It’s our first night in Tel Aviv, and we’re dining at North Abraxas – one of the city’s best restaurants, but no place for decorum. Tables block the pavement and trip-hop drifts out from the bar; with no plates and minimal cutlery, everyone eats with their fingers.
It’s a crash course in sociable, Israeli-style dining, in the company of food guide David Kishka, who’s demonstrating how to eat dips like a local (FYI, with a half-moon of raw onion).
In between scoops of chilli-flecked crème fraiche, he’s outlining the plan for the trip; a whirlwind introduction to the city’s vibrant local food scene.
The timing is impeccable. Right now, there’s no hotter trend than Israeli-style cuisine, even if – as David concedes – it’s almost impossible to define. Flavours from the Middle East meet bold North African spicing, spliced with ideas and influences from the Mediterranean and beyond.
All of that’s in evidence as dishes start to arrive, from parmesan-sifted spinach stems to Moroccan-style chraime (slow-cooked fish in a chilli-spiked tomato sauce). Garlicky green beans glisten with olive oil, while the blackened baby cauliflower is deservedly iconic. “No spices,” shrugs the waitress. “Just salt and a little black pepper.”
It’s an epic dinner, hazy with candlelight and jetlag – and by the time shots of arak are brought out, we’re all slightly delirious. David dips a sage leaf in his drink and burns it in the candle; “a sage and arak blessing on the trip!” he proclaims, before summoning us a taxi.
The city centre & Carmel Market
We’re staying at the Lighthouse Hotel, one block back from the beach – a monolithic, 1970s office block transformed into a hip hideaway, with cocooning rooms, skyline views and a hedonistic vibe. It’s perfectly acceptable to swig a glass of cava at breakfast, while after dark, the party moves up to the high-rolling rooftop bar (unless you’re buying vodka by the bottle, you may not get that table-with-a-view). In the daytime, staff loan out towels for the beach and a couple of bicycles – which, if you can cope with the traffic, are the best way to see the city.
For a first-timer in Tel Aviv, there’s a lot to take in, from its fascinating history and tangled politics to its charismatic neighbourhoods. It’s too much to see in a few short days, even without the beach, whose golden sands and sun-warmed shallows stretch the length of the city.
Sunbathing sessions are soundtracked by the steady tic-tic-toc of matkot, a fast-paced, furiously competitive local spin on paddleball. Invited to have a go, I’m exhausted after just one rally; no wonder the locals are in such impressive shape.
Ten minutes’ walk from the hotel, meanwhile, is the famous Carmel Market – best explored in the morning, when it’s marginally less thronged. Even so, there’s already a queue at our first port of call, where a trio of women in headscarves are deftly making Druze-style pittas.
Spun by hand, pizza-style, they’re cooked on a domed hot plate, then topped with labneh, herbs, and a sprinkling of za’atar. Afterwards, cardamom-laced coffees in hand, we follow David through the maze of stalls, past luscious pomegranates, knobbly pickles and trays of honey-soaked baklava.
Amid the more familiar street food and kebabs, there are plenty of inventive departures – like the fluffy pita breads at Panda Pita, heaped with Tunisian-style ceviche. In local slang, they’re mashu mashu; really something else.
By this point, we probably don’t need lunch, but we head across to the city to famed falafel joint HaKosem. Its founder Ariel Rosenthal is an expert on Israeli food, but even he agrees it can be tricky to pin down. “We’re a young country, and we’ve borrowed from so many places.” Over moreish, herb-flecked falafel, we chat about his new book on hummus, which calls on contributors from across the Middle East. “Food connects people,” he tells us, passing round a copy. “It has no borders; it’s like a bird, flying.”
From Florentin to Old Jaffa
Street art-scrawled Florentin is where the city’s cool kids hang out – and also home to Levinsky Market’s old-fashioned Greek and Balkan delis, along with a cluster of Iranian spice emporiums. It’s a reminder of how waves of immigration have shaped the local food culture, bringing new flavours and cultures into the mix. We feast on flaky bourekas, stuffed with cheese and spinach, and sip cool, salty glasses of ayran (a Turkish yoghurt drink). Afterwards, we head across the road to Kesem Ha Halva, for crumbly slabs of halva, marbled with dark chocolate.
West of here, at the end of the seafront promenade, is Old Jaffa – an ancient port that predates Tel Aviv, but is now considered part of the city. These days, cafés and art galleries line its polished stone alleys, while the fleamarket’s a glorious welter of junk and genuine antiques, from one-legged dolls and battered typewriters to hand-woven Persian rugs. It’s also home to laidback eaterie Puaa, where we join a cool, sangria-sipping crowd on the buzzing terrace.
There’s delicious tortellini stuffed with goat’s milk labneh, and Arabic-style laffa bread with a side of homemade harissa (best approached with caution; it’s hiccup-inducingly hot). This is also one of the city’s best areas for bars – and after several days of feasting, we could do with dancing until dawn. “Yalla!” David tells us (“let’s go”), and we head into the night.
Day trip from the city
Israel’s a compact country, so take a few day trips while you’re in Tel Aviv, whether it’s north to Akko and the Western Galilee or south to Jerusalem. If you’ve got more time, it’s a four-hour drive all the way down to Eilat, a buzzy resort on the Red Sea that’s famed for its coral reefs. It’s a road-trip that’ll take you through the sun-bleached, dramatic Negev Dessert (look out for the “camels crossing” signs, and remains of ancient settlements).
A 90-minute drive north of Tel Aviv is the walled city of Akko, a trading post since Phoenician times. Over the millennia it changed hands endless times, and is layered with extraordinary relics, from its domed Ottoman baths to the tunnels below the city, hewn out of the rock by the Knights Templar. Today, its population is a mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians – and, after Tel Aviv, it feels like another world. Once under the radar, its food scene’s increasingly hyped, thanks its world-class seafood and heady Arab cuisine.
For lunch, head to Hummus al-Abed Abu Hmid, a small, simple café by the old lighthouse, with a kitsch-cluttered, blue-painted terrace. Standouts include the cinnamon-spiked, fava-bean ful and comforting thiridi; warm chickpeas and toasted pita, in a swirl of garlicky yoghurt. Meanwhile, the open-air market is the place to head for sweets, from creamy, rosewater-laced malabi to syrup-soaked, cheese-layered knafeh. After dark, stroll along the old sea wall to the iconic El Marsa, for arak-pickled salmon, calamari with labneh, and front-row views over the port.
There’s nowhere else on earth quite like Jerusalem, with its sacred sites, labyrinthine souks, and tangible sense of history. Its food scene, meanwhile, has spawned some of Israel’s best-known chefs, from Yotam Ottolenghi to Egal Shani (owner of a global restaurant empire that stretches from New York to Paris).
Daytime eating’s all about the Machane Yehuda market, which traces its origins back to Ottoman times. Any local will point you towards Uzi Eli’s juice stand, famed for its rocket-fuel Etro Gat, along with more mellow smoothies. Other traders sell chocolate-filled rugelach (the best are from Marzipan Bakery) and looped Jerusalem bagels, served with a twist of za’atar.
The market’s produce also fuels some of the city’s most exciting restaurants – including the iconic Machneyuda, which rocked the once-staid local dining scene when it opened in 2009.
Today, it’s been joined by a host of bold, experimental eateries, from the Italianate Anna to Moshe Basson’s Eucalyptus, with its focus on biblical ingredients, including figs and wild herbs. With so much to see (and sample), it’s worth staying longer if you can; for opulent rooms and a sleek rooftop pool, check into the Orient Jerusalem.