent in 1948, Acre languished for years as a development town that just happened to have an old city of moderate interest, and to host an annual alternative theater festival that would attract outsiders to the city for a brief period. As Haifa flourished to the south, Acre continued to be considered a pale, northern version of Jaffa.
However, anyone who visits the city today can sense that something exciting is happening here. In 2001, Acre was recognized Acre as Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. But since that time and, until a year ago, nothing much seemed to be going on in town. Although it could be argued that with elections coming up in October, someone in City Hall realized that Acre’s combination of antiquities, seaside location, and spice and food market could have great potential, and decided to make some improvements. Regardless, the emergence of new eateries is a clear indication that the city is raising its game. Over the past 12 months, a myriad of restaurants and places of entertainment have opened, and against the backdrop of a new culinary awareness in the Western Galilee and thanks to easy access to fresh raw materials, Acre is in line to become the north’s new culinary capital.
“No one would dispute the fact that a new awareness is spreading throughout the entire region,” says Uri Jeremias, owner of the Uri Buri fish restaurant and one of Acre’s driving forces. “Both in terms of the increase in the number of visitors and in terms of the new businesses that are opening here, Acre is definitely moving up in the world.”
‘No longer a pit stop’
In Jeremias’ view, the complete overhaul that the city is now experiencing is having an impact even on Acre’s more established restaurants. “Those who managed to survive the city’s lean years know that it is silly today to try to collar tourists and lure them with menus that pretend to be attractive and with a lot of empty promises, because these customers will never pay you a return visit. Acre is no longer a pit stop where you spend a half-hour on your way to your real destination; it is now a place that people are actually coming to visit and to spend time in,” he says.
Although Jeremias is perhaps primarily known for his fish restaurant, he has placed Acre on the world tourism map with his boutique Efendi Hotel, which has drawn the attention of many tourist journals around the globe. “In addition to the Efendi,” he points out, “three hotels and a number of “tzimmerim” (bed-and-breakfasts) have opened in Acre’s Old City, and the occupancy rates in all these new places are high.”
Visitors to Acre in June could not help noticing the many signs advertising the imminent opening of a branch of the Al-Babour restaurant in Acre. If chef and restaurateur Husam Abbas is also coming to Acre, something must be happening here. One sign is the entry of high-profile labels as well as celebrities, like Abbas, a leading Israeli Arab chef. His new restaurant, Al-Babour Vehayam, which opened only last May, is already attracting many customers.
Abbas notes that, in addition to “restaurants that serve simple but tasty dishes, Acre offers a market and a harbor. There are many young chefs from northern Israel who have worked in Tel Aviv and who have decided to return to their homes, use the new techniques they’ve learned, and prepare the dishes they grew up on.”
In another five years’ time, predicts Abbas, Acre will be the north’s culinary center – and not just for Jewish tourists. “Acre has already divested itself of the stigma of ‘fish, salads and lemonade,’”
says Abbas. “Al-Babour offers its patrons authentic Galilean Arab cuisine fused with fish and seafood. Here in Acre, I am encountering a clientele that I have not seen in years – neither in Umm al-Fahm nor in Yokneam. I am pleasantly surprised by the Arab community’s response.”
One gets the impression that the people involved in Acre’s current overhaul have learned from the mistakes of others. The renovation work is being conducted with a high degree of sensitivity and caution, and there is a clear aversion to flagrant over-commercialization and the temptation to turn Acre into another boring tourist trap.
This week saw the opening of a new chef’s restaurant, Sabida, which uses raw materials from the local market and fishing community. Sabida is located in the Turkish Bazaar, which dates from the 18th century and has been renovated to restore its original character and become the city’s new restaurant and entertainment center. Chef and owner Dan Shmulovitz, who grew up on Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot and who has returned to the north after having worked in major restaurants in America, says Acre is an “amazing place for anyone who loves food –in terms of both the raw materials and the atmosphere. In the past, people would come here to get a serving of hummus and disappear. Suddenly, there is a new atmosphere.”