Forget Kiddush Wine; Meet the Cocktail Nation

Not so long ago, a decent cocktail was hard to come by in Israel, but fortunately things have changed. Get acquainted with some favorite drinking haunts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Yasmin Kaye
Yasmin Kaye

In between getting to grips with all this complex country has to offer, there are sure to be times when you’re going to want to kick back and relax after all, exploring is thirsty work. Luckily, Israel has a vibrant, exciting nightlife scene: Things rarely get going here until after midnight on the weekends, many bars stay open until dawn, and you may find yourself incredulously uttering the words “doesn’t anyone here have a job?!” on more than one occasion.

Of course, things differ from place to place, and the saying that “Tel Aviv plays while Jerusalem prays” is true for the most part. But there are still some constants. While the scene has become more sophisticated in recent years with a rise in cocktail culture and a great selection of excellent Israeli-made wines on offer for many young people, a night out wouldn’t be complete without imbibing some arak, a potent, anise-flavored spirit that packs a serious punch. Considered by many to be the quintessential “Israeli” drink, it’s also one of the cheapest on the menu and is normally knocked back neat, or served with grapefruit juice and a sprig or two of fresh mint.

Locally brewed beers such as Goldstar are also popular, and there’s been a rise in boutique breweries too. As we can’t possibly cover the huge number of bars there are for you to explore, we’ve listed some of the trendiest places, along with some old favorites that have stood the test of time.

In Tel Aviv

Sipping in style: 223

It may seem almost impossible to believe now, but not so long ago it was pretty hard to get a decent cocktail in Tel Aviv. One of the first places to take really seriously mixology (the art of creating mixed drinks) was 223. Serving up an expertly executed range of classic and original cocktails, this sleek, sophisticated joint has only a handful of tables, but makes up in style for what it lacks in space. There’s also a bit of a vintage vibe here, with bartenders dapperly dressed in waistcoats, su spenders, bowler hats and bowties. The staff is happy to help answer any questions you may have about the drinks and can make personalized recommendations, too. You can’t go wrong with their famous sangria, or the unusual (yet delicious) Orchidea a tasty treat made with ouzo, strawberry, passion fruit and mint.

223, Dizengoff 223, Tel Aviv (03-5446537). Saturday- Thursday: 7 P.M.-last customer; Friday: 8 P.M.-last customer.

Bite of the Big Apple: Deli

This trendy tavern created a lot of hype when it opened last year, as you have to go through the New York-style sandwich shop visible from the street to reach the hidden bar beyond. Once inside, you can grab some seats at the bar or at a table in the main room, or head to the dimly lit, smoky space at the back to cut some moves on the dance floor. You’ll find different DJs playing live, predominately electronic music every day, and as the name suggests, you won’t be short on food this distinctly non-kosher kitchen serves bacon and pork sandwiches to a happy crowd way into the small hours. The Deli also offers a good selection of cocktails alongside more familiar beers and spirits. Check out the Green Desert a refreshing blend of arak, fresh basil leaves, lime and Martini Bianco.

Deli, Allenby 47, Tel Aviv (03-6425738). Open daily 9 P.M.-last customer.

Popular party: Radio EPGB

This ultra-hip underground joint has firmly cemented its coveted status as one of the most popular bars in Tel Aviv, and the graffiti-covered walls, exposed brickwork and framed posters all add to its edgy vibe. As the place is packed to the rafters on most nights and weekends see the queue stretch down the block it’s best to arrive before 11 P.M. on weekdays and 10 P.M. on weekends if you want to score some seats. Although the legal drinking age in Israel is 18, the minimum age requirement for entry at the Radio is 22 for girls and 24 for boys, which may seem unfair but sadly is pretty standard in larger clubs and bars. To stand a better chance of getting in, come as early as possible and make sure there are a few girls in the group. Once inside, you’ll be spoiled for choice with a quality playlist ranging from hip-hop and electronica to rock, indie and punk. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a free live gig as well.

Radio EPGB, Shadal 7, Tel Aviv (03-5603636). Open daily 9 P.M.-last customer.

Laid-back local: The Minzar

Words like “an institution,” “mythological” and “legendary” are bandied around far too loosely these days. But certain places have earned the right to be described as such and the Minzar is one of them. Opinions about the place are split: Some see it as an unsavory joint full of noisy young drinkers, grizzled-looking regulars, and customers’ dogs running around all over. Others see an unpretentious neighborhood bar that’s been catering to hordes of regulars for over a decade, 24/7. In any case, if you want to sample a true taste of the drinking scene in Tel Aviv, beyond the flashy bars and trendy clubs, it’s recommended you stop by here at some point during your trip. Depending on what time you pop by, you’re guaranteed to find a different vibe each time from Friday afternoons when the place is packed, to the quiet hours where you’ll find the hardcore drinkers engaged in philosophical conversations with the bartenders (or barely propping up the bar). In a city where new bars open and close almost daily,

Minzar, 60 Allenby St., Tel Aviv (03-5173015). Open 24 hours daily.

And in Jerusalem

Home sweet home: Mike’s Place

If you feel a little homesick or if you simply fancy indulging in some comfort food, catching a live show and playing some pool you can always head to Mike’s Place, another bar that can deservedly claim to have attained “legendary” status. Since it opened in Jerusalem 20 years ago, it’s been so successful it now boasts two branches in Tel Aviv and other outposts in Ramat Hahayal, Herzilya and Eilat. Styled like a classic American bar, from the posters of Yankee Stadium to the wood paneling and big-screen TVs, it’s no surprise that the place is a magnet for tourists and expats. But while the classic American look may fool you, there are still a few tell-tale signs you’re in Israel, not least the kosher menu offered in the Holy City (all the other branches are non-kosher). So if you have a hankering for some Tex-Mex during your stay in Jerusalem, be warned you won’t be seeing any cheese on your nachos. What you will get is a different live show each night, and drinks deals aplenty.

Mike’s Place, 33 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem (054-7991220). Open Sunday-Thursday 11 A.M.-last customer; Saturday from one hour after Shabbat ends to last customer.

Taste for the trendy: Uganda

This cool combination of a bar, cafe, record shop, comics store and performance space is a favorite Jerusalem hipster haunt. The cozy space has colorful collections of records and fanzines to rummage through, artwork to admire and nosh to nibble. You can wipe up a plate of hummus with warm pita bread, and also wash it down with the tasty Taybeh, a Palestinian beer they have on tap. If you fancy grabbing a souvenir to take home with you, you can find a selection of cool T-shirts, CDs and magazines in the tiny shop. Music fans will be happy to hear that Uganda is a prominent fixture on the local alternative music scene, holding daily performances by local bands and DJs.

Uganda, 4 Aristobolus Street, Jerusalem (02-6236087). Open Sunday-Friday noon-3 A.M.

Radio EPGB, an ultra-hip, underground joint, has firmly cemented its coveted status as one of Tel Aviv's most popular bars.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

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