It's a War on Fine Food in the Capital

Fear has emptied the posh restaurants in Jerusalem since the start of the intifada. Soon, warn restaurateurs, there might be nothing out there except `steak in a pita'

At a couple of turbulent meetings held last week in Jerusalem's Poire et Pomme restaurant, a new labor union was almost founded. Normally these agitated people attending the meeting are an individualist, somewhat imperious bunch, not the sort you would find sitting around grumbling at some workers' gripes gathering. For these are the owners and chefs of Jerusalem's luxury restaurants.

The the painful situation in which the city's restaurants have found themselves plunged over the past year has compelled them to put aside their egos and join forces for the common good. Since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, numerous restaurants have sunk into dire financial straits - some are on the verge of closing. Two years ago Jerusalem was fourth on the popularity list of cities hosting international conferences. This year it plummeted to below 40th place.

"The restaurateurs in Jerusalem enjoy good working relationships and friendships with one another, and are concerned about saving the entire sector, not just themselves," says Boaz Tsairi, chef and owner of the Japanese restaurant Sakura. "These sessions are meant to create a modus vivendi to help restaurants get through this tough period."

The restaurant owners who attended the sessions - which also drew some Tel Aviv restaurateurs who came as a show of solidarity - are Tsairi, Tamar Blay and Ezra Kedem from Arcadia, Dalia Renaud from Bistro Dalia Renaud, Michael Katz of Michael and Andrew, Ilan Sibony of Darna, Moshe Basson of Eucalyptus, and several others who are watching what they describe as their life's work slowly going down the drain.

Nevertheless, many might dispute the description with which they describe themselves - victims of the intifada and terrorism. Even if all of the luxury restaurants shut down, "eating a charred steak in a pita like people did in the `60s" (as they say) would hardly rate as a doomsday scenario.

Not a table for five

Running a luxury restaurant in Israel's capital city may be a symbol of urban sanity, bustling secular life and economic momentum. Dalia Renaud, the owner of Bistro Dalia Renaud - a Tel Avivian who drives to Jerusalem every day, says the past year has been especially hard. "It borders on complete absence of logic. We're really lost. Restaurateurs spend a fortune on their restaurants, and the slightest thing causes the public to stay away. The city is completely empty from eight o'clock on every night. People are afraid to come. Jerusalemites have always tended to sit at home, and now even more certainly so. Our regular patrons don't come, either. How can you keep a restaurant afloat with two or three couples a night?"

Renaud opened her bistro in 1995. "They were talking back then about the harbinger of peace, and we had a few very successful years," she says, "Sure, every terrorist attack brought a dark cloud, but it never stopped us from working. My restaurant is associated with Alsatian cuisine. It appealed to a certain niche of the market in Jerusalem, and I got some good reviews. But in the past year, since last October, I've been in a state of total collapse. I've run down all of my reserves."

Renaud says it was decided at the recent meetings to offer immediate aid to restaurants in especially dire condition - for instance, offering free help in the kitchen. Each restaurant is also supposed to review its list of patrons and call them, in an attempt to persuade them to come. Similarly, the group will approach the Ministry of Tourism, asking that it try to bring groups to Jerusalem that would also visit the restaurants.

"Maybe we have to meet with Ehud Olmert again, and explain that unless the situation doesn't change soon, we will be going back to the traditional beans and ful (fava beans) that once prevailed in the city," Renaud warns.

It is too late for Ehud Olmert to help La Regence, located in the King David Hotel - the legendary restaurant closed on October 11. An official announcement released by the hotel's spokesman reported that, "as a result of the situation throughout the entire sector, and in the hotel, the management has decided to adopt efficiency measures, and economize as much as possible. It is our firm hope that tourism to Jerusalem will soon return to its days of glory and that the restaurant will reopen."

Chef Michael Katz, of Michael Andrew, the restaurant he ran in the Zionist Confederation House, is less guarded. The recorded announcement on the telephone reports that "the restaurant is closed due to the situation," and refers callers to Katz's personal cellular phone. A 31-year-old Jerusalemite, Katz opened the kosher fish restaurant four-and-a-half years ago.

"The restaurant was kosher primarily because it opened in the Confederation House, a small and attractive venue that was relatively easy to operate," he says. "But what began as an constraint grew to become a challenge. We attracted a religious public that enjoyed good food."

Michael Andrew could seat only 35, but, Katz says, "over the years, the restaurant did very well. We kept a low profile, didn't invite the media, but in the professional American press, we were ranked among the seven best restaurants in Israel. Gradually they discovered us here in Israel, too. We changed the menu every two months and would send out an announcement about the new menu to our regular customers. We succeeded in attracting the `knitted kippa' elite of the city. But Jerusalemites go out to restaurants only when they are hosting people from out of town, and in the past year that hasn't happened because tourists aren't coming."

Katz says the people who live in Modi'in have stopped coming to the city due to their fears of driving on the dangerous road. "The situation proceeded to get worse, and we decided to close. I don't get any pleasure from cooking for so few people and barely being able to run the restaurant."

At the restaurateurs' meetings, he learned just how badly off the other restaurants in the city were. "It turns out that the entire gourmet food sector in the city has fallen apart. I'm still young, but there are older people whose life's work has gone up in smoke right in front of their eyes," he says.

Because of the fear Ilan Sibony of Darna, the restaurant on Jerusalem's Horkanos Street, says he invested nearly half a million dollars to open his restaurant. It is a large establishment, capable of holding 180 diners, and Sibony personally imported everything in the restaurant from Morocco. The windows were imported from Rabat, as were the dishes, candles and cushions.

He even brought in several expert tilers from Morocco to complete the complex floor mosaic by hand, a project that took three months. Once he opened Darna ("our house" in Moroccan, and half of the expression darna darkum - "our house is your house", Sibony sold Hatzrif, the adjacent restaurant that he founded and had managed.

He took a course in Moroccan cooking, and hired chefs from Morocco. Darna has existed for six years, most restaurateurs in Jerusalem concur that it is one of the most beautiful restaurants in Israel.

In its first five years, Darna achieved great success. It was popular among diplomats and important guests such as Andre Azoulay, an advisor to the King of Morocco, Italian businessman and politician Silvio Berlusconi, French President Jacques Chirac and designer Georgio Armani. Four years ago, a royal delegation sent to Israel by King Hassan of Morocco celebrated Mimouna there. But in the past year, the clients have stopped coming.

"It's hard to run a restaurant like this, with 30 people a night," says Sibony. When the manager of his bank branch grew concerned at the state of his account, the bank's workers' committee decided to hold a dinner at the restaurant. "You still get good value, even when the situation is not good," Sibony says gloomily. Darna, says Sibony, has no patrons.

"Anyone who goes to Paris sees the huge advertisements at every bus stop, pitching Israel as holiday destination. But who's going to come here now? They should take this money and prop up businesses in Israel. People have to enlist, and support routine life in Jerusalem. Just as the mayor of New York has been calling on Americans to spend money in New York - so, too, Israelis should be spending their money in Jerusalem."

Darna is a kosher restaurant - it is closed on Friday night, and opens after Shabbat is over. "It still retains its positive spirit," says Sibony, "but income has dropped by more than 70 percent. We have to make it clear to the residents of Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, too, that you simply can't paralyze a capital city because of fear. Paris and London have gone through wars, and didn't stop functioning. The tourism ministry can also support owners of restaurants, not just the hotels. We are helping up a sector that is being left to face this all on its own."

Some restaurant owners in the city have found creative ways of surviving.

Sibony, for instance, has opened a wine cellar in Darna's basement, where he holds events. He has also launched a catering service, as has Tsairi of Sakura. "We correctly assessed the situation in the city in the first month of the intifada," says Tsairi. "We knew it wouldn't change overnight, and that people would prefer to sit in front of the news on TV. We bought motorcycles with big engines that can easily climb the hills of Jerusalem, and we expanded and advertised the delivery service. It was a wise decision, because now our situation is relatively decent."

Tsairi explains that in a tough year such as he has had, he makes an effort to expand his activities beyond the restaurant, such as managing a school for different uses of soy, which Kikkoman, a soy sauce manufacturer, is opening in Israel. He also offers cooking courses.

Tamar Blay and Ezra Kedem of Arcadia have already had their share of tribulation. Several months ago, when they found themselves in an especially harsh financial situation, they gained valuable exposure in an article in the Ha'aretz weekend magazine.

"The article helped, and gave us air to breathe that lasted another two months," says Blay. "However, it's obvious the problem runs much deeper. The current situation has turned me into a patriot. Being restaurant owners is a life-long objective, and we decided we would do everything possible not to close. We will hold events here, we'll teach cooking, we'll do catering - anything that will enable us to survive."