Let’s face it. One of the best things about being in Israel is the food. Particularly if you keep kosher, coming to Israel is the experience of a lifetime – good kosher food everywhere you go. On my first trip to Israel, in 1995 as part of Hebraica (a Latin American Jewish youth group), the food in Israel was good, but in reality it was limited mostly to falafel, shawarma, pizza and maybe a good hamburger. There was no real “scene” to speak of. Over the past 20 years, the food scene has improved dramatically.
Anyone who knows me and my wife know that we like to eat. As much as we enjoy hosting Shabbat dinners for our huge family of 50 people (or more), there is nothing like going to a new restaurant, eating something new, enjoying the atmosphere or a cool new space, and of course having a few drinks or a good bottle of wine. Coming from Miami, there are restaurants-a-plenty: Greek, Turkish, Asian, Cuban, Italian, steakhouses, fish joints, you name it. Miami has old, new, popular, hidden gems, South Beach, Midtown, Wynwood, the Grove, and so much more. As excited as I was to come to Jerusalem for a year, I wasn’t sure the food scene would be up to par. If you haven’t been to Jerusalem in the last five years, you probably are thinking to yourself: “Its NOT! The food there is terrible.” But, thanks to a sea change in Jerusalem, over the past couple of years, there is now a huge foodie scene, with new restaurants popping up all over the place, a great scene, new foods, and new flavors. Jerusalemites and tourists seem to be enjoying it as well. For what its worth, here are some of my Jerusalem favorites both for the food and ambience…
Jacko’s Street. Located right of the Machane Yehuda market on a small dark side street, Jacko’s Street is an open-kitchen steak-house with attitude… and its kosher! Try the beef carpaccio with poached egg on top, or simply a kick-ass steak, with a good glass of Psagot wine, which they serve there. This is not your mom’s white tablecloth steakhouse. Take a seat at the kitchen bar, a high table or a booth, and enjoy high-end steakhouse fare, with a little bit of a party atmosphere. Last time I was there, the chef sent us out beef tartare bruschetta with shaved truffles on the house because we were the first table after they opened on a Saturday night – can’t beat it.
Pini’s Kitchen. Time to get interesting. Sitting on Emek Refaim in the German Colony, Pini’s Kitchen is the new project of chef-owner Pini Levy, formerly from Pini VaHatzer, Pini’s is hard to describe. The food is a mix of Turkish, Moroccan, Greek, and Israeli food. I’ll give you some examples. Best appetizer: Mafrum – layers of eggplant with ground beef in a spicy tomato sauce. You can also try the Oxtail stew with chickpeas, Siniya – meat with tehina in a crust, lamb sofrito, or other unique and amazing dishes. The place has a great atmosphere, littered with different color plates, china, chairs and different size and shape tables. The unique decor definitely matches the unique food. For an added touch, you can usually find Pini, the owner sitting outside, just below his picture…. look for the guy with a white beard, bald up front and white pony tail in the back – he’s unmistakable. On Friday afternoons, Pini plays with his band. Its a great way to end the week.
Derech HaGefen. Just outside Jerusalem in Beit Zayit, Derech HaGefen is equal parts romantic-hipster-hippie-elegant and incredible food, always served to perfection. It is absolutely worth the 20 minute drive. First, the restaurant is found inside a large plant nursery. If you sit outside, you sit amongst the sights and scents of the different plants, herbs, flowers and even some little ponds. Inside, it is a rustic and hip feel. The food is kosher-dairy and ranges from beet gnocchis to salmon risotto or fish kabobs. This is my wife’s favorite restaurant “in” Jerusalem. No place better for a romantic, yet fun date. If you don’t want to make the drive, try Cafe Itamar, owned by the same people, it is Derech Hagefen’s more casual sister-restaurant in Moshav Ora (on the way to Hadassah Hospital). For a perfect night at Itamar, take a drive up to the Kennedy Memorial after dinner – just 5 km up the road – and take in amazing views of Jerusalem and the Judean Hills.
HaMiznon – Kitchen Station. If you haven’t been to Jerusalem in the past 10 months then you haven’t seen the newly renovated, and repurposed, train station. The empty and abandoned building which sat between the Dan Boutique and Derech Beit Lechem, the place is now a center of (modern) life in Jerusalem, with restaurants, a high-end small market, two bars, ice cream, Friday markets, and an always changing array of entertainment in the courtyard, the old station (or the “First Station” as its developers want you to call it) is the place to be in Jerusalem. On one side of the station, you will find one of our favorite weekly eats, HaMiznon- Kitchen Station. The food is eclectic, fresh and easy. Order a variety of plates and share with your friends, believe me. Try the wheat salad, the fish meatballs, or the palestina salad. The food is out of this world, the place is fun, and the station atmosphere is hard to beat. Be sure to say hello to the owner, Bar, a young guy (late 20s?) who is always walking around making sure that everything is perfect. It is.
Machneyuda* Although its not kosher, I can’t make a list in good faith without including the top restaurant in Jerusalem, and the leader of the pack of incredible food coming out of the Machane Yehuda market. If you can actually get a reservation here, and you like a party atmosphere – like you’d find in Tel Aviv or South Beach (albeit with a more timid Jerusalem crowd), then you have to come. With an ever-changing menu, a fun wait-staff, free shots coming from the bar more often than not, and loud music, its hard to have a bad time here. I only eat fish and dairy here (due to kashrut), but I’ve never felt like I’m missing out. Try the do-it-yourself fish tartare, where they bring you about 20 small bowls of spices and lemon juice and you put whatever you want in a larger wooden bowl and mix it together with whatever fresh, raw fish they have chopped up and put in the bowl. Its fun and delicious. You will leave feeling like you went out to a club. Bonus: Last time I went, the cast of the famous Israeli TV show Hatufim (Prisoners of War) was sitting at the first table as I walked in. Tip: go with just two people and sit at the bar downstairs. It’s guaranteed to be a good, and delicious night.
Enough with the fancy food. Sometimes you want something quick, easy and delicious. Luckily, Jerusalem has good choices for you.
Pasta Basta. Just writing about this place puts a smile on my face. This is a fresh pasta bar sitting on a small corner in the Mahane Yehuda market. Don’t come here during the day, as its impossible to get a table and the atmosphere is a million times better at night, once the shuk closes down. The menu is simple: pick a pasta, a sauce and things you want inside – veggies, cheese, etc., order a good beer and go sit at any of the high wooden tables and benches around the restaurant. The place is hopping any night of the week (of course, except Fridays). After you eat, take a walk and visit one of the many bars around the shuk that have recently opened up. My favorite, Casino de Paris.
Cafe Kadosh. Somehow this gem is new to me. Although I’ve been to Jerusalem dozens of times before this one-year adventure began, and I’ve eaten at Canela- the fancy steakhouse next door many times, this coffee-shop/restaurant/bakery has been sitting at the top of Shlomzion Hamalka in City Center (Merkaz Ha-Ir) since 1967. Walk in and you feel like you are in downtown Paris with its small wood tables and chairs and the intense smell of freshly baked breads and pastries and good coffee. This place is good for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even a late night drink and desert. Don’t come with a big party, as the place is small, but it really can’t be missed. The most interesting menu is breakfast with items like a crunchy smoked salmon, which is an open toasted croissant with smoked salmon, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce. They make their own breads, danishes, croissants and bourekas fresh daily. When you walk in you’ll see all the fresh goodness on your left behind the bar. For late night, try the tri-color chocolate cake, made in-house with, what I consider to be, the best cup of coffee in Jerusalem.
Classic Israeli Food.
With all of these new restaurants with eclectic food and flavors from all over the world, its important not to miss out on classic Israeli food while in Jerusalem. (How can you come to Jerusalem and NOT eat an amazing falafel?!) In order, these are my favorites.
Hummus Ben Sira. Every Israeli will tell you that they know the best hummus and falafel place… They are wrong. This is the best. Hands down! Just a block up from Mamilla Hotel on Ben Sira Street (which is also the bottom half of Hillel Street), Hummus Ben Sira is the classic hummus bar. Leave your fancy shoes at home and walk in for a quick and delicious meal. About ten seats at the bar and a few tables for two squeezed in behind it, you will never eat a hummus like this, and the falafel is as good as it gets. Order a bowl of hummus with mushrooms (or with ground beef if you can handle it), which comes with three large falafel balls, and an order of the classic Israeli salad. The hummus is creamy and delicious – completely different than any hummus you’ve had before. The falafel is big, fresh and crunchy, and just perfect if you ask me. If you are in a rush, just order a falafel pita, you won’t be disappointed.
Shalom Falafel. I have to admit, my wife made me add this. But it is pretty damn good, and the fact that its been serving falafel since 1945, I think its worthy of a shout-out. Shalom Falafel is a small Jerusalem chain of falafel shops serving up Yeminite falafel, which is orange inside rather than green. It is a classic Jerusalem favorite. The falafel is made my machine rather than by hand. The machine drops the falafel balls into the fryer in perfect form without being touched by the guy behind the counter. If you ask me, that takes away some of the charm, but my wife insists that it makes it better and more consistent. Rather than visiting the branch on Betzalel street in City Center, try the one in Talpiot, which is more local and less touristy. At the end of the day, their falafel is delicious and worth the 15 shekels (even if only to tell your wife that you know a better falafel joint).
Zion HaGadol. If you want an Israeli meal, off the beaten path in Jerusalem, then you have to head over to the industrial zone of Talpiot, and grab a table at Zion HaGadol. There is nothing elegant or touristy about Zion Hagadol. Instead you’ll find classic Israeli food, served in huge portions ready to be shared and enjoyed by you and your family or friends. With loud Mizrachi music blasting, you’ll first be served dozens or salads and pitas. These are not the small plates you are used to seeing as a free appetizer at an Israeli joint. These are huge portions, enough to fill a vegetarian’s belly and heart. But then, the fun starts. The specialty here, if you ask me is shipudim – skewers: chicken, meatballs, chicken livers, chicken hearts. They also have steak, shawarma, and more. You will leave happy and full, and having really experienced authentic Israel in Jerusalem.
I know that for every two Israelis you have three opinions. These are mine. I’d love to hear your comments and recommendations. I promise you one thing. If you recommend something better, and I haven’t been there, I will be there within a week and will let you know what I think! Also, there are some others that I love that didn’t make the list, but that is just a testament to how amazing the food scene has become in Jerusalem.
As they say in Israel, Te’enu – enjoy!
Am Israel Chai.