Breakfast on bourekas from Turkey, lunch on schmaltz (pickled) herring from Russia, snack on Iraqi-Jewish pita invention called sabich and sup on schnitzel from Austria. Our guide to Israel’s culinary capital—a melting pot of ancient Levantine, classic Middle Eastern and modern Mediterranean cuisines—will have you “wiping” hummus, bargaining for chocolate rugelach and sipping on kosher wine like a local.
To witness the Israeli obsession that is hummus, visit Tel Aviv’s (TLV) most authentic Arabic hummus house, a rare politics-free eatery. Apart from the fact that Abu Hassan—a second-generation hummus maker—first started out in 1959 as a two-pot stand near Jaffa port before moving to his current address, not much is known of its history. But you’ll recognise it by the long line outside. This menu-free joint, packed with plastic chairs and veneer-top tables, serves three things: original hummus; masabacha, a chunkier, warm version of breakfast hummus; and ful (fava beans) hummus. They all come with a side of onions, a stack of warm pita and a tart, red pepper lemon sauce.
Top Pick Try meshuleshet (triplet), which is equal parts hummus, ful and masabacha, or chickpeas cooked for a day and topped with tahina (14 Shivtei Yisrael Street, Jaffa).
Run by the third generation of its founding family, this 57-year-old bourekasiya is famous for serving the palm-sized, crescent-shaped, Ottoman-era snack. A boureka consists of light and flaky puff pastry, full
of feta, potatoes, aubergines, mushrooms, spinach or egg. To try it the traditional way, ask the server to cut up the buttery baked phyllo treat and eat it while it’s still steaming, with the customary side of pickles, hot pepper relish or a hard-boiled egg. Drown that with a salty ayran, the Turkish yogurt-based drink, which comes garnished with mint.
Top Pick Ask for an unusual, yellow cheese boureka stuffed with kashkaval, an Italian sheep’s milk cheese (Levinsky 43).
Every city has them—timeless institutions where nothing changes. Not the menu, not the décor and certainly not the recipes. In Tel Aviv that fixture is Café Mersand. When it opened in 1955, owner Walter Mersand—a German-born Jew, or yekke—had his Hungarian architect recreate a European café to appeal to the area’s growing immigrant population. These days, surfers, journalists, yekkes, hipsters and tourists can all be seen sitting on benches, sipping espressos and nibbling on raisin or brownie cheesecake.
Top Pick Pull a local move by ordering a Hungarian cake called Gerbeaud or zserbó, a slightly dense sponge layered with walnut and apricot jam and drizzled in chocolate (18 Frishman St.).
For the best falafel in TLV, visit the new(ish) kid on the block: Arik Rosenthal’s 2001 kosher eatery. As a matter of fact, HaKosem, Hebrew for the magician, also makes great shawarma, sabich, schnitzel and hummus. Perfect for lunch and dinner, this bright, open-kitchen café greets customers with a free falafel “chill pill” with a warning that “it’s tasty.” Sit alongside locals lingering over pomegranate-lemonades and falafel in lafa, a Middle Eastern flatbread also known as taboon, meant to be shared, while you watch the city walk by.
Top Pick These guys serve their falafel with fried eggplant slices instead of fries, so remember to say “Yes!” to the addition (Shlomo Hamelech 1).
The region’s most popular egg preparation, shakshuka or “all mixed up” as the North Africans put it, is a slow-cooked stew of tomatoes, garlic, peppers, black olive, feta, spices and poached eggs. At Dr. Shakshuka—with its communal tables, pots, pans, skillets, cauldrons and colourful Arab-tiled floors—Libyan owner Bino Gabso and his family serve up a spicy shakshuka, the traditional Tripolitan way: in the pan it’s cooked with accompanying salads, pickles, potatoes and white rye bread. Other fusion versions include eggplant, mushrooms, chicken, and hummus.
Top Pick Enjoy shakshuka with a side of authentic, Libyan-style couscous, and the signature house lemonade (3 Beit Eshel, Jaffa).
What started out as a small stall run by two friends, Avi Avital and Iddo Gal, turned quickly into four outlets a few years ago, each serving up the finest milk pudding in TLV. Traditionally, this creamy, custardy, rose-flavoured dessert, which can be eaten either hot or cold, came covered in peanuts and coconut. HaMalabiya’s founders created a 2.0 vegan version based on both of their grannies’ recipes. At their stores you can sample classic flavours like raspberry and pomegranate, as well as new-age takes like vanilla cinnamon, lemon cardamom, caramel, chai, and watermelon—all covered in cookie crumbs.
Top Pick In winter, ask for sachlav, Israel’s answer to hot chocolate. This ancient aphrodisiac blends orchid tubers, milk, rosewater, cinnamon, nuts and raisins (28 Gedera).
With four restaurants to his name—two in TLV, one in Paris and one in Vienna—Israeli TV chef Eyal Shani seems to be doing everything right. This mecca of modern fast food is known for two things. First, for making the cauliflower trendy; there isn’t a hipster joint in TLV that hasn’t tried to do its own take on Shani’s whole grilled version. Second, for lifting the humble and fluffy pita to hallowed ground by packing it with every conceivable option. Minute steak? Check. Shakshuka? Check. Chicken liver, lamb kebabs, slow-cooked ratatouille and sliced potatoes? Check, check, check.
Top Pick Try the Cauliflower King’s signature dish, a smoky but still juicy full head of roasted cauliflower (23 Ibn Gabirol and 30 King George).
Jharna Thakkar is a hospitality, travel and lifestyle writer. A trained chef, she has written for publications like the Hindustan Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Time Out and Mumbai Mirror. Currently, she portions her time into freelance writing, cooking Goa sausages and pickling seasonal vegetables.