As usual, before travelling to Tel Aviv for the first time, I I did my usual search for favoured eateries. If there is an Irish bar and a Starbucks within walking distance of the hotel and/or office then I’m a happy chappy. That’s not to say I live on Guinness and grande latte – far from it. I’ll always try the local food and drink (even horsemeat pasties in Almaty – delicious!), you can’t go far wrong with a pizza or a spag bol, and a decent Mexican chilli goes down well. As does the occasional Big Mac or Whopper menu, and a good curry or chow mein for variety. And of course, 9 times out of 10, the hotel food is very good too (if a bit pricy). A foodie I am not – but I do know what I like.
To my surprise, there are no Starbucks in the country, never mind the City – possibly the only country in the developed world where they are not represented. Depending in what report you read, the reason is either Israelis prefer their own type of coffee shops to the franchised one-size-fits-all American style, or Starbucks did not make sufficient show of supporting the Israeli Cause backed up with significant financial donations to the local politicos, who in a fit of pique demanded – and got – a boycott. Whichever it is, the half dozen outlets that were originally opened in Tel Aviv lasted less than two years and are long gone.
McDonalds are present (aren’t they everywhere?) but apparently in two guises. There is the bog standard McD’s that we all know, complete with the Golden Arches, selling all the usual Big Mac Menus, McFlurry’s and so on. I found one, tried it, and was not disappointed – the Big American Meal I had featured a burger the size of a dinner plate. Then there are kosher branches scattered around – I haven’t seen one yet – where the Arches are blue and the food is prepared according to strict kosher rules. (I had a read of them as my hotel is kosher, and I had never eaten such food before. All very complicated, but it seems to be more the type of animal and the way it’s slaughtered rather than the way it’s cooked. But I may be wrong.)
And there are five Irish bars listed, of which one is now closed down and two others I have tried – more of which shortly.
There are of course many other restaurants scattered around.
On my first night here, I went to an Italian close to the hotel with two Greek colleagues. It was ok, nicely decorated, decent draught Stella Artois beer, but the food very average. I sampled the Spaghetti Bolognese – the minced meat and tomato sauce was tasty enough though not as herby or garlicy as I would have liked. The pasta was not the usual thin strings but a flatter variety, possibly vermicelli or maccheroncini (I’m no expert…), and the grated parmesan was replaced with chunks of a tasteless local cheese (presumably in accordance with kosher regulations….). It was also a small portion, more like a starter than a main course, and I thought it quite expensive. I haven’t returned, nor am I likely too, even though the place is very close to both the hotel and the office.
The next day a group of us went to French bistro close to the office. From the outside it looks scruffy (true of many buildings in the city) but inside it was roomy with a wooden floor, a balcony area that appeared to be used for storage, and many tables scattered around. We sat at a corner table under a wall covered with pictures of famous French people – Jean Reno, Edith Piaf and so on. Most of them my French colleagues did not recognise, especially the older generation. Service was slow but the food good. I had an excellent roast beef sandwich with pickles, there were good salads, and one guy had a schnitzel that, when delivered, was actually two huge cutlets and big portion of fries. He left half. I went back one weekend but it was not open – a shame: I quite fancied those schnitzels. Another time, maybe.
In a small, grubby looking side street that runs between hotel and office I found a café called Lulu’s one Friday. I was hot, tired and hungry after a foot expedition to Jaffa, so settled at a pavement table. The local beer was very pleasant, and to my surprise the menu featured a chicken breast wrapped in bacon, with roast vegetables. I ordered that, and when it came the chicken was indeed wrapped in about four slices of smoked back bacon and nicely grilled. Given that pig products are not acceptable here, that seems very odd, but it was a very tasty meal nonetheless. I can only assume the owner is not local and doesn’t follow the Jewish culinary norm. It’s also possible the owner is Jewish but disagrees with such restrictions – I remember forty-odd years ago working with an old Jewish guy whose favourite lunch was a couple of ham and mustard sandwiches and a packet of smoky bacon crisps, because despite his upbringing he “liked the taste”. I’d go along with that….
Now – the Irish pubs.
I’ve used two, situated quite close to each other, by the beach and just about a 2km stroll from the hotel.
The first I found is called Mike’s Place, and it’s perhaps 100m from the McDonald’s I used, on the Retsif Herbert Samuel promenade that runs alongside the beaches. It’s a fairly scruffy looking building, typical of Tel Aviv, with a covered terrace outside that faces over the beach to the Mediterranean. The terrace is furnished with a selection of shabby wooden tables and chairs, and the interior bar is equally dingy looking. I settled down at a table in the corner of the terrace, in the shade of a bush the grows up the terrace roof-posts, Joe Cocker on the headphones and my book (Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser – very good) in my hand. The menu has a mix of local dishes, salads, sandwiches and the usual quasi-Irish fare like burgers, beef stew, fish and chips, and sweets like apple pie and cheese cake. Draught beers included Guinness and Kilkenny, with local bottled beers and Magner’s cider in bottles. There was also a wide range of spirits (Bushmills Whiskey prominent) and the usual range of cocktails including Sex on the Beach and Tequila Sunrise.
I settled for a pint of draught Kilkenny (I find it travels better than Guinness) and the sausage and mash with gravy and a side order of fries - I was hungry after a long walk along the beach to the harbour perhaps a further 2–3km further north, just before the Yarkon River flows into the sea. The beer, as expected, was very nice – it’s my favourite Irish brew – and chilled to perfection. I ended up having two.
When it came the food was also good. Proper mashed potatoes (not powdered), chunky chips made from proper sliced spuds, and three big veal sausages with a jug of thick spicy gravy. The sausages looked and tasted like the Polish kielbaski that we grill on the barbecue or bonfire on sunny Sunday afternoons – Irish or Wall’s pork they were not. It was just decent hearty food, not gourmet cooking, and would probably go nowhere on Masterchef, but that is fine by me. Tasty and filling, washed down with good beer, it hit the spot. I will certainly use the place regularly.
Close by, one street further inland and perhaps 200m further north, is Molly Bloom’s. It’s a more authentic looking pub with perhaps ten high tables and chairs outside the corner doorway instead of a terrace. Inside is much brighter and (dare I say it) cleaner looking than Mike’s, with several tables and booths scattered around. There are three big-screen tv’s showing a variety of sports, including Sky’s transmission of English Premier and Italian Serie A league football, Irish hurling, Gaelic football, Formula 1 motor racing and American NFL football. There is also a back room with another big tv showing the same programming but offering a little more privacy.
The menu was not dissimilar to Mike’s, but with a few additions – I settled for an old favourite, shepherd’s pie, again with a side order of fries (I had been on another long walk), and again Kilkenny. By the way, why oh why do so many pubs and restaurants get it wrong? Most of them deliver a perfectly tasty and acceptable shepherd’s pie made from minced beef – which makes it a COTTAGE PIE. Shepherd’s pie is made from minced LAMB – the clue is in the name: shepherds care for sheep not cattle.
But I’m being a bit anal there. When it came, it was delicious – minced beef in a thick gravy, with chunks of carrot and peas and onions, topped off with creamy mashed potatoes and grated cheese. A fine meal indeed – and the chips were good, too. So I spent a pleasant couple of hours watching the Singapore GP Qualifying and some football (Hull v Arsenal: so you can’t have everything), eating my fill, drinking a couple of beers and in between times reading my book.
I went back a couple of days later, largely for the football (Spurs v Sunderland) and tried some different food. This time I had lamb sausages with mashed potatoes, coleslaw and a Guinness gravy. It was ok – the sausages were a little dry but quite spicy, the spuds creamy but with nice little chunks that hadn’t been fully mashed (to prove again real potatoes rather than powdered), the gravy thick if a little insufficient (no jug this time, just a small helping poured into a little volcano in the spuds) and the coleslaw suitably sour.
I will go here again, too.
The restaurant at the hotel is also good. I’m not a big breakfast eater – I tend to snack at lunchtime and have a decent meal in the evenings – except at the weekend. The selection is pretty good: lots of fresh fruit and salad-y things, cooked meats, local cheeses, fish, cereals, a variety of fresh breads and rolls, and lots of different cakes and pastries. As far as I’ve seen there are no sausages or eggs anywhere, nor bacon – kosher hotel, remember. I usually settle for rolls with butter and jam or honey, and a couple of pastries or cakes, plus cappuccino from the machine. It’s plenty.
The room service menu is fine, burgers, salads, pizza and local stuff, plus a selection of drinks. The quality I’ve found variable – I’ve had a couple of excellent beef and chicken club sandwiches (on the Sabbath there are no cooked meals on room service), and twice a rather fine plate of chicken nuggets, frankfurters and fries (but the nuggets are actually chicken breasts fried in breadcrumbs) that have filled me up a treat. But I also had a chicken kebab with fries that was disappointing: the chicken pieces were undercooked and very stringy and chewy – not to my taste at all.
But the evening meal is something else again. I don’t have it every evening (I would be an even fatter old sod than I already am if I did!), but when I do it is invariably excellent. It’s a self-service, as-much-as-you-can-eat buffet: and I can eat a lot. The soup course offers a different flavour daily – today it was a very tasty lentil soup, and I’ve also had a creamy mushroom, a vegetable, and a spicy bean soup – and there is a huge selection of salads and cold meats for an alternative (or even additional) starter. Main courses are of course a fish and a meat course, sometimes two of each, including a grill or fry course prepared to order by line chefs while you watch. Tonight I had rather splendid spicy veal meatballs with grilled vegetables in a thick sauce, and huge roast potatoes topped with a thin coating of cheese and sesame seeds. You can of course have more than one helping – I didn’t. For sweet there is a huge range of things – individual crème caramels and souffles, apple pie, various fruit pastries, cheesecakes, blancmanges, meringues, chocolate sponges, ice cream, fresh fruit…..the sweet table is literally bowed under its load. It’s good value but my company has a special deal that reduces the cost dramatically.
I love it.