It began with a trickle: one here, another there. And then, with the advent of spring and the blossoming of the trees — and, of course, the fact that Israel is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest — bam! The trickle became a flood. Tel Aviv is filling up with tourists. Friends from Europe wanting to couch surf in our living room, a tent city being set up in Charles Clore Park, folks subletting every second apartment in the city: In short, tourists have landed, and they are hungry.
Before anything else, a few rules of thumb for the perplexed visitor: Yes, restaurants in this country have a tipping policy (between 12 and 15 percent of the bill) and no, there is no need to tip taxi drivers. No, we do not have Uber (we did ... but, well, it’s complicated), and no, there are no camels wandering the streets. But there is Gett’s taxi service. Aside from that, you can rent a car, bicycle and even an electric scooter in the city.
Whether you’re walking, driving or going by taxi, here are 17 (plus a few more) of the hottest and most enjoyable eateries to visit, which prove that nothing, but nothing, beats Tel Aviv — even if it is god-awful expensive, and even when everyone cuts in front of you in lines and on the road. It is still always tasty and delightful here (except, perhaps, for the two last weeks of August, when it’s hot as hell).
Everyone coming here has something in common: They are looking for places where they can truly get to know “the Israeli kitchen.” In the time it has taken us to debate whether there even is such a thing as Israeli cuisine or not — it is all quite obvious to tourists. Anything that is not Far East, not Italian and not French, and is without “fusion” or “America” on the menu, is Israeli cuisine. And so it is that swarms of people look for suggestions for food stalls, bars and restaurants, as if these contain the elusive Israeli X factor. Even locals are constantly asking us for the golden recommendation: Where to go, and how to ensure that a stay in Tel Aviv encompasses the full gamut of culinary experiences.
Accompanying a gluttonous gang from Eastern Europe, we set out on a journey focusing solely on local fare. We came back with a list that includes stalls, restaurants, steak joints and even a couple of particularly culinary-oriented bars.
Hakosem (“the magician”): A visit to Israel invariably involves eating falafel, shawarma or hummus, so why not go to the best there is? Hakosem, which at first glance seems to be a mere shawarma and falafel joint, is in fact much more: Going along with the concept that “God is in the details,” you will find a gleaming glass display case here with super fresh, high-quality ingredients, some of which Arik Rosenthal, the eponymous magician, imports himself. The menu includes outstanding shawarma; luscious, crispy falafel; hummus; tahini; remarkable eggplant dishes; and tasty salads chopped on site every few hours (oh, and also a wondrous sabich). Also on offer: chicken livers on the grill, a spicy fish in red sauce, outstanding kebabs and charred rice. Don’t miss the surprising vegan malabi. All of this is served up in a decidedly groovy ambience in which even the soundtrack is compiled by a deejay.
About 50 shekels ($14) per person.
Hakosem, 1 Shlomo Hamelekh St. (map)
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Miznon: Be it Paris or Vienna, Melbourne or New York — celeb chef Eyal Shani is one of the staunchest representatives of Israel’s contemporary cuisine. Any of his restaurants around the world could fully acquaint a tourist with the Israeli character that Shani serves up, although it seems that his Miznon does the best job of calculating all of the ingredients needed to feed the voracious tourist: The noise and chaos heat up the atmosphere, the cheap Goldstar beer on tap rounds it out, and on the culinary side, even before you start to fork in the food — pieces of fleshy pita, excellent white tahini, green hot sauce abounding in herbs, and fresh pickles are served to the middle of the table. Vegan and vegetarian tourists will fall in love with the roasted cauliflower, but also with the lima bean dip and, if available, the so-called green Jericho beans. Among other recommended items are chicken liver, lamb kebab, minute steak and a couple of dishes called “deep satisfaction inside” and “bag of gold.” Don’t go home without a “line of bananas” for dessert.
From 40 shekels up.
Miznon, 23 Ibn Gabirol St. (map)
Dok and Ha’achim: Ha’achim is a sort of modern grill or steak house, considered a real hit among tourists, with great weekend brunches. But our first choice is Dok, created in the same “workshop.” Dok is a humble little eatery that, in our eyes, is in fact a small wine bar with excellent food. The place has taken a vow to use only local ingredients, and is rising to the challenge quite gallantly. On the bar, creative chefs spread out dishes like baked kohlrabi with sheep cheese; pickled white bonito served on potato and yogurt salad; octopus and okra grilled over a charcoal fire, with labaneh; watercress pesto; white grouper with okra and a fine, simmering herb oil; and small eggplants stuffed with freekeh – among others. If it’s in season, don’t leave without the meringue with apricot compote.
Alena, at the Norman Hotel: Alena is not just another excellent eatery in a hotel. It is a creative and extraordinary chef’s restaurant — one in the pantheon of the finest restaurants in Tel Aviv, and all of Israel. You will find local cuisine, simple and personally prepared, exacting and pleasing, served in the resplendent décor of an elegant boutique hotel. Don’t miss the eggplant tortellini or white grouper spaghettini, rich with egg yolks, and pair them with a glass or bottle of wine from the fine wine list (which is deserving of a song of praise in its own right). And of course there’s the addictive pudding “slushy” served in a small boiling-hot pot, with crème anglaise on top, turning the whole thing into a mouth-watering little sin that will make you forget you are sitting in a hotel and not on a cloud somewhere in Paradise.
About 200 shekels per person.
Alena at the Norman Hotel, 23-25 Nahmani St. (map)
Havat Tzuk: On the one hand, heading out to a restaurant in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood sounds like a terrible idea. On the other, anyone we’ve ever taken here has asked to go back. Reserve some seats at the bar and let the chefs lead you. The atmosphere is unmediated and liberated. Hanging in the window are locally grown cuts of meat; it’s worthwhile focusing on the lamb. The vegetables and greens arrive fresh from the farm and it is worth pairing them with homemade Circassian cheese or local white cheese. The menu features organ meats, fresh fish and specials like calamari filled with lamb sweetbreads. There’s shawarma of neck of lamb on tabbouleh; pasta with mussels and merguez in a bouillabaisse sauce; and dumplings stuffed with potatoes and almond cream, among others. A wall of wine bottles show deference to the Judean Hills region, and there are also good local beers. When it comes to desserts, go for the pudding slushy made of croissants and seasonal fruit, the kanafeh or the mascarpone and fig mille-feuille.
About 200 shekels per person.
Havat Tzuk, 5 Moshe Perlok St. (map)
Santa Katarina: In the busy plaza surrounding the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, on Allenby Street, one might conclude that every place would be a bull’s-eye straight to the heart of the hungry accidental tourist. There’s the bustling hipster Port Said, which, like Miznon (above), is enumerated among the enterprises of celeb chef Eyal Shani; Shishko (an outstanding option for those seeking a slightly different experience, like a cool Bulgarian pub); the colorful Thai at Har Sinai, on the corner; and the Karatchma Bar, open from time to time in the middle of the plaza. For now, Santa Katarina is the winner, in our eyes, thanks to the local flavor and, of course, the taboun oven and the chef who runs the show, Tomer Agay. The menu includes roasted asparagus on the grill with Kadosh cheese; crab bruschetta with corn and pepper salad; tuna sashimi with Tulum goat cheese; lamb shawarma on toasted pita with tzatziki; and toasted vegetable salad. There are cocktails like apricot sangria and baharat, and desserts like baklava with Uzbeki apricots and pistachios, or basbousa and ice cream. The business lunch here is among the most satisfying and generous in the city.
Anastasia and other excellent vegan places: If we had to choose only one vegan place that had everything in Tel Aviv, we would opt for Anastasia. The menu features shakes enriched with “superfoods,” amazing desserts and a particularly indulgent Israeli breakfast in which the classic omelet made of eggs is replaced quite respectably by a chickpea omelet, and the glut of cheeses is supplanted by almond cheeses. One can order the omelet, served with corn, herbs and onions, as part of a full breakfast array: a basket of breads; small dishes of house spreads — sunflower aioli pesto; vegan cottage cheese; turmeric tahini in a bold yellow-orange hue; vegetables and pumpkin seed salad — plus hot and cold drinks. Another option is the hummus omelet with vegan labaneh, eggplant cream, tomato, cucumber and arugula, all combined in a rye sandwich or gluten-free roll. What’s more, you will find main courses featuring chickpeas; Japanese pumpkin with couscous; roasted carrot and beets; a confit of garlic; and piles of green vegetables: broccoli, asparagus, beans, bok choy, spinach, kale, zucchini and “whatever’s in season,” combined with cubes of tofu, a blend of seeds and lemon aioli.
Once you finish your Israeli breakfast at Anastasia, don’t forget to drop in on other vegan institutions in the city, such as Bana, a restaurant that treats vegetables with honor; Meshek Barzilay in Neve Tzedek, where there’s an emphasis on organic produce; and, if you want a fine-dining experience, don’t miss chef Shirel Berger’s Opa, where seasonal raw ingredients are taken to yet another plane.
The Carmel Market and two outstanding places in it: If there is any single wonder that manages to work its charms on every tourist arriving in the country, from wherever he or she may come, it is our outdoor markets. And if you want a market, why not go to the most touristic, but also the most captivating, of them all? Tourists are enthusiastic about everything here — from the fruits and vegetables to the clothing and toys. The hustle-bustle, the din and the cornucopia of colors work well on the eye and ear, and do half of the work alone. True, it is not Bukhara, but in a pleasant local fashion this market does not bring any shame to the brand.
The bonus: In the past few months, a whole host of tiny coffeehouses, worthwhile and inexpensive eateries and bars have opened in the alleys adjacent to the market in south Tel Aviv. The most fun is simply getting lost here on a pleasant, sunny day. A walk through the alleys and narrow streets of the Yemenite quarter, stopping for beer here, hummus and ful there, is an experience tourists love, particularly if you also stop at places just abutting the market like HaBasta. On one hand, HaBasta is a decadent temple of hedonism with an eye to Europe, with splendid wine and alcoholic beverages. On the other, there’s a noticeable use of organ meats, all-in cooking “from nose to tail” and Arab inspiration, drawing from Nazareth to Nablus. The menu changes constantly and is based on fresh produce from the market and beyond. Among the knockout items: a half-head of grouper; brain on the grill; heart of lamb crab; labaneh tortellini; pickled fish with greens and soft-boiled egg.
About 200 shekels a person, excluding drinks.
HaBasta, 4 Hashomer St. (map)
Another obligatory stop for eating and drinking in the Carmel Market is M25, situated betwixt and between the produce stalls, spice stands and hungry cats, on the less inviting side of the market. This is where a long line of gourmands forms, waiting for a choice cut at the Meatmarket butcher shop or to get into the restaurant 25 meters (82 feet) away from it (hence its name). There was a time when M25 was a secret, known to only a select few. A few years have passed and the secret has been let out and has spread like wildfire among legions of meat-lovers throughout the country — and the rest is history. The real showstopper here is to purchase fresh meat from the butcher shop, send it off to be roasted and then enjoy it in the raucous hipster atmosphere with the bustling market vibe in the background. Aside from selecting the varying cuts of meat from the shop window on the basis of “whatever the butcher butchered,” you will also find several flagship dishes on the menu, posted on a blackboard. Among them are a marvelous toasted sandwich with juicy lamb meat wrapped in toasted pita, paired in sweet harmony with a bittersweet tomato salad, with pickled lemon and a layer of thick tahini. In short, pure bliss and a worthy tourism experience.
About 100 shekels per person.
M25, 30 Simtat Hacarmel (map)
Café Levinsky and Levinsky Market in general: After you take in the delis and host of dried fruit, tea, coffee and spice stands, don’t forget to stop at the carbonated drink stand of Benny Briga, the kombucha kid of the Levinsky market. His place is something between a hole in the wall and a fascinating laboratory, a sort of pharmacy for fermentation, which on the weekends draws long lines of thirsty and inquisitive fans. You will find row after row of colorful jars filled with elixirs in various shades and colors, with bubbling fruits and concoctions prepared on the spot. The place is congenial and inviting, providing a fun, offbeat stop in the Levinsky market, which is itself quite bubbly. The glasses of carbonated drinks here are frequent photogenic Instagram subjects; one can add to them a diverse profusion of seasonal fruits (with light carbonation) and a bouquet of garden herbs. The beverages cost 20-28 shekels.
Should hunger take hold, Ouzeria is always a good idea, The kitchen is creative and Mediterranean, the atmosphere always joyful, and the alcohol (with an emphasis on anise-based drinks) further whips up the party mood. Don’t miss the house bread, primarily due to the grape-leaves condiment that is served alongside it and energizes every bite; a gaggle of little dishes alongside the bread, along with a shot of booze, is always a good idea. As for the smaller dishes, you will find the flagship cauliflower offering; tahini; roe; and tzatziki. Plus, there are larger dishes like seafood in ouzo and tomatoes; moussaka; and tender chicken souvlaki.
The Old Man and the Sea: For many locals, this place may be a cliché, but not for tourists. The table bursts with colorful salads, skewered meats and fresh fish, and the waiters scurry about between kitchen and diners — and that makes Jaffa’s Old Man and the Sea a classic; a winning formula. It isn’t necessarily the food itself, but that’s most of the charm. The abundance, service and proximity to the sea make this eatery a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It is wonderful for tourists, a real gem.
About 130 shekels per person.
The Old Man and the Sea, 85 Kedem St., Jaffa (map)
Cheers! Three-plus bar recommendations
For those seeking a cocktail bar, the Imperial is a superb choice; you will always find creative and outrageous cocktails here, the sort that burst into flames or are served in a high tiki glass, along with classic drinks prepared with astounding precision. Aside from the show, the bar is half-hidden inside a hotel that bears the same name, and you will also find good food here with a Vietnamese emphasis (don’t miss the banh mi). Next door is the La Otra bar, the zesty Mexican sister of the Imperial, an outstanding place for drinks based on tequila, mezcal and rum, with a small mountain of nachos, tacos and burritos as an accompaniment.
Minzar is at the other end of the scale — a neighborhood bar with over 25 years of guzzling history under its belt. You will find excellent food here, usually dripping with fat, perhaps in order to sop up even the worst hangover. Fittingly, as if geared to party animals from the entire spectrum of nightlife and daylife, the place is open 24/7. The atmosphere here changes by the day and the week — and, of course, by the time of day. This is the place to eat good, heavy food and to drink cold beer in the wee hours at the start of the weekend.
About 75 shekels per person; 14-28 shekels for a third/half liter of beer.
Minzar, 60 Allenby St. (map)
Last but not least is Shpagat, among the trailblazing handful of bars favored by the LGBTQ community in Tel Aviv, a pioneer in stoking the city’s gay-friendly reputation. Like Minzar, Shpagat also adapts its mood to the time of day, and day of the week. On the weekends it opens in the morning as a laid-back coffee shop with a menu that includes, for example, an “incredibly coarse” salad, pizza or a croissant with salmon, sour cream and sunny-side-up egg. As evening falls, and on weekdays, the place heads in the partying direction, with music that suits the ambience but still makes it possible to carry on a pleasant conversation. Between 6 and 8 P.M. you will enjoy two very happy hours, with 50 percent off the food and drink menu, which even without the discount is not a bad buy.
About 30 shekels per drink; 15 shekels for a small beer.
Shpagat, 43 Nahlat Binyamin St. (map)
For our final course, do we really need a plate of hummus? It might be best if we just left town and headed to Haifa, Acre or even East Jerusalem. But if you insist on not leaving the Tel Aviv city limits, then yes, there is always Abu Hassan down in Jaffa, where you can join the chorus of devotees of his lemony hummus.
About 50 shekels per person.
Abu Hassan, 1 Dolphin St., Jaffa (map)