Enjoy ISRAEL21c's Bird’s-Eye-View of TelAviv’s Favorite Food Kiosks including Nordau Kiosk, Susu and Sons, Café Levinksy, Malabi Dajani, Bayern Market, We Like You, Too, Ben-Gurion corner kiosk, and Kiosk Est. 1920.
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Enjoy ISRAEL21c's Bird’s-Eye-View of TelAviv’s Favorite Food Kiosks including Nordau Kiosk, Susu and Sons, Café Levinksy, Malabi Dajani, Bayern Market, We Like You, Too, Ben-Gurion corner kiosk, and Kiosk Est. 1920.
Manta Ray is a local favorite in Tel Aviv. With its glass-walled interior and tables outside in the sea breezes, it capitalizes fully on its setting, a few yards from the Mediterranean. Manta Ray’s specialty is of course fish: sea bream, croaker, tuna, sea bass, calamari, shrimp, scallops, crab—you name it—served in any number of ways: in a risotto; with a fennel and kohlrabi salad; in a stew of coconut milk, lemongrass, and curry paste.
One item on the menu is called simply “Fish in a black cast-iron pot.” This pièce de la résistance is a cauldron brought to your table, overflowing with seafood claws and tails and emitting intoxicating whiffs of shallots, white wine, and the sea.
Owner Ofra Ganor and chef Ronen Skinezes ensure Manta Ray is a “grabber”: it has the beach, the sunset, excellent food, and a comfortable feeling of home.
But in fact, there are few restaurants in Israel that don’t feel homey—even the most elegant are warm and easy, with a lack of pretension that seems distinctly local. Some customers may dress for dinner, but others, inevitably, will show up in jeans and T-shirts.
Food is the central focus—often served, it must be said, in huge quantities (we have learned to share portions whenever possible). There is a pervasive air of generosity, and a genuine desire on the part of the restaurant staff for you to sample and appreciate what they have to offer. (Echoes of the classic Jewish mother’s exhortation: “Eat!”)
Manta Ray restaurant. Photos by and courtesy Avi Ganor
The small urban neighborhood of Florentin is one of the hippest districts in Israel. Now this old-new community is in the midst of a transformation.
It’s Thursday morning in Florentin. There are craftsmen trundling by with barrows of bedsteads and wood, old men with thick gray moustaches selling dried fruit and nuts, hipsters with black beards on bikes, and young bohemian women with piercings walking dogs — so many dogs.
The trendy cafes, vegan kiosks and tattoo parlors are already doing bustling trade. There are shops selling pet toys, and others selling sex toys. And on every wall, every billboard and corner, there is eclectic graffiti, giving the area an exciting and unique energy.
This tiny neighborhood, sandwiched between Jaffa and the center of Tel Aviv, is all about contrasts. Old and new, traditional and contemporary, rich and poor – this is a community that’s in the midst of gentrification and change.
Derelict buildings stand next to smart new apartment blocks. Expensive furniture shops jostle alongside ancient wholesale businesses with rotting signs. There are pricey art galleries on one side of a road, and dilapidated warehouses where you can fix your furniture or your car on the other.
There’s an industrial zone, a wholesale garment district, a thriving food market and a burgeoning art scene. And when day turns to night, Florentin transforms into one of the trendiest areas for pubs and clubs in Tel Aviv.
In 2014, Thrillist voted Florentin the second hippest neighborhood on earth after Williamsburg in New York. The travel website wrote: “In a city already known for its Bauhaus-style architecture, inspired street art, and 24-hour nightlife, Florentin’s the go-to spot for artists, musicians, and people who dress like artists and musicians.”
Florentin boasts other records, too; it’s got the most vegan restaurants per capita in the world, and Florentin Street has more dog owners per capita than anywhere else.
A young vibe
While there are some older families still living in Florentin, 60 percent of residents are under the age of 45, and 55% are under 35, according to Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Asaf Zamir. As a whole, Tel Aviv is one of the youngest Western metropolises in the world.
The unique character of Florentin lies in its roots. The neighborhood was founded in the 1930s and named after David Florentin, a Greek Jew who purchased the land in 1924 for the Salonika-Palestine Investment Company.
It was originally planned as a simple and pretty neighborhood for working-class immigrants from Greece and Turkey, especially from Salonika. But as the years went on, the immigrants gradually abandoned Florentin, and like much of the rest of southern Tel Aviv, it became increasingly neglected and impoverished.
It was only in the late 1990s, when an eponymous Israeli TV drama brought attention to this rundown neighborhood, that it began gradually to revive. Students and artists were attracted to the cheap rents, large loft-style apartments and were ready to ignore the grittiness and dirt.
As they moved in, turning dingy apartments into trendy live-work spaces, so did new cafes, nightclubs, music venues and shops.
One of the most significant signs of Florentin’s revival is that a new elementary school has opened, currently serving about 150 pupils in first and second grade, and is designed for 600.
“It’s the first school we have needed in Florentin for decades,” says Zamir. “ In the last five to seven years the population has grown older. It used to be people in their 20s; now people are still living here in their 30s. They are having families and they are staying. The hipster neighborhood is settling down.”
Many things make Florentin unique. It has a different feel than the rest of Tel Aviv because the buildings – many of which are Bauhaus – are crammed up against each another. The sidewalks are narrow and there are virtually no green spaces. “This creates a very dense urban atmosphere,” says Zamir.
The food culture is also unusual. Levinsky Market, founded in the 1930s, is the beating culinary heart of this neighborhood, and it still sells the traditional Turkish, Greek and Romanian specialties that dominated the market when it first opened. Today, it’s a gourmand’s paradise.
“Levinsky still looks the same as it did 50 or 60 years ago,” says Aaron Gertz, a 32-year-old tour guide who lives in Florentin.
There are many great shops in the market, some of them unique. Take Yom Tov deli, for instance. The deli was founded in 1947 and named after the founder, Yom Tov, which means “good day” in English. Today the deli still sells items like hibiscus flowers stuffed with cheese, and is run by Yom Tov’s grandson and namesake. The stuffed vine leaves on sale in the shop are still rolled by the original Yom Tov, now 93.
“This is really traditional Sephardic food,” says Gertz.
In a sign of the times, Yom Tov has expanded and opened a sandwich bar and a vegan ice cream parlor nearby.
Other great places to visit in the market include the Har Sinai Nut Shop, founded more than 38 years ago; Baklava Mahrum, which sells Middle Eastern desserts and sweets; and Chaim Raphael, which sells gourmet cheeses, cured olives and meats, all prepared using traditional methods.
Florentin also abounds with trendy cafes, restaurants and bars, like Bugsy, Café Casbah, Diwan, a Bedouin café, Hoodna and Perla.
The most obvious thing that stands out in Florentin, however, is the graffiti. You can find graffiti all over Israel, but nowhere does it come to life quite so much as in Florentin, where the authorities tend to turn a blind eye. Here, street art is an active daily dialogue.
“Every day I come out there’s something new,” says Gertz, who often takes people on graffiti tours through the neighborhood. “You never know what to expect. There is so much art all over the place. ”
Some of the most common graffiti artists include Mr. Leaf, who creates tiny people out of beads; Adi Sened, an architect who creates box people; EPK who paints eggplants – everywhere; Kis-Lev, and Murielle Street Art, who frames her work with window and door frames.
There’s even vegan graffiti – you’ll see “269” stenciled all over the walls to represent cow number 269, who was released by vegans into the wild and is now happy and free, or so the story goes.
As a result of all this artistic activity on the street, it’s no surprise that a number of galleries have emerged in the last few years, including Urban Secret Gallery (formerly Street Art Gallery), Under 1000, Tiny Tiny and Meshuna.
A place where people can be themselves
The question that bothers many Florentin residents today is how the neighborhood will develop in the years ahead.
Its near neighbor, Neve Tzedek, was once as rundown as Florentin. Today, it’s one of the most expensive places to live in Tel Aviv. The houses have all been renovated, and the shops sell expensive designer brands. Does the same fate await Florentin, which is already going through a significant building boom?
Zamir is sanguine. “It will always be different,” he says. “Florentin is the only closed neighborhood in Tel Aviv that involves all four elements of urban life. It’s residential and commercial, it has a lively leisure market – with a good nightlife and lots of restaurants — but it also has a light industrial area. That creates a very interesting mélange of people, with different requirements, but it also creates urban chaos. It’s hard to clear four waste cycles a day, and as a result it can be hard to keep the area clean, and this is what kept rents low for so many years.”
The municipality does plan, however, to demolish the rundown industrial warehouses of the Volovelsky zone and replace them with buildings like 4 Florentin, a project of four nine-story apartment blocks designed by architect Ilan Pivko. With commercial space, a swimming pool, a gym and a spa, it’s hardly the kind of development that attracts young people or young families.
Though Volovelsky isn’t expected to disappear any time soon – Zamir says it could take up to 20 years – the new apartment blocks that replace it will transform the character of the neighborhood in a significant way.
I ask Gertz whether he thinks Florentin will one day become like its rich, yuppy neighbor. He looks alarmed. “I hope not,” he says. “I love it here. It’s really authentic. You never know who or what you will see. This is a place where people can really be themselves.”
Respected restaurateur Ofra Ganor is the brain behind Manta Ray, the venerable and hugely successful bastion of beachside dining in Tel Aviv. With Ofra at its helm, Manta Ray is sunny, gorgeous, runs like clockwork, and serves superb food (under the watch of head chef Ronen Skinezes).
While she is not a professional cook herself, Ofra has over the years opened several other well-respected eateries in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and she says: “I’ve done my homework.” She understands food extremely well, as does everyone who works at her restaurants. Ofra notes: “From the start, my motto was: no deep-fried fish, no hummus. And no fries. I wanted another kind of restaurant.”
Manta Ray >
Manta Ray restaurant. Photos courtesy Avi Ganor.
We are on well-cushioned bicycles, rented from Tel Aviv–Yafo’s new bike-share system, heading south on the sleek boardwalk that lines the Namal, or waterfront, from Tel Aviv into Jaffa. Although it’s pretty early, the sun beams down on the water—as ever—and we pedal along, rarely picking up much speed, but occasionally stopping to catch our breath and look out at the sparkling shifts of the sea. It is early morning, and the water is dotted with swimmers of all shapes and sizes, out for their daily ablutions.
We will ride for miles here, on the sturdy wooden boardwalk that dips and rises, mimicking the swelling of beach dunes. Designed by husband-and-wife architect team Udi Kassif and Ganit Mayslits Kassif, the handsome wide walkway won them the award for outstanding landscape architecture at the European Biennial of Landscape Architecture in 2010. It meanders through the Tel Aviv Port, which is packed with boutiques, cafés, and food markets; already visitors are heading here for their morning coffee, enjoying the proximity of the water. At night, the port glitters with the lights of restaurants, nightclubs, and performance spaces, and hums with the chatter of crowds and the jangle of street music.
Our ride takes us through upscale neighborhoods of stark white hotels and stylish beachside cafés shaded with gigantic, colorful parasols, an area where refreshing arak-and-grapefruit-juice cocktails are delivered by natty waiters to your place on a rented beach chair. Here, if you close your eyes, you can try to count the languages being spoken within earshot: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and a few others that you might not be able to identify.
We pass funkier areas where beachgoers bring their own sandwiches and umbrellas, where children flop into shallow waves followed by slightly worried mothers, and elderly men are not shy to reveal ample naked bellies, bronzed from decades of basking in the Mediterranean sun. Out beyond the shore, a group of youngsters is trying to catch enough wave-swell to surf. We see a group of schoolgirls, buttoned up in traditional Orthodox tzniut outfits—elbows and knees modestly covered by their simple uniforms—as a gazelle-like male jogger, sporting only a black Speedo, sneakers, and reflective sunglasses, hurtles by them.
We ride by the Tel Aviv Port’s farmers’ market, already beginning to pulse with curious tourists, knowledgeable foodies, businesslike housewives. Inside this warehouse-sized space are vendors selling meats, fish, cheeses, wines, olive-oil products, cooking accessories, and more, as well as coffee shops where you can enjoy an espresso in the midst of the throng. This morning, happy shoppers are exiting the building with bags filled with fresh, ripe strawberries and savory bourekas, which many will tote down to the beach for snacking.
As ever in Israel, the old and the new, myth, faith, and contemporary reality are mingled together. As we continue toward Jaffa, our path winds through more harbor-like terrain. Fishermen lean on a wall above the plashing waves, waiting for their dinner to tug at the lines: fish that live nowhere else, with exotic nicknames like spinefoot and guitarfish. Against the old walls opposite sit ancient street monarchs, fully focused on games of backgammon and chess. Some distance into the water, a boulder juts upward: Andromeda’s Rock, named for the princess of Greek mythology who, it is said, was chained here as an offering to a sea monster, but was saved from its jaws by Perseus. A shapely rollerblader in a top hat weaves through the crowd, adroitly sipping pomegranate juice through a straw as she sails by. Buskers play a Middle Eastern hybrid of klezmer and bluegrass, a battered banjo case on the sidewalk filling up with shekels from appreciative passersby.
As we ride into Jaffa, we pass old warehouses now spiffed up into chic, cavernous restaurants, gallery spaces, organic-coffee shops, and bookstores. It’s almost impossible to imagine that just a few decades ago this area was so dilapidated that major parts of it were an environmental hazard. What was once a fifty-acre landfill of rubble by the shore has recently been cleaned out, smoothed, and made green and useable as Midron Yafo Park, or Jaffa Seaside Park (also known, less poetically, as Jaffa Landfill Park). The shoreline was reclaimed by the Municipality of Tel Aviv–Yafo, which removed and recycled the detritus and built a promenade along the shore with links to the port, the Givat Aliyah Beach, and the Bat-Yam area. The park, designed by Tel Aviv’s Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture, rolls with green lawns (irrigated with desalinated seawater) and neat paths, and is studded with playgrounds, shaded benches facing the sea, an amphitheater, and the bike lane along which we are riding. Its success is clear: on this beautiful day, the park is thronged with visitors from the city’s full spectrum of people.
Nearby, down Kedem Street, is the stunning striated box of a building that is the Peres Center for Peace, founded by Shimon Peres as headquarters for peace-building initiatives between Israel and its neighbors, and between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Here, we veer inland, onto the cobbled lanes of Jaffa’s alleyways, in search of hummus. As the streets narrow, we gingerly disembark, return our bicycles to their rental spot, and walk, slowly regaining our land legs after ten or so kilometers of riding, which have taken us in one morning through so many layers of history and the vivid reality of the present.
If matkot is Israel’s unofficial national sport, soccer is the game that gets the most prime-time attention. In Israel as in many other countries, it’s a hugely popular activity across communities and ethnicities; Jews, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else grows up watching soccer, knowing the rules, and likely playing the game at some point or another.
It is a popular notion that soccer transcends politics—certainly it brings people together on a field to play—but in fact passions run high, and hotheadedness in this notoriously dramatic sport can quickly lead to skirmishes both on the field and in the stands. (This is as true in Manchester as in Tel Aviv, but in Israel the subject of debate can move from a foul play to foul politics in no time.) Still, fans of most Israeli teams cut through all sectors of society, and many club teams include both Jewish and Muslim players such as those at Peres Center For Peace. And, as in the rest of the world, in Israel this is no longer a sport for men only: professional women’s soccer is growing quickly.
Although the scores are low in soccer, the action doesn’t let up. Stop into any wharf bar in Jaffa or Tel Aviv during soccer season and you’ll find a crowd of fans, riveted to the television screen, hoping that their team—whichever team that may be—will get a goal.
Tok-tik tok-tik tok-tik. At a certain spot on the boardwalk between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the tok-tiks cannot be ignored: a crowd of people in pairs—all ages, mostly men, a few women—whacking small rubber balls back and forth with wooden paddles. Matkot is this onomatopoetically named activity, played lazily on some American beaches, but in Israel approached with all the passion and intensity of an Olympic game (it is often referred to as Israel’s national sport).
What sets matkot somewhat apart from other games, however, is that it has no official rules; as one player notes: “There are no winners and no losers. Which is good because no one likes to lose.” The principal objectives are absolutely basic: move fast and keep the ball in the air. Play hard. Have fun.
The Neve Tzedek Hotel is a five-suite inn on Deganya Street that takes its name from what is now one of Tel Aviv’s most happening neighborhoods. The hotel, which feels like the beautiful home of an eccentric friend, is the creation of two brothers, Golan Dor and Tommy Ben-David, longtime residents of Neve Tzedek who revamped one of the area’s International-style historic townhouses to create this inn.
The suites at the Neve Tzedek Hotel are spacious and airy; each is like a little apartment. The floors and walls are immaculately white, but the rooms are brightly appointed with colorful rugs and sofas, original paintings on the walls, and vases overflowing with fresh flowers. The rooms on the lower floors of the hotel look out onto a peaceful stone garden in back (one of them includes access to an outdoor Jacuzzi), and the top-floor suite features a big, sunny balcony from which guests can look out onto the nearby rooftops and skyscrapers.
The Neve Tzedek Hotel has the feel of a sanctuary—it’s hard to believe you are in the middle of a busy quarter of the city—with some unexpected creative touches: bright-green ivy growing up the walls of the downstairs Garden Suite bath; a wooden barrel repurposed as an elegant sink; a bottle of excellent wine provided in the kitchenette.
Guests are essentially left to their own devices in these warm spaces. As you leave the peaceful Neve Tzedek Hotel and move into the throng of a Tel Aviv morning, it feels like stepping into the city from the private tranquility of your own home.
A great hotel will make guests feel welcome on the most personal, most individual level. This is where touches like chocolates on the pillow, say, or a bowl of fresh fruit in the room, or a call from the concierge to see if everything is in order can make all the difference.
Tel Aviv abounds in excellent hotels; many of them are big and brassy, and
wonderful in their way: the Dan, the Hilton, the Carlton, the sleek and massive
David Intercontinental—all of them grand places from which to explore the city,
relax in style, or get work done (which is always nicer when your window looks out at the sea). Other establishments, often referred to nowadays as “boutique” hotels or inns, are smaller and quirkier, and may tell you something more about the character of the place where you find yourself. Among these are the Neve Tzedek Hotel, and the Hotel Montefiore, whose twelve splendid rooms each feature the work of a different contemporary Israeli artist; Gordon, a sleek, original Bauhaus-style building with rooms overlooking the water; and Alma, a lovely inn that boasts a superb restaurant of the same name.
Fine meals and Ingredients at Ran Shmueli's Claro, Sarona, Tel Aviv. Photos courtesy Claro
After decades working as one of Tel Aviv’s most successful caterers, chef Ran Shmueli purchased one of the oldest buildings in the Sarona neighborhood of Tel Aviv and oversaw its meticulous restoration, with a view to opening a restaurant. Today, Ran’s restaurant, called Claro, receives rave reviews from all corners. The cavernous central space has an open kitchen at its hub, surrounded by contented diners. It is a true farm-to-table establishment: Ran works with organic growers all over Israel, and Claro collaborates with local wineries to create special house blends for the restaurant.
The chef explains, “I won’t serve oysters here. Nothing that is flown in—I don’t believe in that anymore. Oysters are beautiful in Normandy, with a great Chablis. Here in Israel, it has to be different. I don’t think any country should import things. Every community has its own things, and that’s how the world should go.”
The idea is to also relate to the farmers, to know them and work with them. People appreciate it if they have a name tag on every cheese or tomato. You know who made it, you know who grew it.
This is the new mindset of food people in Israel, as in many pockets in the rest of the world. Food is best when it is fresh and local: best in terms of responsible ecology and sustainable economics, and most immediately in terms of the profound gustatory satisfaction it brings to the people eating it.