Where to eat in Tel Aviv, Israel’s multicultural food capital

Where to eat in Tel Aviv, Israel’s multicultural food capital

Published September 22, 2023

13 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK). 

When Khalil Karawan buys his chickpeas, he does it not in grams or kilos, but in tonnes. It takes such elephantine quantities to keep up with the fierce demand at Abu Hassan, the renowned hummus empire started by his grandfather in the 1950s. The business has grown so much from its humble food cart origins that 27-year-old Khalil can now sell thousands of plates each day across three locations in the ancient district of Jaffa. And when I visit his Shivtei Israel Street outpost one Friday morning, I arrive at peak hour.

“Our way is special; no one knows how to make hummus like us,” Khalil says as crowded tables of people tuck into tahini-rich mouthfuls. “We start cooking the first batches at 4am, so they’re ready for when we open at 7am.” I run a chunk of pillowy bread through his creamy masabacha — hummus studded with whole chickpeas, flecked with parsley and paprika and glinting with lemon-hued oil. At Khalil’s insistence, I dress it with pickled chilli sauce, the final kick in a riot of zingy richness. 

It’s perhaps no revelation that Tel Aviv nails hummus, one of the most famed Middle Eastern dishes. Yet Israel’s seaside city holds more for hungry travellers than chickpea dip. Founded in 1909, this sweep of Bauhaus buildings and glossy skyscrapers has since engulfed its neighbour to the south — the biblical port of Jaffa, one of humanity’s oldest settlements. Just as Tel Aviv fuses old and new so, it also acts as one big culinary laboratory, with immigration from every corner of the globe fuelling its vibrant food scene. You can find everything from world-class sushi to New York-style brasseries here. And there’s no better time to get a taste of it than during the celebratory buzz of Friday, as practising Jews go out revelling before sunset, when Shabbat and its 25 hours of rest begin.

“Eat, eat! We’ll make you stay to clean if you don’t finish!”, a server at Abu Hassan says, gently teasing me about my half-eaten dish of hummus. It’s 11am, and the guide I’m due to meet, Karl Walter, born and raised in Tel Aviv, has promised me a lot to eat today. Despite my greed I don’t want to fill up too early. When the server turns his back, I duck out into the street to meet Karl in the warm sunshine.

Jaffa is humming with weekend promise. Around the central flea market, rows of honey-hued shops glint with silver antiques, wrinkled men pour over games of backgammon, and groups of friends clink frosty beers above overflowing restaurant tables. Here, the world is laid out on a plate: crowds queue for Iraqi sabich, a pitta sandwich brimming with fried aubergine, boiled egg and tahini; for Persian malabi (milk pudding) topped with rosewater jelly; and for Hungarian sweet pastries filled with poppy-seed paste. Karl leads me past a stall selling freshly pressed pomegranate juice towards Leon Bakery, where trays of burek (savoury stuffed pastries thought to originate from Turkey) are flowing from a tiny kitchen.

“We’re all immigrants in Tel Aviv,” he says, popping a few of the flaky filo parcels into a takeaway container along with some herby dolmades (rice-stuffed vine leaves). “But we adapt things from everywhere to make them our own. Each of these burek, for example, has been shaped according to its filling — some are triangular, others round or square. This way we don’t accidentally mix meat and cheese, which is forbidden in Judaism.”

The joyful energy of Jaffa is mirrored elsewhere across Tel Aviv. As we wander north east away from the old core, the honeyed stone buildings give way to jutting modernist low-rises with a coat of colourful street art. A 20-minute walk brings us to the bohemian neighbourhood of Florentin. The air is heavy with the fragrance of za’atar and cumin and the bars heave with punters sipping lunchtime cocktails before sitting down to Shabbat dinners with their families. After emerging onto leafy Rothschild Boulevard, the city’s upmarket thoroughfare, Karl and I cut west along Park HaMesila, a once-abandoned strip of railway that now serves as a popular picnicking spot. From here, it’s onto Neve Tzedek, where families wander down pavements lined with boutiques, munching ice creams as they go. A few streets beyond, the city unfolds to reveal golden beaches studded with sunbathers and volleyball players.

“This is the place to come for Shabbat dinner shopping,” says Karl as we enter Carmel Market, the city’s main produce hub. “Everyone here is buying last-minute things for tonight.” All around us, elderly ladies pick through stalls heaving with oranges and fist-sized tomatoes, students point animatedly at dense blocks of halva, and couples fill bags with pickled herring and smoked salmon. As we stop at each stall, Karl’s bags also begin to swell — this evening he’ll visit his sister’s house for his own weekly Shabbat ritual.

But Carmel Market isn’t just for produce; it’s also one of the city’s best places for casual meals. Karl leads me down an alleyway past a Yemenite soup maker, where the aroma of slowly stewing beef and potatoes draws us towards the doorway. Peering inside the simple space — fitted with just a handful of wooden tables — I see bowlfuls of aromatic liquid and buttery bone marrow being mopped up with spongy lahoh (flatbread). “The soup recipe is simple,” Karl tells me. “Start with as much garlic as you can get, then add more. Whatever you have already is not enough.” It’s tempting to pull up a chair and sample some, but when it comes to meat, we have a different spot in mind. 

We find chef Jonathan Borowitz outside his butchery, Meat Market, opened in 2015. At the time he was a pioneer, sourcing premium Israeli meat and dry-ageing it for up to 35 days. He wanted only the best to serve in his nearby grill restaurant, M25 — so named because it’s just 25 metres away — but soon realised there was demand from market customers, too. “We work with the farmers directly so we know everything about our meat,” he says as I take in the array of marbled beef and lamb cuts behind the glass. “When you buy the whole animal, you respect that animal. All I do is take this beautiful produce and try not to ruin it.”

Settling down at an outdoor table at M25, Karl and I sip beers while Jonathan sends out a flurry of dishes: savoury slivers of beef heart with chimichurri and lemon, tender cured tongue with horseradish, and arayes — pitta bread stuffed with juicy lamb mince and charcoal-grilled to an umami-rich crisp. Served with a side of tahini piled with chopped tomatoes and sliced peppers, it’s Middle Eastern fast food at its finest. “Israel is a melting pot and I take inspiration from everywhere, from North Africa to my grandparents’ heritage in Europe,” says Jonathan. “This dish is borrowed from Palestinian cuisine. Butchers there have stalls where they grill meat like this for their lunch. Part of my job as a chef is to take forgotten dishes and meat cuts and reintroduce them.” He’s done more than that. His arayes triggered a Tel Aviv-wide obsession with the dish a few years ago. Many restaurants now sell the meat-filled pittas; it’s become another adopted favourite in the local food lexicon.

The day is waning and the market is approaching closing time. Stallholders are clearing their produce and tables are thinning as restaurants wrap up service. Jonathan says his farewells, heading off to open his wine bar down the road. Karl peels off with his bags of goodies, bound for Shabbat at his sister’s. But greedy to the last, I stay on, savouring those precious final bites of Friday in Tel Aviv.

Must-visit Tel Aviv restaurants 

1. George & John

Eclectic dishes such as sea fish sashimi with rose perfume, or octopus roasted in lamb fat with corn tacos, roulade and green zhug (Yemeni-style hot sauce), are served at this elegant fine-dining restaurant. Acclaimed chef Tomer Tal blends techniques and flavours from the Mediterranean, East Asia and the Americas. Around 300 ILS (£63) for three courses, excluding wine.

2. Beer Bazaar

Serving a wide range of beers from local breweries, Beer Bazaar’s Jaffa location is great on sunny days thanks to its street-side patio, though it’s hard to beat the atmosphere of the Carmel Market original. Order a 55 ILS (£12) beer flight for the full experience, and be sure to line your stomach with nibbles like hummus and stuffed vine leaves. 

3. Chef’s Table at R48

Tel Aviv is a city obsessed with brunch, and at upmarket boutique hotel R48 the spread becomes an art. Expect flaky pastries and cheese plates, plus lentil flatbreads topped with smoked mackerel, horseradish aioli and mountains of fresh herbs. There are breakfast cocktails, too. Book ahead and dress smartly. 220 ILS (£46) per person, excluding alcohol. 

4. The Restaurant at Hotel Montefiore

With its moody lighting, tinkling music and soaring palms, the atmosphere of this classy stalwart feels transported from New York.  Come for the socialising and people-watching as much as the French-Asian fusion menu featuring fish carpaccio with charred shallots and lime aioli, pork chop with bacon, and lamb with fermented yuzu butter. Around 265 ILS (£56) for three courses, excluding wine. 

Five dishes you shouldn’t miss

1. Hummus

You won’t really find a bad version of this local icon, but some of the best are found at Abu Hassan in Jaffa and Hummus HaCarmel in Carmel Market.

2. Yemenite soup

Rich beef broths are a lunchtime speciality at Shimon the King of Soups in Carmel Market. Top-ups are free, so it’s basically an all-you-can-eat. 

3. Chicken schnitzel

Tel Aviv has embraced the Germanic schnitzel as its own, though it’s made with chicken rather than veal or pork. Try it at HaKovshim.

4. Halva

Made with nutty tahini and available in many flavours, this fudge-like sweet can be bought by the slice in Carmel Market.

5. Malabi

A milky pudding topped with a layer of rosewater jelly. Join the queue to try it at Malabi Dajani at 94 Jerusalem Ave, Jaffa.

Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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